The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: political change

Filling the Vacuum with Distinction

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FIRST, SOME CONTEXT BEFORE THIS BLOG LAUNCHES into a series on some of the innovative mayors of the world. The series itself is based on the simple premise that mayors matter more to the state of the world and democracy itself than at any other time in the past 400 years.

We can be forgiven for feeling that politics isn’t up to the task of effectively managing the world anymore. The evidence is all around us: the complete inability to coordinate an effective response to climate change, the bewildered gaze of the world powers as they confront the ISIS crisis in Syria and Iraq, the mixed messages from prime ministers and presidents on the state of the world economy and the growing gap between rich and poor, and perhaps most poignant, the decline of democratic expectations among the citizenry just at the time when so many of our great problems appear to be coming to a head.

With all this confronting us, someone is sure to question the relevance of penning a series on mayors and their importance. Actually, it is specifically because of their relevance, and their nearness to the action, that we are about to witness cities and communities begin to take their rightful place among the power structures of the world. In fact, mayors are on the verge of becoming the most potent force for new ideas in politics today. These top elected officials in our communities are already accomplishing what international institutions and national governments can no longer manage. Elitist power structures and partisan wars have severely undermined senior levels of government to the extent that few look to them anymore for anything of meaning. The words and propaganda are still there, but the substance has gone missing. They once served us well, but now appear to diminish our expectations just as we need to be rising to them.

Rushing into that vacuum of ineffectiveness are cities and their mayors, to such a degree that a growing chorus of educators, economists, and social scientists now maintain that they are quickly becoming the prime source of fresh thinking and new ways of engaging the world’s problems. What might be ironic to some is nevertheless true: mayors are now accomplishing what their senior counterparts can only dream of. As author Benjamin Barber put it to the New York Times: “As the importance of cities has increased, mayors have been compelled to deal with a lot of issues that traditionally were taken care of at a higher level.”

But that’s only the half of it. Mayors and their councils are not only taking on heightened tasks, but are accomplishing them in a method that calls out from their own communities entirely new ways of building a collective life together, networking with the larger world, and breathing new life into citizenship. In other words, their view of the world isn’t about somebody getting elected to sit at the top of a pyramid, but instead to take a seat among fellow citizens and govern from within. It all might sound improbable to the uninitiated, but around the world the examples are many and the effects profound, as the next few posts will confirm.

We might be on the verge of discovering that cities are about to the lead the world into a new and sustainable age. But for places like London, Ontario, with its upcoming municipal election, the selection to the top office of the city will spell the difference between a better future or a prolonged and difficult present. We require a mayor worthy of the best in us, not the pettiest. As we embark on this new series of innovative global mayors, we mustn’t leave London outside the arc of great potential despite the fact we have endured some difficult years. If cities are the future, then London has a place in that grand architecture and its citizens and institutions will fill that space with distinction.

Skeleton Democracy

 

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THERE HAS BEEN A BREACH BETWEEN THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE  within our democracy. In the Ontario provincial election coming up later this week, some pundits are suggesting fewer citizens will vote than ever. In an innovative twist, many are suggesting simply showing up and declining the ballot as a way of showing interest in the election but revealing their disillusionment with the choices. It will no doubt have some effect, but leaves the issue of power itself unaddressed. Kind of like approaching the altar but refusing to say “I do,” or coming to a baseball game and opting not to play. The point will be made, but the great power the citizen possesses – the vote – won’t be utilized. It all says something about our low expectations in politics and maybe even in ourselves these days.

As all these democratic expectations continue their slide, it is important to keep in mind that we are inevitably giving away our own powers as citizens. Meant to be the great moderators of the excesses of power and partisanship, we are instead conceding the battle for our future to those for whom we have little respect or expectation. Democracy itself becomes the ultimate loser.

When the poignant French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, visited America in its early years of democratic life, he developed great admiration for how citizens themselves associated with one another and how they used their collective will to keep the seedier side of power in check. Then, in his Democracy in America, he went on to worry about how it could eventually fade.

“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him. As for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them but does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone.

“Above these power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute. It would resemble the power of parents if it only had for its object preparing people for maturity; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood . . . It works people as it likes; it covers society with a network of small, complicated, rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass power. It doesn’t destroy, but prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders . . . and reduces the nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid animals of which government is the shepherd.”

And so we have it. What should be the great energizing time for citizens to take part in their own future – an election – sees them leaving the field, disgusted with their choices and lethargic in themselves. The power is theirs to change their own society, but the choices before them are puny and they can’t pull together enough to change the paradigm.

