The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: research

Sober Second Thought and Getting Real on the Senate


WE’VE LIKELY HEARD ALL THE ARGUMENTS, pro and con, about our Senate and the debate will continue for years to come. But it’s time to get real on some realities about it. It’s true that the Red Chamber is a mess and a partisan swamp. Yes, there has been corruption, and, yes, many want it abolished because it is viewed as irrelevant. But it’s become clear over this past year that it will take years for such changes to come and that in the meantime it will remain as one of the two wings of Parliament responsible for proposing, researching, and passing legislation. Just because you can’t abolish it doesn’t mean you can’t change it. Let’s think about what we can do in the present to make it as relevant as possible.

There is no way a law can be passed or receive Royal Assent without the Senate’s approval. That’s in part why Friday’s Speech from the Throne is read by the Governor General in the Senate, not the House. For any government with an ambitious agenda, the approval from the Senate is the only way it can be enacted. So while numerous voices debate its abolition or relevance, it nevertheless retains a vital role in the collective of the Canadian people, whether people acknowledge it or not.

It is precisely this balance and accountability between the House and the Senate that proved so productive in establishing Canada as a nation to be admired and respected. Through it all the Senate of Canada played a vital role in moving the nation forward. Its logic and operation derived from centuries of parliamentary progress through that great mother of all parliaments in Britain. True, it was an old boy’s club, and, yes, it overlooked needed reforms just as the House of Commons did. But along the way it validated a woman’s right to vote, approved provinces joining Confederation, supplied support for our military forces overseas, partnered with the House to introduce pensions and healthcare across the country, and ultimately assisted in guiding Canada into the modern age.

There were times when the Senate purposefully held up needed legislation, but far more frequently it modified the bills sent over from the House, making them better and more workable. As the place where intensive scrutiny and research on legislation before it can be officially passed, the Senate is the final arbiter, the more refined tool for making laws effective. It has done this since the country’s beginning and shouldn’t be overlooked because some individuals from the political ranks sought to make it a blunt partisan instrument.

This is why the Senate has been appropriately labeled the sanctum of “sober second thought,” as John A. Macdonald put it. It has saved legislation that was severely flawed and fine-tuned our laws with other jurisdictions like provinces or even our overseas partners.

In the end, senators are not elected and know that the ultimate power lies with the House of Commons, where elected officials debate their priorities. And yet if the Senate itself becomes a theatre of partisan operation like the House itself, the opportunities to enhance and refine legislation grow greatly diminished.

The former speaker of the House, Peter Milliken, has been reminding people who for decades laws have been passed effectively and judiciously as individual members of the House and Senate followed rules of procedure and ethical public service. But in recent years both chambers have been cheapened, not by ineffective precedent or procedures, but by party hacks who have crippled their performance and undermined governance in the process. It’s not better rules we need in the House or Senate, but better people – representatives elected or appointed who understand that their primary purpose is the security, inclusiveness, and prosperity of Canada.

The Senate should be filled with knowledgeable and ethical representatives who, because they don’t have to be elected and remain susceptible to the worst practices of partisanship, can, like researchers, apply their minds and spirits to legislation that is sent to them to make better.

Does the Senate require reformation? Absolutely. But it is important to remember that it could still have been effective under its present procedures if it hadn’t been carpet bombed by partisanship in recent years. Good people, even in a difficult system, can make good laws. Political neanderthals, even with the best of support and research, can obliterate the democratic spirit through their actions.

Author David Brooks once defined what should be the true disposition of a public servant: “They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline are what drive their actions.” Put these kind of people in the Senate and even its worst tendencies will be transcended by integrity, knowledge, and dedication to public duty.

Living Research

MDG : Data revolution


OCCASIONALLY COMMUNITIES HAVE TROUBLE telling their own stories.  It often happens during times of transition, when change moves faster than a city’s ability to understand it.

