The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: responsibility

Election 2015: Citizens and Power


IT’S BECOMING CLEAR THAT THINGS ARE MOVING dynamically in this final week in the run-up to the election. Interest is growing. Voters are changing their minds. The media are having a field day.

But on October 20, with the election done, everything settles back into that one great goal: the possession of power. A feeling develops in Ottawa that the winners have been legitimized by a process of voting that now gives them sway to carry out their own designs. It’s as if democracy is all about the vote and never about the four years following.

There’s been much hoopla about the increase in advance voting as compared to the last election, and it is encouraging. As citizens we are coddled, prompted to dream, to trust this party or that, to get engaged, to make a difference. But at midnight of Election Day we are largely overlooked as the focus becomes the power structure in Ottawa once again.

This being the case, it is always a dangerous thing for citizens to emphasize the few weeks of election at the expense of the few years following. Power is not just about voting, but vigilance, and that’s a lot harder to accomplish. The office of citizenship (and, yes, it is an office) is built on the premise that power is really established in the will of the people. But the irony is that citizens most often exercise that privilege during an election and rarely follow through afterwards, whereas the political class panders to voters in the electoral contest while become fixated on the years of political power in the future. If that practice is maintained, citizens will never be able to change anything.  The assault on democracy prevalent in recent years will only continue.

Power is not just about the one who wins it, but the many who guard it. Should citizens not want to take part in the long game, power and its use, its winner and losers, will be determined in Ottawa. Citizens don’t like to talk about power, especially as the political structure itself becomes more dysfunctional. But power, and the pursuit of it, is remarkably real, and whoever holds it will inevitably affect the lives of millions. We can go ahead and presume the practice of politics is sordid, but if it causes us to opt out, to remain ignorant of the ways of power, then our future is decided by others, without our input.

It is encouraging to witness the present interest in the 2015 federal campaign. Citizens are showing up in significant numbers in advance polls and it could be an indication that they are feeling enough is enough. They understand that our greatest challenges aren’t being addressed and they are somehow wishing to acknowledge that reality by visiting the ballot box. But that is meant to be the beginning of their engagement in power, not the end of it.

If we as citizens don’t wake up to the realities of power, we will simply be left out of its workings in the coming years. If people desire change, then they must adjust themselves to collectively stay tuned to politics instead of turning away. Elections alone are never enough.  Politicians and political parties alike have grown accustomed to returning to the voter every election in order to get their papers to govern again. But our political future will never change unless, following our vote, we remind our representatives that we desire a place at the table – not in Ottawa, but in our home constituencies. We need collective and cooperative meetings with our politicians on an ongoing basis, to demand accountability, yes, but to also teach us the nuances of power itself and how we might play our own needed role – collectively.

Brazilian educator Paulo Freire notes that, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” There is important truth in this insight. To turn away from vigilance regarding political power only leaves those who seek power for power’s sake forever in charge and leaves millions defenceless.  .

An Empty Spot On the Bench

TV Bill Moyers Journal

WHEN EFFECTIVE ADVOCATES FOR DEMOCRACY ultimately leave the stage through retirement or death, it’s not always true that their absence is noted. Lose a Mandela, Vaclav Havel, or a Maya Angelou and almost immediately the tributes and stories flood the airwaves. Yet every year we lose many of democracy’s greatest champions without even knowing it, often not even recognizing their names. A candle goes out and we merely transfer our interests to another.

The voice of Bill Moyers finally went silent on PBS news stations a few weeks ago, leaving a significant vacancy in our overall struggle for a fairer and more equitable society. Moyers was sage, highly knowledgable, and intensely courageous for those things he devoutly espoused. Some regarded him as a throwback to the past days of journalism, where truth mattered more than mere opinion, and depth of research took precedent over Google. But time is revealing that such a journalistic practice wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in a world of instant opinions and shallow coverage. Moyers had a way of relentlessly reaching for that better part of our minds that related news with value instead of sensationalism and inspired images in our brains that were planted there by reason as opposed to hyperbole.

He commenced his odyssey with PBS in 1971 and immediately reflected gravitas in a world of rapidly changing media coverage. From that point on he was pressured relentlessly to move his programming instincts to the right of the political spectrum. Each time he refused, not because of personal bias but through his reasoning that the average listener wasn’t so much a partisan as a reasoning individual looking for an objective voice in a turbulent world. And he gave it to them, travelling to countless communities across the country to speak with average people and organizations, giving them a voice as the political and financial elites quietly retreated in their newfound opulence.

Moyers could do it all – eloquent speaker, gifted writer, broadcaster, documentarian, journalist and magazine contributor. It’s not as though the media industry hasn’t taken account of him. He has won 35 Emmy awards (including a lifetime achievement Emmy), a lifetime Peabody Award, is an inductee into the Television Hall of Fame, and numerous others. He accomplished all this by reaching the country through public television, with a venue far smaller than the major networks.

