The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: politicians

To Our New Council, With Love

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LONDON, ONTARIO, CAN BE FORGIVEN FOR FEELING some wind in its sails, despite having passed through some difficult years. We have a new mayor, a mostly new city council, and a new spring in our step. Feels good.

Those who were elected have a passion for their city and it’s not hard to spot. We need sound leadership if we are to proceed. And, in their desire to lead, they’ll need to follow the leadership of the community if they are to make the difference they obviously seek.

So, here is my prayer for all of you, the new team, based on the clear respect for your stepping forward and the awareness of the challenges you face.

First, please keep yourself. I’ve had a bit of experience in politics and it was troubling how easily political representatives permit themselves to become exclusively the extension of other people’s wants and desires. It’s vital to know your community, but your authenticity and usefulness will be centered on who you are and why you ran for office in the first place. To know oneself is important for political life; to keep yourself, however, is vital. Londoners didn’t elect robots, but living people in whom we wish to learn trust. That won’t be possible if you can’t stay real.

Be honest … please. Someone in Ottawa once explained to me that the secret of remaining in politics in putting on a difference face for everyone, as needed. It was some of the dumbest advice I’ve ever received. Politics isn’t only the art of the possible; it involves the transfer of trust, back and forth between citizen and representative. Start faking it with us, and trust is gone. And once it’s lost everything is just power plays or ambivalence.

I pray you make clear time for your family and friends. It is inherent in the very nature of politics that it soaks you for everything you can give it. Don’t give it that advantage. It is these very people who got you to where you are, and if you permit the demands of thousands of citizens to displace the honour you owe to those closest to you, it won’t be long until you lose your way, removed from those things that once gave you grounding and understanding.

Don’t forget to be humble. You didn’t get to where you are at this moment just because you’re so smart or innovative; you got there because citizens voted for you. When your community decides to trust you with leadership, it means that they not only deserve your best but also your devotedness to the honour of serving those who marked the ballot for you in the first place. Politics is not about pandering or policy, but ultimately about people. You have been elected to serve, not to seek advantage. The voters will never forget that; neither should you.

Please be kind. I have known so many good people who entered politics and who then permitted it to turn their spirits repeatedly to stone – so much so that they came to resent the very citizens that were supposed to be serving. You are to administer both the resources and understanding of the city to those that live and function within it. Resent those you are to be serving and it will be inevitable that you’ll care only about the power and perks of your position. Take time for your people, quality time, and they will keep you grounded and honoured – not because you’re a politician, but because you are a good person.

Please don’t lose yourself in these next four years; if you lose your way, so do we, and we’ve already had enough of that. Just like your citizens, love your community as though it is worthy of our very best efforts. Court it. Pursue it. Build a life with it. Love is at its best when it prompts us to serve others. Serve us with respect and understanding and we will honour you with our loyalty and talents. We love our city, but we will have to manage it through you, and that is a responsibility beyond measure. We’re turning a page together.  Let’s give it our best shot.

 

Our City

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TODAY WE HEAD TO THE POLLS IN OUR CITY to select a new mayor, councillors, and school board trustees. Some will have no idea who to vote for until the last minute; others have been ready for months. Politics can bring out the best and worst, sometimes both, in our city, and elections can draw a community together for another four years or rip it apart for a painful period of time.

But in the end, regardless of the quality of the candidates or the strengths and weaknesses of their platforms, the person who holds the ultimate power today is the voter – all of us. For the briefest moment in time we will be secluded, pencil in hand, and in that isolation will lie the future of our city. In the end, we aren’t voting for a candidate but the kind of community we desire to have. It rests with us and we have some serious questions to ask ourselves before we mark our ballot.

  • Am I willing to change the course of my future by making the needed changes in myself to move from isolation to community?
  • Am I willing to stop seeing my city as a kind of crossword to be solved but a community to be built?
  • Am I willing to keep hoping even if the political outcome I’m voting for doesn’t prevail?
  • Am I voting for a new way of governing that includes me?
  • Does my vote represent the best in me or merely the most self-serving?
  • Does it reflect my problems or my solutions?
  • Does it reflect my reasoned understanding or my tribal opinion?
  • Is my choice for the future or for the past?
  • Do I understand that by holding the power to vote I am stronger than the person who receives that vote?