This is what happened in London when it came to a growing poverty problem.  While places like the London Food Bank were reporting that their clientele had climbed 40% in the last five years, London struggled to determine what was happening and what were the causes.

The answers were never fully clear because the data required to get a good grasp on the problem was just not available.  Much of the data presently in use has come from Statistics Canada but was regionally based and couldn’t drill down to isolate what was really happening in our city.  The killing off of the long-form census only compounded the problem.  Numerous agencies had gathered data for the operation of their own organizations, but these often remained in isolation, not gathered or collated into a grander study.  And much of the poverty research for London was accomplished by academic institutions – data that ended up in academic journals or eventually consigned to library bookshelves

Even a decade ago there had been an increasing voice in London searching for some kind of central place for data capture, but then came the great financial fallout beginning in 2008 – a period where every community was preoccupied with attempting to just survive the significant economic fallout locally, nationally, and globally.

The need for better research in poverty in London remained and two groups came together to discuss the possibility of providing a centre solely dedicated to understanding poverty in London through the accumulation and promotion of accurate research.  The Sisters of St. Joseph and the London Food Bank decided to work together towards the possibility of establishing a dedicated research centre to study poverty in our city.  Resources were channeled from both organizations to begin the process, but it became quickly apparent that more funding would be required.

Application was made by a joint proposal from both organizations to the London Community Foundation’s Vitality Grant program – a process that eventually resulted in a grant of $250,355 dedicated specifically to the founding and establishment of the London Poverty Research Centre.

Larger community consultations took place with key partners to instigate data sharing agreements, collaboration, and an agreement to work together to harmonize stories about poverty in London and how it might be beaten

A task force had been established, charged with steering the new organization into the future.  It selected three key areas for research in the Centre’s first few years – 1) precarious work; 2) food security; 3) mental health and housing.  The focus will be on “Living Research” – the inclusion of those living in poverty to tell their stories in real-time and to help shape the effectiveness of the forthcoming research.

From its inception, the London Poverty Research Centre determined that along with the importance of research, there also had to be a strong public component centered on education, the importance of media (traditional and social), the need to inform politicians and policy makers, and the ultimate need to draw Londoners themselves into the dialogue about growing poverty and how to tackle it.

Productive talks have been underway between the Poverty Research Centre and King’s University College to partner together to bring relevant data for public consumption and for policy discussion.

The London Poverty Research Centre was launched yesterday – four months following the initial grant from the London Community Foundation.  With its proposed partnership with King’s University College, the research centre now has in place solid academic support and an exciting mandate to take any findings “public,” to inform debate and tackle poverty at its root causes.

There were a few complaints when the centre was announced yesterday, saying, “Hasn’t enough research been accumulated already?  Isn’t it time to take action?”  The answer to such well-intentioned queries is yes and no.  Not enough research has been done from the standpoint of those living in direct poverty that permits them to build their personal stories directly into the data itself.  And, yes, much research has been done.  But for it to be actionable, it must be brought together into a compelling voice that can gain traction in the public space.  Maybe then politicians and citizens alike will work together for community equity.

London has been through years of difficult transition, but the key to finding a new future lies in our knowledge of what our direct challenges are.  With the presence of the London Poverty Research Centre, our community will be provided with the relevant data to face and change the future of poverty in London through knowledge of both the statistics and direct stories of those struggling in poverty.  The future begins with the gathering of that knowledge and its direct placement in the hands of leaders and citizens alike to build the community they want.

The poor have become lost in all the data about them.  It is time to put those struggling in poverty into the narrative itself and provide them opportunity to shape their own future, just as we wish do with ours.  It can be a compelling story, but first it must be a collective and a collected voice.

Liberalism – Guidance Counselling

Something’s currently happening in conservatism that represents a clear threat to the gains made by liberalism in recent decades.  Universities and colleges – crowning jewels in any smart advanced democracy – have come under threat, with many ideological conservatives believing they are dens of political correctness, special interest groups, and, ultimately, recruiting stations for liberal persuasions.  It’s an ironic reality.  Since Confederation, Canadian conservative-minded temperaments have cooperated with their liberal counterparts to strive for higher learning and showed solid support for research.  The “progressive” part of that brand of conservatism did much to raise the scholastic level of this country.

