The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: policy

Election 2015: The Politics of Everywhere

directionlessTHE MORE ONE EXAMINES IT, the easier it is to conclude that politics of the heavily partisan nature is quickly losing its appeal to the average citizen living in a community and just desiring a good place to live and opportunities for their children. Previously we let political parties formulate their policies on various parts of the political spectrum and then citizens could select their priorities and vote from there.

In many ways it all functioned well: communities were offered choices, parties drew on supporters, and politics involved rigorous debate that clarified the issues. What we have been witnessing in the past two decades is the breaking down of that model for two key reasons.

The first arises when people don’t really know what political candidates and their parties really stand for anymore.

Are parties that once occupied the left-centre-right wing of the political spectrum moving collectively to the right, or is everyone cramming into the middle in pursuit of votes? It’s not only difficult to know who the players are, it involves great perplexity attempting to understand their teams. The pursuit of power has led to a great free-for-all that witnesses every party rushing whichever way the pollsters tell them are a key crop of voters. Practical ambition has taken the place of principled policy and voters are left in a daze trying to figure it all out.

I spoke with a Conservative at a church last Sunday who commented that he thought Stephen Harper “just wasn’t ready” (an interesting twist on the Con ads concerning Justin Trudeau’s youth) to be elected because his administration had become so corrupt and secretive that it put the lie to the PM’s first effort at legislation: the Accountability Act. The party had changed and he knew it. Journalist Chantal Hébert’s  observation on this point is prescient:

“If Harper’s most trusted aides — many of whom are still in place — were willing to use every lever at their disposal to lie their way out of an embarrassment to the Conservative party, how far would they go to sway public opinion on a matter of central importance to the government and the country? And if voters — upon being presented with undeniable evidence of a high-level cover-up designed to mislead them — are content to look the other way, how can they expect future governments to think twice about the risks of fooling Canadians into believing whatever best serves their partisan purpose?”

Our communities have quickly arrived at the point where they have just given up trying to figure it all out. In our desire to have everything – low taxes, affordable education and healthcare, security, independence, pensions, and meaningful investments in research and employment – we have persuaded our politicians that winning power trumps effective policy. Consequently, average citizens have concentrated on their immediate existence instead of their collective life because politics was no longer capable of drawing them together and empowering the communities in which they lived.

But that’s now beginning to change as many Canadians have begun the process of casting off partisan practices in favour of common goals. For our respective communities it couldn’t come a moment too soon. Political parties, by morphing into whatever it took to capture more voters, no longer hold much appeal. Worse still is the increasing practice of pulverizing other parties in order to secure supporters. To the average citizen, politics looks more like a Game of Thrones episode than a respectful appeal to the intellect of citizens.

The greater things of life are what should matter during a federal election, but they shouldn’t be paraded across the country as some kind of travelling bazaar. They are serious and speak to our collective condition as nothing else can, as when John Maynard Keynes noted, “The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are already doing, but to do those things which at present are not done at all.”

If politics is to be at all serious and effective it must, above all, be consistent and collaborative, neither of which has been evident so far in this election campaign.  Politics is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

The Time for Tinkering is Over

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THE FEDERAL LIBERALS CAUCUSED IN LONDON this week and it was good to see some old friends. Justin Trudeau was struggling through a bout of food poisoning and his caucus was focusing on the one issue they believe will prove critical to the coming election: the economy.

I get it. Each party is talking about our struggling economy, hoping to leverage some advantage from it, one way or the other. But I wanted to ask my Liberal friends one question: will you stop tinkering this time? All parties have been doing so, but this occasion in London could represent a turning point within the party.

We all understand that each time we bounce back from some kind of recession, severe or light, that we never land back where we were. The unemployment rate continues to climb, as do the obstacles confronting the poor. On other occasions, all parties have focused on economic solutions but they never quite pulled it off. Yes, deficits were slayed, or, yes, trade was enhanced, but the growing disillusionment and worry among Canadians is inevitably creeping up to the levels found in the United States. People don’t really trust government to get things right anymore because, well, our problems have grown regardless of who was in power.

