The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: political failure

Election 2015: Is There a Climate for Change?

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I WROTE A COLUMN FOR THE London Free Press last weekend about the current refugee situation and its implications. There were a number who wrote in afterwards expressing interest in the following observation from that piece and asked for some additional information on environmental refugees:

“How will we handle the rise of climate-change refugees in the coming years? Cutting the UN number projections in half would still see some 100 million refugees a year migrating around the globe over the next decades.  Added to those fleeing their homelands due to conflict and we begin to grasp the seriousness of the task ahead of us.”

Many asked why this hasn’t taken higher priority in the federal election campaign, especially in light of the recent crisis. That’s likely because political parties are aware that the investments required to battling climate change would dwarf whatever actions were taken on helping those forced to flee their homelands due to environmental degradation.

The International Red Cross has claimed that there are easily more environmental refugees than political refugees. The last year a detailed report was taken on this issue, some 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009. An increasing body of evidence is leading to the conclusion that by 2050 we could see that number climb as high as 200 million. And that will be a catastrophe for the entire planet. The implications on politics will be huge, and yet here we are in 2015, and it barely raises a ripple.

Rising sea levels, already a reality around the globe, are due to increase significantly, endangering people on coastlines and forcing them to move. Bangladesh will lose 17% of its land by 2050 due to flooding by climate change. Some 20 million refugees could be created in that nation alone.

Louisiana loses 65 square kilometers of land to the sea each year, endangering populations along the coastline.  Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, rises only 2.4 metres above sea level at its highest point. It is possible that in the next few years all 1200 islands in the Maldives will be underwater, forcing scores of refugees to take ship and do their best to make it to other nations.

And then there is drought – a reality that is increasingly creating inland environmental refugees. China’s Gobi Desert now expands more than 3600 kilometers every year. Residents in the Horn of Africa region have only a few years left before they must begin moving their families to other nations just in order to survive.

So, this is likely what’s coming. If the Syrian refugee situation is presently taxing the globe’s ability to respond, how will we handle the millions more about ready to emerge? Environmental refugees aren’t protected by international laws, and therefore have fewer protections than their political refugee counterparts. Many of these will move to other places within their own countries if they are able, but an ever-increasing number will begin pouring across borders and inevitably onto the front page of world attention.

Without question, the greatest issue involving this, or any other, election around the world are the implications of climate change and their inevitable economic, social, ethical, and political effects. Why, then, in the midst of what many regard as an election that could signal a public desire for change, does the issue of climate change itself capture so little of the campaign rhetoric or the public attention?

Victor Hugo made a revealing claim way back in 1840: “How sad to think that nature speaks and mankind doesn’t listen.” With the current refugee crisis we have demonstrated the collective ability to take note of catastrophic effects. We must now lift our sights even higher and press our political candidates to give us something better than mere bromides on the climate change challenges that are coming. Should we fail in this task as citizens, we can’t solely shift the blame onto past political failures. Much of that indictment will land closer to home.  The waves are coming and we must get our candidates to absorb and respond to the implications.

Buying Incompetence With Our Own Money



FORMER AMERICAN PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER spoke out about politics and money last week, primarily about the lack of credibility for the former and too much influence of the latter.

According to the International Business Journal, when Carter ran against Gerald Ford in 1976, neither contender raised campaign donations. That seems almost inconceivable, given what we’re observing in recent years. Both Carter and Ford only utilized the public monies allotted for the presidential race. Asked about it, Jimmy Carter acknowledged: “We didn’t raise money, so neither Gerald nor I were obligated to any special interest groups.”

It is a sign of just how fervently politics today has grown dependent on wealth that this revelation came as something of a shock when released a few days ago. Both north and south of the 49th parallel, billions of dollars are being privately raised in a trend that is slowly sucking the legitimacy and meaning out of politics itself.  About to leave office, George Washington provided a sage insight: “Money will invariably operate in the body of politics as spirit liquors on the human body. They prey on the vitals and ultimately destroy them”

While the American election is largely predicated upon private donations to oversee governments that doggedly favour those with wealth, Canada has increasingly used public money to do the same thing. Canada is a fabulously rich nation, but recent federal governments have adopted policies that ensure that those with the most financial resources gain huge advantages. The use of public funds to gerrymander such an outcome has become a travesty of democracy that few seem to care about.

