The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: respect

It’s Called Civil Society For a Reason

This post can be viewed in its original National Newswatch format here.

Numerous insights have been written in recent years regarding the eroding effect of partisanship on the political estate, most recently in America. That’s too bad because it’s a red herring and frequently masks what is the real underlying cause of political dysfunction. The fact that individuals hold opinions often at odds with others and support parties of various convictions has been essential to both the spirited and fluid nature of democracy itself.

Others feel differently. Writing recently in Fusion, American commentator Hamilton Nolan went so far as to say that those who profess to be non-partisan are surely part of our present problem. The title of his article speaks for itself: “Bipartisanship Means I Don’t Understand What Politics Is.” Bipartisanship is all too often an excuse from preserving the status quo, he believes, and the refusal to address America’s deepest problems – violence, poverty, racism, elitism. He believes not everything can be solved by compromise, and he has a point. Yet he maintains that many of those who seek such compromise are “moral monsters” and that those who call for more civility in politics are, in reality, “obscene.”

It’s easy to understand where Nolan is coming from, even as we consider the Canadian context. Why is it, for example, that no matter who holds the reins of power in Ottawa child poverty remains stubbornly high, that efforts to battle climate change are hardly sufficient, that gender equality is slow to achieve, or that Canadians remain disillusioned between political promise and effective performance? These are valid queries and deserve deeper consideration.

But to say that they endure because of bipartisanship or civility is something of a stretch. Civility lies at the very essence of effective politics, and as long as it is practiced with a willingness to listen respectfully to other points of view democracy has a chance of moving forward. We call it “civil” society for a reason. Far from being tepid, civility lies at the heart of effective politics. It permits those of whatever persuasion to remain in the room long enough to seek solutions together. For hyper-partisans such a pursuit is useless; with minds rigidly made up long in advance, the very thought of finding common ground is anathema. Political wars are their bread and butter.

One of the problems in Nolan’s perspective is that in poll after poll, on both sides of the border, the large majority of citizens want their politicians to “dial down” the endless bickering and get on with running their country in a collaborative fashion. There’s a reason why there are increasing calls for more respect in politics, and since it comes from citizens themselves there is clearly relevance to it. They don’t mind the partisanship but reject its rabid extremes and, for all its talk, the lack of effectiveness.

In less than a week Canadians will be celebrating the country’s 150th birthday, but it’s about more than just partying. It’s about collectively acknowledging a century and a half of living together, despite every division imaginable – geography, regional distinctions, language, distance, ethnicity, race, and, yes, partisan persuasion. While other nations struggle to hold themselves together at these weak points, Canada somehow finds strength in them, despite the friction.

In a real way, we have proved that it is our civility, our respect for our differences, that has allowed us to not only endure but to prevail. Our problems are numerous, yet we aren’t frozen in place by them. In effect, it has been our respectful civility that has been the precondition for our survival as a nation. It hasn’t been about our divisions, but the process of how we deal with them has been the secret to whatever success we have achieved.

Canada has proved to be an enduring triumph among global nations and deep down we all know it. Around the world, Canada is known for the congeniality of its people. Our problems are massive in scale, but it is how we have gone about handling them together that attests to the genius of our collective co-habitation. We have placed the ability to be civil at the centre of our innovation and curiosity as a people. By standing up and demanding that our politicians and other leaders put aside meanness for fairness, we attest to our ability to endure instead of self-destructing.

The majority of us comprehend that we cannot solve our abiding problems with hateful rhetoric, opinionated destruction, or namby-pamby citizenship. Partisanship is essential to our future; blind partisanship will kill it. Civility is what allows us to talk about our differences. Political will is what helps us to overcome them. For all our problems, it is time to celebrate that we are still together.

Yelling Past One Another

Just how difficult our politics have become turned up on social media feeds this week and in traditional media. As is often the case, Twitter failed to live up to its ideals by suspending the account of Alexandra Brodsky, an advocate for gender-free violence in education. She works at the National Women’s Law Centre and is no stranger to verbal conflict. When she received a number of harassing tweets from anti-semitic trolls, Brodsky took the unusual step of posting screenshots of the offensive tweets on Twitter. She also reported the occurrences to Twitter, asking that they suspend the offenders, some of whom posted, “Welcome to Trump’s America,” and “see you in the camps,” along with images of the Holocaust. It wasn’t hard to see why she was upset.