The real problem confronting the political order these days is not financial capital but social capital. Somewhere along the line, the political order lost touch with the mood of the people and now everything is about pursuing the vote of a relatively few number of people in order to gain power. We, as Canadians, understand that. But will you go back to the origins of our difficulties and repair them from their very source? There was a time when the corporate good transcended the public good and ever since then we have watched as wealth has been accumulated in record measures at the same time as less and less of it went to average Canadians.

In a very real and increasingly tragic way, Canadians have felt the withdrawal of institutional supports, both private and public. This has created a crisis in confidence that can’t be simply solved by an election. Forget talking about the lower, middle, or upper class; this is about the “anxious” class, and how the worry they feel about the future of their kids and a more dangerous world is far more serious than any political party’s electioneering. These people are struggling to preserve their standing, their sense of worth in an increasingly alienated culture. And now they have slowly begun pursuing individual survival over social solidarity. Signs of this are everywhere, but it’s important to acknowledge that the political and financial classes oversaw this development, and to merely give us the same-old, same-old, will only erode that reality further.

There used to be a time when individual identity and social identity crisscrossed repeatedly in Canada. In rural communities and big cities there was always the sense that this country was “under construction” and going somewhere. Now we have no idea where the politicos are taking us, and our confidence in the future and ourselves is eroding.

Liberals have always prided themselves as the party of balance. Okay, but our sense of equilibrium has been shot for some time now. All parties played a role in that disruption and we won’t get things right unless we go back to the origins of our difficulties. Why has the political class forced us to choose between trade and jobs, between comfortable houses and homelessness, between remaining in the middle-class or poverty, between meager governments or no governments at all? These are sincere questions that should be asked of all parties.

Even at the best of times in recent decades we have felt the tearing at the fabric of the Canadian identity. We have failed our aboriginal people seriously enough that we can’t even muster the strength or sense of social justice to launch a commission to locate the roughly 1,000 missing or murdered aboriginal women in this country. What is that about? Is this the vitality of our social consciousness these days? Must we watch as parties bludgeon themselves to a depraved degree and walk away with any sense of hope diminished?

You believe in balance, right? But can we all bring ourselves to acknowledge that we lost that tenuous tension that was Confederation years ago? The number of poor is growing. Good jobs are becoming scarce. Veterans are being denied. Seniors are fretting. And students can’t even afford to learn anymore. This is not the Canada we envision in our finest moments. So, enough with balance already; let’s get on with finding answers to these, our deepest problems.

In the U.S., Obama has opted to use the last two years of his tenure to attempt to bring about social and economic change. Yet there was a time when people thought he would start with such things, not end with them in a lame duck scenario. Enough with institutional cynicism; get on with the task of remaking the country on the basis of our progressive ideals and not some corporate ideology.

This is about the battle for the heart and soul, not of the Liberal Party, but of the country. The sweet spot isn’t the middle-class, but the aspirations of a good people. The time for tinkering is over; the time for renaissance has come.

 

Run Local, Think Global

imagesLeaders from our country’s communities gathered en masse at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) in Vancouver this week and attempted to map out their collective future in a nation that continues to see its cities as the runt of the litter in political jurisdictions.  The irony of it all is that 8 out of 10 of us live in these very communities that are perpetually overshadowed. It brought the Federation to talk about the “historic disconnect” that has resulted from Canada maintaining a kind of constitutional federalism that no longer suits the modern age.  As one FCM publication says:

Why would the federal government want to take on long-term political and fiscal liabilities unless it had to?  Looking at many of the ad-hoc and short-term federal interventions over the last 20 years through this lens helps explain why so few delivered meaningful structural change or addressed underlying problems.”

There was something oddly sad about watching all these local politicians and civil servants who care about their respective communities attempting to get the other two senior levels of government to even take notice of the growing complex and at times alarming problems confronting those places where we live – ever the bridesmaid, never the bride.

And yet they can’t just go home and pretend such problems don’t exist.  In order to heal, reform and regenerate their communities, civic leaders simply can’t afford to ignore the bigger world around them, even if they feel overlooked by the feds and provinces themselves.

In the last few weeks I have met with five young Londoners who asked for a personal meeting to inform me they are going to enter the local race the next time a municipal election rolls around.  They were seeking advice, contacts, policy ideas, and above all affirmation that their efforts can really count for something in the political process.  Recently some of them spoke up publicly at the first anniversary of a Pints and Politics event in front of their peers and received encouragement for their honesty.