Whatever the results at the end of the day, our vote should mean much more than our choice to have someone else to take care of the city. It isn’t their place to rule but ours to build. Our vote shouldn’t spell the end of our participation in the political process but a clear signal of our recommitment to make politics meaningful again through the participation of thousands of others just like us.

It is time for democracy to step out from its own dark shadow into the light of shared responsibility – citizens with one another, and with their elected representatives.

But all that depends on a small mark on a piece of paper. In other words, history is moved in private, in the solitude of an individual’s preference for how her or his community will be fashioned for the future. And history could also fall into decline if enough citizens refuse to spend that moment alone. Democracy depends almost exclusively on the simple matter of showing up – to vote, and then to engage and build together.

Today will be about the human spirit and its ability to reimagine how it will work with others to building a better place for us all, despite our many differences. We must select politicians who can become people again and not just extensions of some political agenda. And it will be about us, continuing to show up again and again until we get this shared responsibility thing right.  No election is perfect, but it should nevertheless be a step in the right direction, an avowal of faith that we live in a democracy and that we will never be satisfied with poor performance – in our representatives or in ourselves.

Author Herman Melville once said; “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”  That’s what today is about.  Tired of the same-old, same-old, we strike out in a new direction, where voter and those successfully elected opt to share the challenge of leading and invigorating a community.  And it all starts with a pencil, a piece of paper, a private place, and, above all, a citizen.

The Powers That Be

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WITH THE ARRIVAL OF THE NEW YEARS HAS COME the public announcement of some to run for politics.  In London, Ontario, a number of citizens who have currently observed from the sidelines have decided the occasion is right from them to enter the political arena.  Times are becoming more desperate and we require new blood in our politics if we are to drive change.  Who can doubt it?  The present management of our public estate has not only proved lackluster but self-defeating.

Now that they’ve signed up, these aspiring politicians have a steep learning curve ahead of them.  For want of a better phrase, political life inevitably becomes a kind of “migrating” discipline.  In most cases it commences from a place among fellow citizens in the community, infused by local populism, and inevitably winds its way towards a kind of isolationism.  If elected, you spend large amounts of time in committees, with stakeholders, and at official meetings.  It’s an education, to be sure, but the process slowly draws you away from the very citizens you once swore to represent with all your best efforts.  It’s nothing intentional; it just evolves that way.

Politics would be far more authentic if it merely entailed the politician in direct relationship with the voters – messier, for sure, but more transparent.  At its essence, politics is supposed to be about the sharing of power democratically throughout the community, but in reality it results in the concentration of power in a manner that can provide easier access to those with resources than those without them.

Philosopher and theologian John Murray spent a lot of time attempting to help local citizens fighting against those larger forces that always seemed to prevail in most communities.  Worse yet, governments and politicians often had their agenda set by such influences.

We are not really a group of citizens singly engaged in the search for truth, relying solely on the means of persuasion, entering into dignified communication with each other, content politely to correct opinions with which we do not agree.  As a matter of fact, the various ideas and allegiances among us are entrenched as social powers; they occupy ground, they have developed interests, and they possess the means to fight for them.  The real issues of truth that arise are complicated by secondary issues of power and prestige which frequently become primary.”

The machinery of our governments is creaking and only the details vary.  Election after election ends up the same way: many who promised to overturn the status quo end up becoming part of it, their days filled with an eye towards the next election.  Stakeholder groups take the place of citizen engagement and invariably power nestles in the polished corridors of those who can manipulate it.

London provides a clear example.  The familiar clash between citizen activists and developers has been joined now that election season is nearly upon us.  The tension is palpable.  The only way substantial donations from a few developers can be offset is by dedicated donations from a large portion of the citizenry.  But this rarely happens, leaving frustrated candidates demonizing developers when the truth is that citizen engagement in not sufficient to counteract stronger forces.  In such situations it is helpful to recall that, at the federal level, groups capable of making large political donations were no longer permitted to do so and the result has been politics at its worst, not its most democratic.  The true issue is the level of citizen involvement as a countervailing force, not the size of the donation.

Today there are numerous indications that we are undergoing a transitional period, when something seems to be crumbling and on the way out but what is to take its place is not yet clear.  It’s as though the political state has exhausted itself while we wait in vain for something to rise from the rubble.  We must thank those putting their names forward for their sacrifice, but if they can’t remain in close contact with those citizens who voted for them, then nothing will have changed and the election is just a warmed over version of the last one.  The engagement of citizens remains the highest priority of political action.  Keep things at that level and not only our communities, but democracy itself can be renewed.