Twitter, in a move that it later reversed, responded by suspending Brodsky’s account instead, stating that she would have to delete the offending words and images before her account could be unlocked. “So let’s get this straight: Twitter still hasn’t suspended all the bigots I reported, but they have suspended me for calling out bigotry,” she subsequently wrote on Facebook. Twitter eventually wrote Brodsky, admitting their mistake, but that was only after Buzzfeed News pressed them on it. The actions of a courageous woman advocate weren’t enough in themselves to reverse Twitter’s decision. The entire scenario revealed once-again Twitter’s inability to deal effectively with the abuse problem that thousands of its users have asked the company to act on.

But then came news of another unfolding story, this time involving Dairy Queen, and with a better conclusion. When the owner of an Illinois Dairy Queen vented racial slurs at one of his customers, she complained and the police got involved. When they interviewed the owner he admitted to the charge, claiming that he was willing to go to jail over it, and saying that he was “fed up with black people.” When the Washington Post reported the story, Dairy Queen moved in quickly and shut down the operation. Community complaints over the incident were vibrant enough that the chain said the location would not be opened until a new owner was found. When the offender realized what he would lose, he apologized, but Dairy Queen has stuck by its plan to find a new proprietor.

“The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency” – Theodore Roosevelt

What is happening online is the “new frontier” and until average citizens learn to behave with decency, even allowing for their strong opinions, there is no way we can reach the place of respectful accommodation that citizens must attain to make politics meaningful again. We seem caught in an endless loop in which citizens, and frequently their political representatives, can no longer protect the public space enough to keep the democratic experience itself a healthy one. Traditional media itself has played this game as well, often playing “gotcha” journalism despite how it ruins public trust and pits citizens and interest groups against one another.

What are our options as citizens? Unless the public space can become an arena for ideas, insights, respect, forgiveness, and collaboration, then all that will be left will be conflict at both the political and the community level. The choice is ours. But as long as online attacks continue unchecked, citizens and politicians will withdraw into the privacy of their lives and the best ideas and perhaps future solutions will never get an airing. For citizens tolerating such attacks, railing against the political class for their animosity and dysfunction carries a level of the farcical, for we are proving no better at governing ourselves.

There are numerous reasons why our politics have arrived at the point where modern societies seem incapable of finding key solutions to our greatest ailments: unemployment, climate change, terrorism, human migration, social and economic inequality. One of the underlying causes has been our growing inability to frankly discuss our differences in ways that can bring about consensus. In so many ways we are yelling past one another and in the process entrenching people in their positions rather than drawing them out into useful dialogue. There’s a reason why former president Theodore Roosevelt claimed, “The most practical kind of politics is the politics of Decency.” Without it there is no practical way of moving ahead; with it we can begin again to locate our commonalities and begin building once more instead of tearing down.

The Real Duffy Dilemma

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You can also read this post on National Newswatch here.

DEPENDING ON THE PERSON YOU LISTEN TO, Mike Duffy has been fully exonerated, escaped conviction, or everything else in between. The failure of the Crown prosecution case to “bring it home” prompted Judge Charles Vaillancourt to veer from the anticipated criminal ruling into some unexpected observations of the political mess that formed the essential intrigue of the entire Duffy affair. One thing is certain: the manifest sins of the political elite in the highest places of the Harper regime tainted everyone involved, regardless of the trial’s outcome.

Mike Duffy is free to get back to business in the Senate, his budget and participation now reinstated. Or as the CBC’s Rosie Barton poignantly phrased it: Duffy now “rolls back into” the Red Chamber both exonerated and exhilarated.

And that’s just the problem. This highly partisan individual, so keen to serve at the Prime Minister’s command for party purposes, is striding back to claim his seat in a new era where partisan loyalties are supposed to take a back seat to the more noble responsibilities of the Upper Chamber.   As numerous pundits have effectively reminded us, someone might be declared criminally innocent who is nevertheless politically manipulative. There is nothing to stop Mike Duffy from continuing to pursue the same divisive practices as those he demonstrated prior to his trial.

We hear repeatedly that the Senate rules must change, that more oversight be given to independent bodies, that a more thorough examination be maintained over Senate activities. Who can argue? But none of these things can impede a hyper-partisan on a mission. Matching the need for more regulations over Senate practices must be the introduction of senators themselves who innately comprehend the need for decency, respect, and ultimately the necessity for compromise that more effectively reflects the opinions of Canadians across all regions.

This isn’t about partisanship, which is a requirement for political debate that provides voters with real choice and clarity of principles. Acknowledging the divisions among the electorate is hardly a bad thing. All positions along the political spectrum are alive and well in this country and should be admissible in the House of the people, where citizens carry more opinions than can possibly be assimilated into the governing process.