The calling of a federal election weeks before necessary was a move that fooled no one. Yes, some elected officials attempted to spin that more of a democracy has to be a good thing, but, again, no one was buying. This wasn’t about the practice of democracy but the humiliation of it. In a time when politics is at its lowest ebb in Canada, to so purposefully manipulate it in favour of the governing Conservatives surely won’t help restore its reputation. But that’s not what the political schemers worry about anyway. Since their actions in recent years have demeaned politics to record lows, why would they worry about enhancing the democratic estate now? This is about power, not legitimacy, and we shouldn’t be fooled otherwise.

The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson was only pointing out the obvious when he wrote:

“The airwaves have been flooded with government advertising, paid for by taxpayers and used to buy some of the most expensive spots on television. The ads offer a thin veneer of information covering overtly partisan messaging for the Harper Conservatives. No government has ever spent so much money over such a long period of time on this sort of advertising.”

The millions in advertising and the billions cranked out on projects favouring government ridings just in time for the election represent more of naked ambition than anything seen in recent years. Yes there was prorogation, and yes, the Harper government had been the first in history to be found in contempt of Parliament. But it didn’t matter in the end because the government knew one thing we repeatedly refuse to acknowledge: we didn’t care, and they could get away with anything because of that reality.

That surely is bad, but to do so while using our own taxpayer dollars to do it ultimately speaks to one clarion truth: political legitimacy today is about money, not gaining voter trust. That is the nub of it all, both north and south of the border. Our own money is being used to deny us that legitimacy

Jeffrey Simpson pointed out in the same article that Liberal PM Jean Chretien called an early election in 1996 and got away with it, while Liberal Premier, David Peterson, was crushed by voter anger for the same practice. But no one has seen the likes of what has happened in recent years, especially as it relates to the use of public funds. What we might save in taxes is spent on government advertising.

And so Simpson wonders, “Whether voters will be annoyed, even outraged, by this blatant political manipulation, or will shrug because they assume all politicians do whatever it takes to win.”  The title of his column?  “If the election can be bought, the Conservatives will win.”  There it is again; democracy is now all about the money.

Which will it be? How will citizens react? The PM is convinced we’ll be shruggers, or even shirkers, believing he’ll get away with it. Better yet would be the appearance of the shakers – those who press for the political order to find solutions to our greatest challenges instead of our smallest spirits. Governments have missed those targets for years and it’s time to demand a more effective form of politics that takes our hopes and delivers on them, instead of taking our money and selling us out.

A Lion in Winter



Below is my new Huffington Post piece on the retirement of Romeo Dallaire and its implications for Canadian politics and the world.  You can go directly to the piece by linking here.

IN WHAT ULTIMATELY BECAME THE DEFINING occasion of his life, General Romeo Dallaire knew he was alone – without a clear mandate, sufficient resources, or even a sense of moral responsibility from world leaders. He had journeyed to Rwanda to implement the high ideals of human rights rhetoric in a manner that would protect a nation from destroying itself.

We all know what happened – 800,000 killed, genocide on a significant scale, and dreams of international human security lying in ruins. Leading the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), he had every right to expect the backing of those who had sent him there. By the time it was over, the United Nations, United States, Belgium, and others, left Dallaire isolated, incapable of dealing with an imminent situation that he warned would get out of hand. It did, and among the many casualties of that period was the General’s himself – the attempted suicide, depression, and abject feelings of failure.

Part of his eventual recovery came with his appointment to the Canadian Senate by PM Paul Martin in 2005. Hailed at the time as a pivotal selection, Dallaire entered the political fray in a fashion similar to his entrance into the military some 40 years earlier. His presence was immediately felt.

So it came as something of a shock for many last week to learn that this well-known Canadian was retiring from the Senate in order to pursue his human rights agenda on a broader stage. Believing in the Senate’s purpose is difficult enough right now given all the scandal, but to lose the likes of Dallaire hollows out much of what is left of the institution’s sense of morality and objectivity.

I worked with Romeo for my entire five years in politics and being in his presence always found me subconsciously sitting up straighter, speaking with gravitas, almost as if he was my presiding officer in the army. That was the effect he created on most, and in the Senate that deference many showed him at the time permitted him to make headway on issues that mattered to him: child soldiers, human rights, nuclear disarmament, and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

At times I would head over to his Senate office, or he to mine on the House side, and we would work away at legislation or gaining perspective on numerous global issues. But it was obvious that he was becoming disillusioned. As the House fell into a partisan shambles, the Senate was suddenly and firmly stocked with ideological appointees.