So, this time around, let’s make a pact.  Let those announcing their intention to run vow to do their very best to remain among their peers instead of migrating ever onwards towards those with inordinate power that is hardly democratic.  And let all of us who have been pressing for people to run promise that we will be there for them, reminding them of their original commitments and keeping them honest through our transparent interaction.

Democracy isn’t supposed to be like sending someone off to war; where we wave our goodbyes and hope for the best.  Rather it is like welcoming a new person into the family – someone from among us who has taken on the dignified and proper response of benefitting their community by seeking to represent it.  But the only way they can give us their best is if we stay in relationship to them by giving them the most honorable thing we can do as citizens: to work with our leaders to put our community first.  It is never the politician that is meant to migrate but the community itself, from a place of disenchantment and fracture to a living and breathing organism, populated with enough citizens who dedicate themselves to the honourable place in which they live.

 

Old Bald Men

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What could I say?  I stared at the younger man seated opposite a few months ago and was dumbfounded.  In fact, it was the only time since I departed politics that I can honestly say I was offended.  “The last thing we need right now is old bald men standing in the way.  You’ve had your chance at politics and it’s time you moved aside to let the younger generation in.”

There was something obviously brash about the statement, but it was the sheer arrogance of the attitude that came across that might not bode well for politics.   Opinion and ideology have become the new vocabulary of the modern political structure, offering way more heat than light.  It reminds me of Jon Krakauer’s insight in Into the Wild:

It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God given right to have it.”

And yet his urgency that day had much truth to it.  Politics at all levels is most populated by older folks who seem stuck in some kind of partisan time warp, incapable of leading their communities, or their countries, out of the life of diminishing returns so common today.

But I wanted to ask him why he thought I was one of those who stood in the way of his peers?  What was wrong with having seven kids and four grandchildren?  Was being a 30-year professional firefighter not a good thing?  I would presume that freeing slaves in Sudan had to add some different and urgent perspective to one’s CV?  I was smart and lucky enough to marry a terrific humanitarian.  I survived a cancer scare and kept my wits about me.  Being a board member of Emerging Leaders surely should say that I’m not blind to the resources the young can bring to community life, shouldn’t it?  Can spending my waking moments working on community development behind the scenes really be a bad thing?  And as a politician, I spent most of my time trying to provide access to those Gen “X”ers, “Y”ers and Millennials to the corridors of power so that they could introduce their keen insights and ideas to the broader world.

Please don’t misinterpret me here; I’m not looking for praise.  But do such things automatically disqualify me for public service because of my age?  Is the issue not really one of putting one’s community first instead of merely holding on to power for power’s sake?  I know politicians, men and women, under the age of 40, who are even more partisan and jealous of office holding.  The reality is that most of those in office are in their older years – a demographic reality.  But the great problem with politics is the absence of good people who put their ridings before their reputations and that isn’t an age-specific trait.

I recently finished Walter Isaacsons’s book Benjamin Franklin, in which he does a masterful job of showing how the generations needed to come together if America was to survive.  In the sweltering summer of 1787, representatives gathered in Philadelphia to negotiate a constitution that would become the most successful in history.  Looking at the delegates, Thomas Jefferson noted, “If it does not go well, it will show that we have not the wisdom among us to govern ourselves.”  They were largely young and their success hardly assured.  At 81, Franklin was the oldest by 15 years and exactly twice the average age of the rest.  Oh yeah, and he was bald.

By this vast experience it was suspected that Franklin would take on the role as leader.  He declined and instead nominated George Washington, in a move that would see the latter become American’s first president.  Then things got down to business and soon enough the young leaders crossed swords over all sorts of differences.  But at pivotal moments Franklin intervened, his wit, experience and sagacity often responsible for obtaining numerous compromises from all sides.

Virtually every delegate at the constitutional convention held little confidence that the average citizen was capable of self-government.  As the oldest in attendance, Franklin was nevertheless the most youthful in spirit when it came to capabilities of the emerging citizenry.  He embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment and human potential.  He held the convention together though his experience and wisdom, and when the impossible was accomplished many said it was through his vastness of spirit and mind that the Constitution was attained.  It was Franklin who coined the phrase E Pluribus Unum – Out of the Many, One – and he had lived long enough to pave the way for the next generation of leadership.