There will be two essential ingredients required if our next city council is to have any success in parlaying our past difficulties into tomorrow’s opportunities.  The first is a sense of respect and cooperation that goes far past anything we have seen recently from our Council chambers.  In this I can confidently state that each of those who spoke to me about running have, as one of their highest orders of business, a desire to make civic politics respectable again and are amply qualified.

But the second needed criteria is, in many ways, much harder to come by.  The problems resident in our cities cannot be fully solved within our municipal borders or regional county lines.  Our communities are part of a larger federation and it takes a lot more to be a city councillor than the mere knowledge of streets, cultures, businesses and possibilities in our communities.  Affirming this reality were the words of Karen Leibovici, President of the FCM:

When we look at Canada today, what do we see?  Do we see a country where all orders of government, regardless of jurisdiction, work together to apply their knowledge and resources to the full range of challenges and opportunities that play out in our communities?”

The answer to such questions is a clear no … at least not yet.  Such a goal shouldn’t be some kind of nirvana, but a concrete and doable partnership among jurisdictions that will bring out the best possible outcomes for all citizens.  Clearly, for that to occur, provincial and federal politics must begin paying attention to this country’s communities.  Yet the opposite is also true – it’s not all one-way.  We require city politicians and regional reeves who develop an interest in other governmental jurisdictions and develop a working knowledge of the policies and historical practices of those domains.  A politician who only understands the city might be of little service to her or his community since the majority of funding and legislation emanates from other levels of government entirely.

I have occasionally said in these pages that I grow disillusioned at times when I note just how many Canadians care little about what occurs overseas, as if such things have little bearing on our domestic landscape.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and yet such is the nature of humanity that the majority focus primarily on the world immediately around them.  One of the worst things that could happen to a local community would be to have councillors or representatives who possess little knowledge of provincial legislation, federal environmental policies, or shared funding arrangements.  It is of no help to our communities that local candidates run on platforms calling for an end to homelessness, comprehensive labour reform, environmental standards, or research investment that only call upon local initiatives. We have to raise our sights higher.

To all of those willing to run and put their names forward for local elections I express a deep appreciation that you are willing to step out in a jaded age.  But to have maximum effect on the communities you love, you will be required to view your community’s place in the larger world, especially as it relates to shared costing among the three levels of government.  Don’t care for your community by serving it in isolation, for, as Blaise Pascal noted, “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”  Concentrate on your community alone and it will surely end up alone – just as our communities are at present.

Hunger Games – Global Reach

Foresight, a think-tank established to predict future crises, spent most of last year calling for “urgent action” to prevent food shortages worldwide. Hardly anyone in Canada noticed, but at the United Nations, the World Food Program, and other international institutions it set the alarm bells ringing.

Following 18 months of research, Foresight concluded that even a modest rise in food prices would force “hundreds of millions” of people into hunger. Worse still, such turbulence for food commodities would inevitably result in mass migrations, spark civil unrest, and could lead to the rich countries turning on the poorer nations in order to protect their food supplies for their wealthy citizens.

We’ve heard about such warning for a long time – decades maybe – but they arrived in component parts. My first year in Parliament had me involved in a major study on climate change refugees and how they would soon be wandering the world in search of resources. We also heard of world population growth, which though it will eventually abate at some point in the future, will nevertheless see a radical short-term increase. The UN has been telling us for years that water shortages will inevitably lead to higher food prices. And the prospect of rising fuel costs will eventually places some foods financially beyond reach for many.

The Foresight study brought all these various parts together, concluding that, combined, they were “creating a perfect storm in prices over the next 30-40 years.” Any one of these dimensions would prove formidable, especially in wealthy nations where citizens remain reticent to curtail their consumerism and their governments refuse to look beyond their own borders.

This wasn’t any singular, obscure study, but in reality a major piece of research compiled by 40 scientists in 35 countries. One member, Professor Sherman Robinson of Sussex University, stated that food prices could rise by 50% over the next few decades. He concluded by observing that, “the long run decline in food prices is over.”