Everyday he reminded citizens that major issues like climate change, unemployment, financial injustice, political ineffectiveness, and global challenges, are important enough for them to keep themselves focused. As he put it recently:

“Ninety-six percent of people believe its important that we reduce the influence of money. Yet 91% think it’s not likely that its influence will be lessened. Think about that: People know what’s right to do yet don’t think it can or will be done. When the public loses faith in democratic ability to solve the problems it has created for itself, the game’s almost over. And I think we are this close to losing democracy to the mercenary class.”

Hmmmmm. Sounds a lot like Elizabeth Warren, and like that eloquent woman Senator, Moyers concedes that, “Democracy is a life, and requires daily struggle.” There have been many lovers of democracy who have been people of conscience, but Moyers has done it all with personal dignity, a healthy respect for institutions and the individual citizen, and a deep understanding that having an opinion isn’t the same thing as wielding truth.

Our next post will explore how our democratic landscape is changing as the voices of objectivity, respect, and reason slowly move off the scene. The disappearance of Moyers from the public airwaves comes at a time when that voice of veterans and nation builders that flourished following the Second World War pass off everyday one by one, leaving significant holes in our citizenry and our journalism. Those of us who remain surely possess passionate beliefs like those who have preceded us, but do we have the patience, the tolerance, the respect, and the willingness to sacrifice for the greater good? Who are the next Bill Moyers? And will they come forward?

Value for Money

B-W-Corporate-Sponsorship-GuysBusiness guru, Peter Drucker, continues to drive home the same message: “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”  But how can that happen when citizens themselves continue to downgrade their expectations when it comes to business performance almost across the board?

How can larger corporations and businesses that have fallen so low in public estimation hope to regain citizen trust and community esteem again?  If they are truly serious about the matter, they merely have to look no farther than some of their peers across various industries.

But first they’ll have to stretch out their financial projections and performances if their efforts are to have any success.  Communities live year to year and have growth cycles that sometimes involve decades of investment.  Any company that remains merely interested in the next quarter reviews need not apply for community respect.  This is about the long game.

If companies are truly interested in their reputations and repairing the damage caused by decades of short-term thinking, then they are going to have to take the lead in bringing business and society back together – it’s not enough to just be dragged into community and economic renewal.  We’re not talking about the outdated strategy of “Corporate Social Responsibility” here, but an entirely new construct that puts community responsibility at the very core of the business model and not merely on the periphery.

Business reacts best when one of its own sets the example, and fortunately there are numerous business leaders and their companies developing a new model that, for wants of a better term, has been labeled, “shared value” (something we’ll explore in the next post).  Put in simple terms, it involves creating economic value by addressing the larger issues facing our respective communities.  It forms a new way of linking company success with social progress.  It’s not about charity; nor is it merely retooling businesses with the environment in mind (sustainability), but about creating economic success for all citizens.

Modern capitalism has clearly fumbled the ball when it comes to creating broader value, including the creation and maintaining of jobs, and the creation of community wealth and resources.  Such goals were always within its reach, but capitalism was too busy building quarterly success to notice the long-term damage it was creating.  As a result, trust and confidence even among customers is increasingly broken and an era of low expectations is upon us.

It’s becoming apparent that business and larger society are increasingly being pitted against one another, both in perception and reality.  Somehow we have bought into the idea that if companies were to invest in the broader goals of society that they then would have smaller profit margins.  And so many businesses remain hesitant to hire a larger share of physically or mentally challenged people, to invest in public infrastructure that they in fact would benefit from (roads, sewers, amenities), or to invest in the neighbourhoods in which they are situated because it is perceived that they wouldn’t make as much money.  We have arrived at a situation where businesses are excluded from broader societal responsibilities because it is perceived that their job is to create wealth and that’s it.  Business leaders themselves, trained over the last two decades, have come to believe that economic needs are all that define modern markets.  We are now realizing that financial markets must consider the broader social good if they are to establish and maintain a solid customer base and a loyalty that ensues over the years.

And so we have separated modern society into two groups – the growth and development of the economy (business and corporations) and the care of society’s social needs (governments, charities, and non-profits.)  This is an artificial division that also creates artificial solutions.

Shared value, as many business leaders now view it, isn’t about CEOs being engaged with community, or corporations donating to charity; it’s about expanding the total pool of economic and social value.  In other words, it’s places businesses closer to the centre of social good, with their main task being to expand economies in ways that are more inclusive than the present 99/1% model.  It’s all about companies looking at decisions and opportunities through the lens of shared community value and not just immediate gains.  An increasing number of corporate and societal leaders believe that such an approach will actually generate greater innovation and growth for business, and also greater benefits and resources for society. 

It is vital to note that much of this was common practice in previous eras, before deregulation, anti-labour jargon and practice, and an ever-descending cycle of corporate taxes had their devastating effect.  Yes, such changes meant that even more wealth could be generated, but the wealth was no longer distributed through broader society but to wealthy shareholders and corporate executives.  It has been an almost impossible task to organize citizens effectively enough to demand economic changes or to coax the corporate community to willingly come back to the table to create social good.