Are such things impossible these days?  Are old bald men no longer as useful?  Could it be true that the great error of the younger generation is to believe that their intelligence is an adequate substitute for experience?  Of course.  But the mistake of the older generation is the opposite: believing that experience is a proper substitute for intelligence.

My time to leave is not quite yet.  There is work to be done, for experience to prepare the path for the remarkable intelligence of the young to receive its rightful place of prominence.  It has taken me a long, long time to become young.  I’m closer to living my youthful ideals than at any point in my long lifetime.  Don’t shut the door just yet.  We have need of one another and I have a few miles yet to go before I sleep.

Identity – Beyond Politics

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It was one of the most profound moments of my political life.  Two days following my election loss I took my son Ater for lunch.  When we entered the crowded food court at one of the local malls some people started clapping and soon most others joined in.  I was overwhelmed, leaning in closer to Ater.  It was all a little perplexing until one store owner took me aside, saying, “Know what that was about?  Until you got elected you were the food bank guy and we all love the food bank.  But when you became a politician you were a Liberal and right away people fell along party lines and saw you different because not all are of that persuasion.  Now that you’re done with politics you’re just one of us again and it’s good to have you back.”

I’m sure that wasn’t a universal sentiment but it was revealing to me at least, and subsequent events have proved its validity.  From the moment you enter the political arena, in one capacity or another, you are defined by that choice and it remains almost impossible to escape from even though you left politics behind.  In the end it’s about how you were branded.  Much of it is unfair, some of it valid, but most of it is just frustrating if you are an independent thinker.

Below you will see a video that was shot about 18 months into my political tenure in Ottawa.  The interview was with Catherine Clark, Joe Clark’s daughter, and she hosted a program called “Beyond Politics.”  She always attempted to discover what made politicians tick outside of their professional careers as politicians.  We hit it off right away, in part because her questions were insightful and I was willing to answer them honestly.  The video has been edited to a much shorter length, but in watching it you can see that I’m still wet behind the ears, attempting to come to grips with a political system that to me was alienating.  Maclean’s magazine had just released a column calling me “The Last Decent Man In Ottawa” and it has caused something of a stir.

As I endeavoured to say in the interview, I was a whole person when I got elected.  This was some six years ago, but I came into the House of Commons with a belief system, worked out over years of expanded living, with which I refused to compromise.  I was asked repeatedly to get into the regular partisan bashing so common in Ottawa these days and I just refused because I thought it was not only demeaning to Parliament but to me as well.

Nothing had prepared me to surrender my pride and self-regard sufficiently to accept those humiliations.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  My values and sense of self were already fully constructed, which was another way of saying that I was already a person who wasn’t going to take that way of life from anybody.  While I was in no position to force the House to accept things the way I thought they should be, I was still prepared to let them know and understand what my standards were.  I was a Liberal, yes, because our political system requires such a banner if one wishes to run and I was closer to being a Liberal than anything else.  But my life had taken on a spirit broader than mere policy constructs of any party.  I had been elected, not by the party but by Londoners, and their benefit was my main reason for being there.

My reaction to Parliament was one of caution and some disillusionment. Its response to me was decidedly confused.  By refusing to be branded I had immediately become an oddity.  Some didn’t like it, but over time an increasing number of MPs and parliamentary officials came to support my efforts for making the House a more respectful place.  But always – relentlessly – there were occasions every day to slip into the mainstream.  Sometimes I did without realizing it and the humiliation I felt within myself was palpable – I had failed my constituents, the House, and ultimately myself.  I learned from those moments.

For almost five years I struggled every day to keep from relinquishing who I really was to political forces that only desired that I serve them.  But life had already taught me some of these lessons concerning being true to one’s self, my spouse and children, my community, and even my God.

Most believe they have the strength to endure such attempts at conformity, but for the person who wishes to be recognized, applauded, or advanced, the temptations are almost overwhelming.  And the political system knows how to use that hunger for its own benefit.  All that is required is that you leave behind a little bit of who you are.  For me that was a disturbing possibility.  Watch the video below and you’ll see a man struggling to comprehend his place in an always-compromising world.  I think it’s instructive for all office seekers because the feelings were so raw.  But I had a life beyond politics before I was elected; I also have one following on the heels of political career.  Yet the key point here is I possessed such a life while I was in the political arena, and that is what saved me.

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