In ironic fashion, Romeo Dallaire was reliving the events of Rwanda, only on a less costly human scale. Sent to the Senate to bring intellectual rigor and disciplined experience, he was increasingly abandoned by a government that delighted more in waging domestic war in political ridings than in enhancing Canada’s human rights and diplomatic record on the world’s stage. He called for resources; they didn’t arrive. He sought meetings with political elites; they didn’t transpire. And when he ultimately called the government to account for its abandonment of Canada’s diplomatic expertise in the world, he was ultimately abandoned and isolated. Parliament itself had become a tribal lair, but instead of Tutsis and Hutus, there were political tribes that swore oaths to destroy one another. It was brutal and ultimately self-defeating, but for Romeo is was history repeating itself.

In essence, he was a lion in a political winter, and since his very life and outlook transcended the paltry dealings around him, he did what he always does – took the battle directly to the enemy. Tired of watching a government fiddle while the world burned, Dallaire has opted to travel around the world to fight for the causes he holds dear. He made a calculated and strategic decision: politics in Canada, as presently exhibited, is insufficient to play a strong hand on the global stage.

And so the lion has left, moving out into a global jungle that so desperately requires his perspective and ethical force. And the Canadian political scene? It is now without much of its moral centre and international acumen – the lights are dimming. This is what darkened politics always does: reduces expectations and shoots its own.

Soldier on, Romeo. The world always needed you; it was blind political forces that didn’t. Just remember that in all your travels, millions in this country yet desire to see Canada play its historic and innovative role around the world. You’re now free to rise above the pettiness of the day. And in making your remarkable difference, we all salute you.





War and Place



This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.  I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.  The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it.  We cannot afford to lose it.  One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support.  But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.

For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington.  It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson uttered one of the greatest verbal challenges ever to confront American legislators.  And in case anyone wondered as to the veracity of his claim, Johnson termed it as a “war,” and he began the process of placing the nation on a war footing of moral commitment to the tens of millions trapped in the confines of poverty.

Was that war won?  The answer is clearly “no.”  On the other hand, significant numbers of Americans were raised from poverty’s clutches in order to embrace a more prosperous life.  The legislation and societal commitment was as immense as anything the country had ever witnessed and that kind of investment was bound to have some positive effect.

Perhaps it would be better to frame it this way: What if Johnson had never mobilized the levers of power and economy as he did?  Martha Burk, of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, recently talked about a Columbia University study that showed that the 19% poverty rate at the time of the announcement would have risen to a staggering 31% if Johnson hadn’t acted.  Burk then went on to highlight an ugly truth: “As a country, we’re getting stingier, not more generous with the poor – who, by the way, are mostly women and kids … All this adds up to a war on the poor instead of a war on poverty.  Where is L.B.J. when we need him?”

Indeed.  Where are those imaginative leaders who would take encroaching poverty seriously enough to wage a major fight against it?  When will they help us to understand that the poor are among us, not sequestered in certain areas, but living on our streets?  Their kids play with our kids.  The new face of poverty is that of the working poor, with men and women employed full-time for wages that can’t sustain a basic living. 

Today, everything is about the war over the middle-class and which party will capture enough of it to gain government.  But the closer we get to elections, the nearer we will get to fighting over poverty as opposed to tackling it outright.  Each party will have its own idea and seek to overcome the others with it.  But this is about us – all of us.  It’s about our political class laying out a strategy for closing the gap between the rich and poor, for eliminating child and senior poverty, and for resourcing our communities to fight on the home front, where we live, and where our citizens struggle.  And then it must be about those parties coming together in consensus to pass the legislation necessary to turn the tide.  It will involve innovation and social enterprise, a community sense of justice and a national sense of purpose.  And it will take governments to acknowledge the reality that poverty is a national shame, especially as it increases.

Please take the six minutes to watch Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress here on his intention to fight poverty at every level.  He doesn’t talk about Democrats doing it, but both parties and all of Congress.  He speaks personally but then talks about having the privilege of power to fight a national scourge.  Yes, people were more trusting of their governments then, but the only way to win that trust back if you are the political class is to dream like this again, and challenge each and every one of us to fight for our fellow citizens to have a fair shot at peace and prosperity.