The report’s final few paragraphs were even more pungent. “A billion people are going hungry, with another billion people suffering from ‘hidden’ hunger, whilst a billion people are over-consuming.” That last group is us, and we’re already starting to feel the pinch in food and fuel prices that will eventually eat away at any gains that might have accrued from the rather flimsy recovery from the Great Recession.

Western nations appear to be losing interest in global trends as domestic financial declines are beginning to be felt. But the big picture is important, if only for its ability to extend into our world through higher commodity prices, significant increases in refugees, regional conflicts, and the rising price of those things that keep our families alive.

All this is just one other way of saying that the hunger games are on, globally and with increasing energy. In a battle to save our own prosperity we have to raise the chances of others. They are linked in ways we never understood before but which are now aggressive enough to focus our minds. Even in the early days of the Great Depression, American president Herbert Hoover attempted to comprehend hunger’s reach:

“Hunger brings not just suffering and sorrow, but fear and terror. It carries disorder and the paralysis of government, and even its downfall. It is more destructive than armies, not only in human life but in morals. All of the values of right living melt before its invasions, and every gain of civilization crumbles. But we can end it, if we will.”

Sadly, we’re moving in the opposite direction, as Western governments, like Canada’s, freeze or lower the very aid investments required to deal with hunger before it reaches our shores. It’s a short-term thinking that will lead to long-term economic crises.

At present we have companies from countries like the U.S., Britain, China, and, yes, Canada, tilling hundreds of thousands of hectares of land throughout Africa. They are investing big-time money, diverting water from needy villages and regions, harvesting the yield, and then shipping it all back to their home countries. The sight of trucks full of food driving past impoverished villages on their way to ports and airports to offload the produce isn’t lost on development workers. All this constitutes the “Second Scramble for Africa,” and it is the worst possible way we can deal with the oncoming challenges. Stealing from the poor to feed the rich maybe worked for a time, but the growing poverty left behind in places like Sudan will soon become ours as well.

Food is a global commodity, not a local one. All of our efforts to protect ourselves from the reach of hunger can no longer protect us. Just ask any food bank volunteer how poor Canadians are faring in a land of plenty. Many presumed this to be a struggle of the survival of the fittest, when in actuality it was just about the survival of the human race. Food and water are staples, and when their scarcity elsewhere can impoverish Canadians here, perhaps it’s time we developed a global approach as opposed to hiding in our oil sands or in our insulated communities.

Democracy At Work

In many ways citizens deliberating with citizens is a lot more rare than we think. It happens in coffee shops and numerous other venues, but rarely is it organized. And when it is it usually overseen by government initiatives and key facilitators.

The London, Ontario Citizen’s Panel has been solely a citizen with citizen effort, existing outside the political system but hoping to have input into policy decisions at the government levels. I have come to determine that the very future of democracy depends on just such initiatives – at all levels and in all places possible. As John Dewey put it:

“The keynote of democracy as a way of life may be expressed as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in the formation of values that regulate the living of people together; which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals.”

All this doesn’t mean that we should have untold confidence in the ability of people to govern themselves. It is an art after all. But we have reached the point of civic life where it can be said that such an initiative would likely have just as much success at creating a progressive society as our governing elites have shown at present. Self government is arduous work, only made inspirational by the ability of people to not only participate but to progress by finding solutions through compromise and education.

And so we have the Citizen’s Panel. Created as a response to motivate citizens concerning the Occupy movement’s message of income disparity, it was designed specifically to allow and facilitate the possibility of citizens engaging together on the issues of economic brokenness and the need to reform social assistance as it is presently constituted in the province of Ontario.

You’ll seen in the video below that citizens took this chance seriously, filled the venue, and held animated conversations for two hours without blowing up, getting politically partisan, or even lapsing into sentimentality. They were there to do the serious work of citizen engagement and for those of us facilitating the session we walked away deeply impressed.

Citizen engagement, in whatever form it comes in, is valuable at any stage. But to watch Canadians engage interactively with little facilitation gives hope that the slow democratic decline we have been witnessing in this country of late can be reversed through grassroots enterprises.

I forgot to bring my camera, so had to resort to the iPhone, but you’ll get the picture of just how active everyone was. Watch the video and enjoy democracy at work.

http://youtu.be/X9YC55f8bmc

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