No, it isn’t healthy partisanship that ails our politics in Canada, but stupid, arrogant, blind, unbending, disrespectful and “gotcha” hyper-partisanship that has crippled us in recent years. Justin Trudeau should make ample room for the former in the Senate and refuse to appoint anyone who smacks of the latter.

We can’t be surprised when the Bipartisan Policy Centre south of the border, which has researched both the good and ills of partisan political behaviour, recently concluded that of the 12 most partisan years in American history, 10 have come in the last 10 years. The effects of that reality are playing out on our television screens during this American primary season. It is a theatre where things have become so belligerent that immovable partisan opinions are more embedded in concrete than open to compromise.

Canada is divided in its opinion, and always will be. The propensity for every succeeding government to maintain they have a mandate to do whatever they like is foolhardy, and will continue to be so until partisanship itself is wrestled back to the negotiating table and willful corrosion of the political system is expunged. That was what our first Prime Minister, John A. McDonald, struggled for when he noted, “A public man should have no resentments.” Neither should any modern public man or woman.

As former Clerk of the Senate, Gordon Barnhart, reminded Rosemary Barton last week, the Senate was once a place where members held themselves in deep respect until hyper-partisanship came in not long ago and friendships were destroyed. “I am hopeful that kind of respect will return,” he offered Barton in conclusion. But that can’t happen if people like Duffy aren’t humbled by the shamble they have created.

We must avoid at all costs the practice that David McLaughlin powerfully exposed in a 2013 Globe and Mail article:

“Faithful to the partisan glue that binds them to their parties, our political class is doing everything possible to diminish, demean, and destroy the precious commodity they actually hold in common: their own political integrity. In their relentless attacks on everything and everyone on the opposite political divide, they continue to devalue the basic political currency – trust – essential between electors and elected in a democracy. We, the voters, are the losers.”

Indeed we are. And if Mike Duffy reenters the Red Chamber as full of partisan braggadocio as his recent contributions have demonstrated, then it isn’t merely the Senate or the House that is the ultimate loser, but democracy itself. Fewer things are more dangerous than an unprincipled political operative. The task for Mr. Trudeau isn’t to cleanse the Senate of the partisans but, rather, of the unprincipled political warriors who would bring down a historic Canadian institution for the sake of unbridled power.

10 Essential Traits For The Next Prime Minister (Part Two)

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WELL, THERE YOU GO. It’s probably a cautionary risk to offer advice to anyone seeking the highest elected office in the land. An old political operative contacted me by email this morning regarding yesterday’s post, 10 Essential Traits Our Next Prime Minister Will Need. “Politics is fundamentally tough, Glen,” she noted. “It’s hardball at a high level and these soft characteristics you write about surely sound great to average people, but no prime minister can afford to govern like that.”

So there I was, busted – a hopeless public service romantic in a world of real-world politics. Yet I suspect there’s something in her observation that most of us would have to acknowledge. As it presently stands, federal politics is a war zone and only hardened soldiers can survive.

Still, there was that phrase, “sound great to average people,” that hinted how far the political order has distanced itself from those who validate it in the first place  – citizens. To a large sector of the Canadian public the fact that democracy is equivalent to war is significantly uncomfortable and unnatural. For a historically compassionate and entrepreneurial people, only a caring and innovative government is suitable. At present there is a great mismatch between the citizen and political orders in this country.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.” That is true, and if our political world is one of debilitating partisanship and ineffective policies, then that says something about our political parties themselves, and chiefly the prime minister who sets the tone.

So let’s put out six more of these so-called “soft” traits that the next prime minister will need if politics itself is to be pulled back from the brink of “mutually assured destruction.”