The new strain of absolutism on the hard right edge of the conservative movement in this country has begun to challenge their historical counterparts in this area, however.  Like many of their kin in America, they have begun perpetuating a long tradition of anti-intellectual contempt associated with evidence-based learning and scientific conclusions.  I discovered this past weekend that a large number of progressives in the philosophically conservative camp are as deeply troubled as liberals.

Their clearest indicator of this phenomenon at present is conservatism’s political dimension in Canada.  In what the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson yesterday termed the Harper government’s “assault on reason,” the rise of the intolerant right is producing a culture of anti-intellectualism in this country that threatens the very nature of public policy.  If pursued, this would challenge the fabric of federalism and undermine an international reputation for effective governance and smart, advanced policy.

In an article this week titled, “Why Stephen Harper thinks he’s smarter than the experts,” Maclean’s senior writer John Geddes interviews Gordon McBean, a climate change scientist from the University of Western Ontario and also a Nobel Laureate.  “I think there is a significant problem – unwillingness to entertain, or invite, or listen to, people who are experts in their fields and want to provide advice and guidance to the government,” McBean concludes.

While much of the media has picked up on this “dumbing down” of Canada, it’s actually people of liberal temperament that need to sit up and take notice.  This development has undercut the very legacy of liberalism (perhaps Stephen Harper’s intention), and unless arrested and challenged will propel Canada into its own dark age.

Scientific advancement, proof, evidence-based policy – these are likely the greatest gifts of liberalism to public progress.  To quote John Dewey in his speech, “The Future of Liberalism” at New York University:

The individual is something achieved, not in isolation but with the aid and support of conditions – including cultural, economic, legal, and political institutions, as well as science and art.  Liberalism knows that social conditions may restrict, distort and almost prevent the development of individuality.  It therefore takes an active interest in the working of social institutions that have a bearing on the growth of individuals, which shall be based on fact and not merely on abstract theory.”

This is liberalism in its essence.  Sustained individual growth and progress would be an impossibility without unfettered knowledge and experience.  This has been a cardinal rule in all advanced societies for decades and formed important components of the policy plans of all parties in the recent British election.  Yet in speaking to a senior Ottawa civil servant in June, I learned that he felt the attack on the knowledge sector within the federal government has become so entrenched that many career pubic servants believe it is “hopeless” to convince the government otherwise.

It is important to remember that this new development is not a construct of conservatism per se, but of the ideological stream of that working philosophy that trusts its own prejudices over knowledge.  Career civil servants recall the freedom of expression and insight enjoyed under previous Progressive Conservative governments and worry those days may be gone forever.

Who among us, having taken our seriously ill child to emergency, would ignore the advice of the doctors and interns?  We would be fools to do so.  Who among us would insist on only having teachers for our children that had no training?  Such things matter, and ignoring the advice of knowledge and experience would be something the majority of us would never risk our children’s welfare for.

And yet we are permitting it in our country at present.  Researchers will tell you it’s true, as would civil servants and educators.  That government spokespersons would naturally say something to the contrary, doesn’t make idiots of the smartest among us, but rather calls into question the viability of a government policy that would ignore decades of research and experience.

This development is a direct affront, not only to liberalism, but to the history of Canada itself.  While ignorance at the moment might control the play, liberalism yet owns the field.  But for how long?  This cuts into the very fibre of liberalism’s reasoning and mustn’t be permitted to endure in its present form.  Small “l” liberals of every stripe are honour bound to rally around this flag, including the conservatives that are progressive.  A future without knowledge is hardly the legacy we wish to pass on to posterity.  This need not be a hopeless cause, unless we just play dumb.

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