There is no future in this, merely a kind of dull ache reminding us that we are not well. We are left with a democracy that it merely skeletal – the bones are there, but the sinews and muscles are gone.

Abraham Lincoln, coming along not too long after Tocqueville, said once, “Nearly all people can stand adversity, but if you want to test their character, give them power.” But what if they don’t want it? If their might comes with their collective willpower, what happens if they don’t want to come together? In such cases, the political power that remains isn’t even effective enough to get our own communities off the mat. We’ll have to do better, organize better, and think better, gather ourselves better, if we want choices suitable to our dreams. We need to put some meat back on the bones.

Will Canadian Politics Have A Breakthrough?

pain_knot_yogaDoes politics really matter anymore?  The greatest challenges facing our generation are getting short shrift from the major parties as they continue to tinker around the edges and continually seek out that “sweet spot” that will hopefully launch them into power.  The rise of Justin Trudeau to the Liberal leadership has caused a stir, in part because he is viewed as a new leader for a new era.  Trouble is, we still have old problems, and should the new Liberal leader propose incremental policies on files such as climate change or poverty, then he will have wasted his opportunity to take our country in a new direction.  People always say we require bold policies if we are to embrace change, but we yet await that party – any political party – that will actually take the risks and tackle our systemic problems head-on.  Follow the link below to my new Huffington Post piece on why politics won’t matter anymore if we can’t create effective change surrounding our greatest challenges.

  http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/../../glen-pearson/justin-trudeau_b_3131732.html

Citizen Gifts – Daring

truth-1With democracy in varying degrees of turbulence globally, and with the opportunity for citizens to make their mark, the next few blogs will be about gifts citizens might consider giving themselves – just in time for Christmas.

Throughout 2008, Iceland suffered some of the worst effects of the global economic meltdown. Its private banks went into default, entered bankruptcy, leading to the largest collapse of a nation’s economy, relative to its size, in the history of the world. The coalition government at the time opted to bail out the banks by requiring each citizen of Iceland to pay 100 Euros a month for 15 years. Icelandic citizens, showing a remarkable ability to come together, forced the government to hold a national referendum on the bailout and 98% voted to reject it.

Citizens had rightly determined that the entire thing was a governance failure as well as an economic one. There was a lot of cronyism at the national level and the banking industry had overt influence. How would citizens handle it now that they had spoken so clearly in the referendum? Well, that’s just it; the way they reacted represented one of the most daring attempts to recapture their country in modern times.

They knew that if they remained isolated from one another that all efforts would fail, and so they launched the Anthill – a network of grassroots organizations charged with finding a new vision for the country. A national assembly was established, consisting of 1500 citizens selected by their peers, who were to “energize the wisdom of the population” and develop a manifesto. Recognizing that citizens weren’t about to relax their momentum, the governing parliament installed a Constitutional Assembly, delegating a group of citizens with the “intensely legalistic task” of working in a constitutional council to write an entirely new framework. It was a remarkable development, mostly ignored by the rest of the world.

Every week the Council gathered in meetings televised to the entire country and accessible on the Internet. Every Icelander was invited to send in comments. Draft clauses were posted on the Council’s website. The public availed themselves of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to register their input.

What was the result of all this intense effort? In October, the country held a referendum that asked voters six questions about the completed draft. Two-thirds of the population voted to accept the recommendations. The proposed new Constitution is now back in the hands of the Parliament, awaiting ratification or denial.

What the small nation of Iceland undertook is nothing short of staggering. They didn’t attempt to overthrow their government, but they did combine to stand against its decision to bail out the banks. The rest flowed from that one courageous moment. That one instance of daring, where citizens backed one another in a matter of importance, wasn’t taken lightly. Nor was it entertained at a time of relative peace. The nation, as with many of their counterparts around the world, was suffering through months of deep turbulence where its entire economy was at stake. Yet citizens were so serious about it that the political order understood that the nation was shifting under its feet. Slowly at first, the government eventually permitted more movement for citizen’s groups within the power structure.

Altering a constitution is a deeply serious thing, for such a power arrangement is the bedrock of any country’s identity. For a government to let the general population in on the exercise of writing a new such document is profound. But what was truly remarkable is that the citizens themselves believed they could handle it. Having asked and pushed for change, they were willing to trust one another in the delivery of a new model for how to run their nation. The politicians, seeing such willingness to take responsibility among the citizens, understood well enough that if citizens themselves were permitted to design the change that they then would back the new document.