  1. Follow the Golden Rule (“treat others as you would be treated yourself”). The old German statesman, Johan Goethe, put it well: “The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.” If Canadians are becoming increasingly angry and frustrated, it’s because they are picking it up from their political leaders. An effective PM has to change that equation, and fast, before all political hope for recovery is lost. At the heart of it, any PM desires respect, compassion, effective work, a collaborative environment, and family opportunity. Why, then, deny other Canadians those most basic of values in your quest for power. Earn that power, don’t grasp it through non-stop combat.
  1. Courage. Far harder that fighting a war is keeping the peace, and for that we require a PM who knows how to mend fences not plant landmines. It’s time for an armistice, for the sake of the country and our own hope for the future. To raise a political battle cry at present isn’t courageous; it’s normal. The true pathfinder will work through the differences and build a way ahead on the basis of our commonalities, even with those from other political parties. Enough with the bluster already; it’s time for brokering a more contented nation. Stop setting the tone for conflict and start showing the trend towards peace and shared prosperity. If you’re going to fight for anything, fight for peacefulness in the land. You may not want to provide it, but we have every right to expect it.
  1. Humility. No, sorry, this isn’t about you, even if you are the most famous political figure in the land. It’s about how you share power, show preference for citizens, and understand that the honour that has been conferred upon you to lead is one of hopeful trust and therefore fragile – break that trust and you’ve broken the Canadian spirit. We are a terrific nation, but we are massively diversified and spread out. We have a well-earned reputation for compromise, peacekeeping, collaboration, and, yes, managed tension. Don’t break that link with history through your arrogance. Be humbled by our past narrative, what we have built together, and then humbled even more by the quality of our citizens.
  1. Be Enthusiastic. I know, this should be a given, but all too often the sense of energy is about how great the political party is and not about the transcendent potential of the Canadian people. Elections are supposed to be about you being the best candidate because you believe in them, not because they adhere to you. There will be lots of Canadians who didn’t vote for you. Your job isn’t to ignore them but empower their capacity. If politics is about winners and losers, then democracy is supposed to be about everyone as winners, at least potentially.
  1. Be compassionate. Abigail Van Buren said, “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.” Be just that kind of person and stop merely preferring your own party people. Better to be known as the leader who included individuals and groups on the margins than the one who merely rewarded the elite. History will know the difference and so should you.
  1. Learn from others. There are reasons why average citizens hold in deep regard leaders like Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Malala, Nelson Mandela, and Vaclav Havel.  They believed in the ethical order of political and social life and their narratives went on to prove it.  Learn from the writings of such people and you’ll not only bring a renaissance to Canada, but you’ll transform yourself.

 

 

Get the Picture?

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LOOK AT THIS PHOTO AND JUST TAKE IN its uniqueness. It’s from the Parliamentary holiday party in 1971 – a throwback to a previous era when respect in government was still seen as one of the prerequisites for effective public service. At the right is Tommy Douglas (NDP leader), dressed as King Arthur, but you can also spot Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, Stanley Knowles (NDP), and Audrey Schreyer as Queen Guinevere. It would be a gathering as difficult to pull off today as the original Christmas story.

The occasion had been the annual Christmas party for the New Democratic Party and it was common for  figures from other parties to share in the spirit. Yet for a whole new generation of Canadians the thought that such a thing once occurred in this country would likely never enter their minds.

The photo is, in its own way, a sign of so much that is wrong in politics today. This is the time of the permanent election campaign, where constantly bashing the other parties (especially their leaders) has become a sport and an occupation – and, sadly, a distraction.

How we respect one another in our differences as citizens now becomes more vital than at any other time in our history. The situation has reversed itself, where politics itself now looks to the citizenry for role models.

It used to be that the term “golden rule” carried sway in the political chambers of our nation. It found its origin in the numerous scriptures from different faiths, but it essentially urged people to treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated. It’s a simple rule, one which, in one form or another, we have sought to teach our children from the beginning. Now, no one expects politics to easily apply such a challenge, but it nevertheless should still stand as a goal for political behaviour.

We could utilize the golden rule in the ways we communicate and debate one another as citizens. In a world where political parties maneuver themselves into ideological corners from which they can’t escape, Canadians can discover avenues of engagement unrestrained by such archaic confines.

All this leads each of us to an important question: “How would we like others to behave towards us when engaged in political discussion?” We already know the answer: take me seriously, show respect for my opinion, listen sincerely as I attempt to explain my position, and be open to some aspects of what I’m saying that you might agree with, and perhaps we can start from there. This is how the politicians of the past did it, but it appears more and more likely that only citizens can accomplish it for the future.

In such a context, why would I brandish a party label and be crude with someone when I would dislike being treated that way myself? We wouldn’t want our opinions distorted or maligned, so why, then, would I do that to others?

There were times when official political rhetoric wasn’t as poisoned as now, where representatives found the common ground together and worked out their compromises from there. In a modern world of negative ads and spin-doctors it is admittedly a difficult thing to recreate. But as we increasingly accomplish that feat ourselves as citizens, we remind all those seeking political life that such things as the golden rule are more than abstract principles or some kind of symbolism for an ideal world, but a practical guide as to how we can get ourselves, and our democracy, out of this mess.

“I believe in the Golden Rule,” noted famed country singer, Loretta Lynn, “but more than that, I believe in practicing it.” In that distinction might very well lie the future of our political estate.

 

 

 

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