The war on poverty was never won – in the U.S. or Canada.  But progress was made.  Now those advances are falling back into decline.  We need women and men in leadership to help us dream of an equitable society once again.  Should they choose not to lead in this war, it will only continue on another level and will result in the dislocation of our communities. Presently, the poor among us are locked in place, unable to improve their situation because of these swirling times of economic change and our inability to come together as a society to dream once more.  War or stuck in place – the choice remains ours.

Canada Abandons a Former Partner


Jane with an observer from the European Union during the South Sudan referendum

The following in my Huffington Post piece regarding the news that the Government of Canada has opted to significantly remove its presence in south Sudan during one of that country’s worst crises.  You can view the original article here.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

In two week’s time, my wife heads to South Sudan to assist in overseeing projects Canadians have been investing in for years — water salvage, education, women’s micro-enterprise initiatives, scholarship programs, and the final phase of construction for a secondary school.

It won’t be easy. It’s never been simple. But for over 15 years a large number of Canadians have been investing in such initiatives, even during some of the worst years of the now-concluded civil war. During those early occasions, Canada’s reputation had been sullied by the presence of a Canadian oil firm that, in Southern Sudanese eyes, was making a fortune out of their misery. Eventually the firm pulled out and we sensed a warming to Canada as our government invested more deeply in peace initiatives and relief efforts, and as it became clear that we weren’t just interested in financial gain.

Some very capable Canadian diplomats were of key assistance in constructing and funding some of the key efforts required to end the war between north and south Sudan following so many decades. And Canadian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which had provided such stellar service during the war years, assisted in helping the Southern Sudanese move forward as they peacefully achieved independence and became the world’s newest nation. For years, the Sudanese conflict had remained high on the radar for successive Canadian governments, who worked in conjunction with many of their international partners in that deeply troubled part of the world.

But being a new nation with limited resources doesn’t make for an easy transition into good governance. Tribes that had held together to fend off the incursions of north Sudan during the lengthy war have started to come apart over the problems of administering the peace. The recent troubles in the south that sprung up only a month ago, and the instability that has resulted, has pressed that African region to the precipice. Western nations that had so greatly assisted in early years but who had moved on to other regions are quickly returning with new initiatives to assist the south in holding itself together as it journeys towards adulthood as a nation.

Sadly, one of those countries will not be Canada. For well over a decade, Sudan had been a Canadian priority. But just this week, the Harper government, through its Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), has recommended, “that Canada consider downgrading its development program (in Sudan), or exiting entirely.”

CIDA correctly figured that it was going to prove difficult to administer aid in the south. But that’s the way it has been for decades. Some of Canada’s most effective investments occurred during the civil war’s costliest years. This country, along with the U.S., Britain, the European Union, and others, kept their eye on the ball, slowly but progressively nursing that troubled country into an era where peace became a possibility.

What’s the reason for Canada’s change of heart and focus? According to an internal reportacquired by the Globe and Mail, Sudan is no longer an area of “strategic importance” to this government. Both Foreign Affairs and CIDA have been instructed to implement a new era in international intervention, primarily focused on what’s best for Canadian business. At the moment, little such opportunity seems apparent in Sudan and downgrading this country’s historic investment has been recommended.

All this is transpiring just as Sudan requires not only Canada’s ongoing partnership, but its influential diplomatic expertise. The Globe and Mail’s release of the internal report reveals that all this couldn’t have come at a worse time. In preparation for our trip to South Sudan in a few days, we learned that numerous contacts at various levels have been taken aback by what for them is even more fulsome evidence that Canada has lost its way in recent years.

While the United Nations has put out an emergency appeal for one billion dollars from donor countries to assist the Sudanese effort, tongues have already begun to wag in capitals throughout the West about how Canada appears to have gone AWOL. As one American government official told me today, “It’s now difficult to know how to involve your country in these important security and development issues anymore.”

All this will be embarrassing and not a tad sad to speak about with the Southern Sudanese. But, as with those earlier times, we will remind them that the people of Canada will continue in their interest and investment in a troubled country even as our own government loses interest. But hanging over all of us will be the understanding that Canada is leaving the southern Sudanese to their own fate, in this, their adolescent years as a new nation. Some investment will continue, but our government’s imagination is gone. This is not our finest hour.

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