It is difficult to imagine Canada undertaking such a national exercise in transformational change. Canadians have almost always preferred to press for change without cooperating in large enough numbers to bring it about. But in our communities there are movements emerging that reveal some at least are willing to take things to the next level. They are neither desirous of overthrowing their civic leaders or to pretend that they have all the solutions to our present challenges. Yet – and this is the key element – they comprehend that pressing for change means that they must do so as a citizenry and not merely as a bunch of disassociated individuals.

Citizenship requires serious thinkers, but it also means that such people aren’t mere outliers, tossing their grenades whenever the moment suits them. Those who are truly serious about transformation, change or reform comprehend that all serious daring starts from within the individual before it spills over into the group. One of the greatest gifts we can offer our fellow citizens is our willingness to dare – for ourselves, our communities, our country, for them.

Tolstoy used the say that everyone thinks about changing the world but never about changing themselves. True citizens understand that distinction and take the first step towards transformation by daring acts of change. It is one of the greatest gifts we can grant one another. But remember, the manner of giving means more than the gift itself, and for each of us to step out and take daring moves in our love for democracy is to bestow upon citizenship its highest honour because we were willing to risk ourselves for it.

Critical Mass

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize three times for being cute. His insights on issues such as world trade, the environment, Middle East developments, and foreign affairs have made him a force with which to be reckoned. Yesterday, in an article titled “The World is Full,” Friedman lists some of the main challenges facing this generation and concludes: “What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?”

Friedman has been masterful over the years in laying out the pitfalls of the corporate mindset. I don’t mean “corporate” as in business, but the way in which people who have gathered themselves into bunches end up losing their individual consciousness, buying fully into “group think.” How do we get to the point where we actually rule over our own decline? By foregoing our individual responsibility as citizens in favour of the easier life of letting others do it for us, that’s how. In so doing, we fail to see the futility brought about by our own hands.

The loss of individualism in Canada has resulted in a kind of national “numbing,” whereby we lack the wherewithal as a people to confront our greatest dangers. Yesterday I wrote of how business corporations often shy away from anything that would threaten their investments and of those “remarkable exceptions” offering credible alternatives. Groups like the Ivey Business School in London, Ontario have taken corporate social responsibility to exceptional levels and provide a new path to a more sustainable future. But such groups are yet the exception and not the rule. Acquisitions and monopolies have all too often taken the place of innovation, risk, and societal responsibility.

Friedman worries that organization can impersonalize everything it touches. And with that loss of individualism comes the inability of people to challenge the prevailing system: it just seems too great. This is true everywhere, and not just among the capitalists. The media, citizens, the political class – each is experiencing difficulty in righting the ship. Media conglomerates have relegated much of the fair-minded and well-researched coverage to history. Citizens are all over the map, often opting for the simplistic easy answers for democratic renewal instead of undertaking the nitty-gritty work required to bring about political change. And politics? Well, we know all about that. In each of these four fields – business, media, citizens, politics – remarkable exceptions to the rule operate and have dynamic impact. Yet it’s hardly enough – the critical mass hasn’t been reached. For all the good work accomplished by these remarkable Canadians, most individuals within these fields continue with the flow of the organizational mindset, leaving the dangers yet before us yet insufficiently challenged.

I’ve been wondering in these posts if all this “rush to the centre” in the political order is all it’s cracked up to be. Everyone is doing it, even the Conservatives, in hopes that they can discover the fountain of eternal power. And what has been the result? Inaction on some of the most important challenges in generations. When we chase the centre without empowering citizens or their institutions then it’s just deja vu all over again, and the challenges remain unanswered.

Friedman quotes Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption: “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”

When we are living in such times and when the political centre lacks the required vigor and vision to challenge the prevailing system, then the centre is just a location, not an empowering democratic option. Our largest problems grow bigger as we delay. Critical mass has yet to be achieved, and unless it is, only a crisis will turn us from our destructive path. For Conservatives attending their convention today, the progressives among them will have to wonder whether they have enough moral suasion with the party to halt its destructive tendencies. For Liberals, as stated here previously, as we seek a new direction, we would be better identified with the immense challenges facing our sleepy country than by crowding into bed with the other so-called centrists. Let’s not be defined by our position in the political spectrum but rather by our courage to face our greatest national tasks on behalf of all Canadians, utilizing the best of what the other sectors have to offer to find solutions.

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