But a quick look at our communities now reveals that the great severance between business and social good is resulting in declining communities and the diminishing of hopes.  Time to change that, and some business leaders are urging that this be done sooner rather than later.

It was Einstein who once said, “Try not to become a person of success.  Rather become a person of value.”  The truly effective capitalism of the future can prove that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Idiots” – Community Engagement Podcast (25)

If citizens check out of the political process, then it becomes increasingly easy for governments to do as they wish.  We all know that.  And yet, with voter turnout declining in most democracies around the world, the democratic estate is becoming increasingly ineffective.  There’s an ancient name for people who don’t wish to take up their societal responsibilities and until they do, then our challenges will only get greater in equal measure to our disillusionment.  We can solve such difficulties, but it will require a new kind of citizenship.

Click on the audio button below to listen to the six-minute podcast.

Conscience and Cowardice

563030_468418673211852_987616969_n“Conscience and Cowardice,” said Oscar Wilde, emending Shakespeare, “are really the same things. Conscience is the trade-name of the firm.”  H. L. Mencken partially agreed, noting that nowhere in the English language is a term so rich in ironic ambiguities than “conscience”. 

It seems to me that modern citizens are caught in the ongoing tension between these two realities.  It has been a simple thing of late to pile on politicians for “not living up to their conscience” or “behaving as cowards by not standing up for the constituents.”  Who can argue?  The party system gave up attempting to inspire us a long time ago, opting instead to try to steal our vote by hammering the other parties.

But for the citizen these two terms equally apply – often two sides of the same coin.  Of course, when it’s “open season” on politicians for lacking something of a spine, it’s never a good thing to say the same of voters because, well, they’re voters and everything depends on getting their support.

By-elections have been viewed as occasions when citizens hold a disproportionate influence over the electoral process.  There’s no full national or provincial campaign going on which can swing local ridings one way or another.  Candidates, though often affected by the reputation of their parties, nevertheless can gain slightly higher profile in a by-election.  There is some wiggle room here for a candidate who wishes to place a personal stamp on a campaign by showing they can think independently or put forward some of their own ideas.  I won in a federal by-election in 2006 against a national party leader, former mayor, and a former city councilor.  All were good candidates.  I opted to talk about how cooperation with all the other parties would be essential to the success of any government (ironically, an odd idea at the time), and that overt partisanship was a curse to any kind of politics.  That would have been much harder to achieve in a full national campaign.

Conventional wisdom also says that by-elections form a kind of referendum on the current power structures of the day.  This is no doubt true, as citizens often use the opportunity to take out their frustrations.

But there is one aspect of by-elections that rarely gets mentioned, and that’s the fact that they are also referendums on citizens themselves.  If it’s true that citizens can squeeze out a bit more influence during by-elections, then one would think they would jump at the chance, not only to make a difference but to highlight their local issues at a time when other jurisdictions are watching.  Sadly, citizens often blow that opportunity by thinking such contests mean little anyway and don’t bother making their mark.

Which brings us back to the idea of conscience and cowardice.  We have a provincial by-election where I live in London today.  People have been hard on the politicians, saying that it’s the “same old, same old” and that they’re tired of the bickering.  As a direct witness to this campaign, I can attest that there is some validity in these claims.

Yet such things don’t represent a valid excuse for not voting, because a significant aspect of the viability of democracy is just in the showing up.  Let’s not confuse dramatics for conscience.  People can scream all they want about how angry or confused they are, but these are hardly protestations of conscience.  Acts of conscience require the courage to show up, despite the odds or feeling of ineffectiveness.  By-elections aren’t merely about them or our disappointment in the political process; they are about us, and our responsibilities.  Communities matter because we do – it’s true.  But so is the opposite: we are directly impacted, refined and made better by those places where we live.  To abandon that community at a time of political anger or feelings of emptiness is hardly an act of conscience, but of copping out.

If we keep giving up, then what do we leave to our children or grandchildren – a political estate even more destitute than today?  Gaylord Nelson put it this way: “The ultimate test of a person’s conscience may be his or her willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”

Political campaigns bring policies and parties to the dividing point and people have to choose. The same holds true for citizens.  To say you have the right to not show up today and vote is like saying you have the right to let your neighbor starve or your child to go without an education.  You can do that, but what it says about a person who will do that is too troubling to mention.  Today is choice day – not just for political parties but citizens.  Voters have two choices from which they must choose – conscience or cowardice.  A third “c” – copping out – isn’t on the list.

Our communities and our country are going through some of the hardest eras in years.  This is supposed to be one of those times when leadership from our political order emerges.  That remains to be seen.  It is time for citizens to encourage one another to grab the franchise and mold it into the politics of tomorrow we say we wish for.  Today isn’t so much about politicians – they’ll come and they’ll go.  It’s about us and about whether we have the courage of our convictions.

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