The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: voting

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.

Mayors: From Ceremony to Change

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IF THIS WERE 1918, 1935, OR EVEN 1960, the fact that we would be having a discussion about the importance of mayors would seem somewhat irrelevant. Even big city mayors in places like New York, Chicago, Toronto, or Montreal, though they acted tough, were easily overpowered by higher levels of government.

Those were the days when societal problems were huge – massive immigration, poverty, corruption, gangs, over crowding – and it was perceived that the big challenges required big governments. That wasn’t an incorrect assessment, as sweeping changes and resources were introduced from senior levels of government that gave the sense that society could overcome anything. There were railroads, an expanding network of airports, revamped harbours, social programs, corporate legislation, and even putting people into outer space. Cities benefitted from such initiatives because, well, cities were increasingly becoming the places where not only the most people lived, but which had the raw talent necessary to complete the great tasks.

Yet in all that great rush to progress, mayors merely cut the ceremonial ribbons and welcomed the political bigwigs who proceeded to make their vast announcements. The infrastructure projects were so huge (think the Hoover Dam or the St. Lawrence Seaway) that society benefitted from such an infusion of cash into public services for decades.

Until, that is, the senior levels of government lost their influence and began permitting the infrastructure to deteriorate year after year. Roads, bridges, railway lines, harbour bottoms, remote airstrips, social and education programs, post offices, government services – all these, following years of cutbacks, now stand on a precarious footing. Times had changed and the wealth generated by larger corporations was increasingly being located in other parts of the world than Canada. Now the grand visions that built nations are rarely housed in senior levels of government, and the citizenry has become more pessimistic and jaded as a result.

Things are now changing, and not so subtly. In the U.S., 75% of all Gross Domestic Product (GDP) now comes from municipalities. That provides cities with more leverage power. But there’s more. While higher political levels become increasingly paralyzed by partisanship and a commensurate loss of voter interest, local levels of politics are witnessing increasing activities of citizen engagement. The forsaking of domestic interests by senior powers in government has opened the door for opportunity at local levels that mayors can leverage into dynamic communities.

It’s not as though we aren’t witnessing this phenomena in real time. Not only are senior levels of politics fading (they could come back, but only with vision and courage), cities themselves are rapidly on their way to become the incubators of the democracy of tomorrow.

Despite the fact that federal governments still talk about things like climate change, immigrant settlement, infrastructure, trade, and social equity, it’s really cities that are combining their efforts to actually do something about such issues. And that’s because they can, even if in a more limited form. And they can do so because citizens themselves are connecting more with their local governments than any other level of politics or bureaucracy. This frequently provides mayors with cachet, provided they discover the ability to connect with the citizenry in more intimate and dynamic fashions.

In all matters of public life, cities are finding new areas of purpose and enlightenment, as citizens themselves move forward into positions of leadership and responsibility. Cities are the new breeding grounds for innovation and ideas – a resource mayors must tap into if they hope to grab second terms or succeed in pulling their municipalities out of decades of neglect. Mayors like that are shaking up the political firmament and they often build the very constituency that backs their efforts.

Politicians from senior levels still have to compete locally for votes, regardless of whether they operate in some distant parliament. For citizens and their political representatives to demand better is less of a risk now, since they are getting ever-smaller slices of the pie anyway.

As President Obama’s chief strategy advisor put it recently, “I think people desperately want leaders who will make cities work, and they will take them in whatever shapes, sizes and colours they come in.” And again we note the same truth in these words that we have been alluding to for months: it is most often citizens that want the leaders and not leaders so much valuing citizens that is the key democratic story of our times. And it just so happens that most citizens live in our cities.

 

Showing Up

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Last Saturday night I gave a speech, in which I endorsed Matt Brown’s candidacy for mayor of London, Ontario.  Later, a number of people asked if they could acquire a copy.  I had spoken spontaneously and had no written record, so I informed them that I would write down what I could recall of the speech and put it in my blog.  Below is the text of that speech.  Following all the research undertaken in recent weeks on the need for mayors with a new outlook on citizenship, I am only too happy to vote for Matt and the respect for the average citizen which I believe he will bring to politics.


 

I’m at this rally tonight for Matt Brown because I’m tired. For decades my wife, Jane, and I have fought for pro-democracy efforts across the globe and the results have been exciting. When South Sudan voted almost 99% in favour of directing its own path into the future, with 98% of those who were qualified to vote actually doing so, I sensed the democratic movement was finally beginning to connect.

But not here at home, where our voter turnout numbers have been steadily declining. When only 40% of local citizens turn up for a civic election, you sometimes wonder if your efforts are worth it.  Fatigue has set in as a result.

Yet I still dream about what our city can become when its citizens take part in its ownership. I want a city that’s as romantic as our marriage, that thrives with poetry, music, a rich cultural life, and the belief that we celebrate our collective life together because we’ve helped to build it.

I want a city whose potential matches that of my children. I can’t help it; I’m a Dad and I want them close by, in a city where they feel appreciated as they age, that provides meaningful employment, and engaged citizenry, and a politics that matters.

Tonight I came to endorse Matt Brown as the candidate I wish to support for mayor in this coming election. The reason? Because Matt’s vision includes you … and me. It’s not about some dated idea of leadership where the person in charge directs everything. Rather, it’s about the people in this room and out in our neighbourhoods. It’s about those that show up to care for their community. And it’s about Matt’s support for the London Plan. We helped to craft it and we deserve the chance to build it.

The most powerful office in all the land belongs to the individual citizen, not the mayor. Citizens possess the power to choose different political representatives and the legal system respects their full right to do so.

And so this community is ours – each of us can make it into what we dream – as you and Matt have done tonight by just showing up. Tonight I’m looking at you, where the true power lies in this city, and I’m backing the person who has known that from the beginning and is willing to govern with us.

A long time ago, a friend asked Thomas Aquinas, who was about to embark on a sea journey, where the safest place was on a ship. “In the harbour,” he responded with a tinge of joviality. But ships aren’t built for that. Their place is out on the waves, discovering new possibilities, learning new skills, and overcoming the fear of an unknown future. It’s not all about the captain, but his efforts together with the crew. That’s us, and I think it’s time to take London out of the harbour of security and set ways of doing things and into the challenges and opportunities ahead.

One person has repeatedly talked about that kind of shared future – a mayor and citizens together – and I think it’s time to take London out for a test drive with that spirit. It’s not about top-down or bottom-up; it’s about inside-out, together. I am honoured to announce my support for someone who believes in that vision wholeheartedly. Matt Brown will govern from among us. There is no better place for him, for us, or for our community.

Smart Sovereignty

 

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THOMAS JEFFERSON AND HIS PEERS STOOD ON THE VERGE of an entirely new historical era, but the ultimate question remained: were citizens up to the challenge of enhancing the democratic ideal and of intelligently voting for representatives who best housed their values?

Over 200 years later, we look back on those turbulent times and wonder what the big deal was. But that’s only because we have the benefit of hindsight. All that the Founding Fathers of the American Revolution saw when they looked back was a combination of wealth owners and a political elite that basically decided for everyone else how society would function. To decide upon a marked departure and simply “trust the people” approach was a gamble of truly historic proportions and there were no guarantees of success.

Yet Jefferson counted on one key ingredient if success was to be attained: knowledge. Here’s the way he put it at the time:

“If we leave the people in ignorance, old customs will return, and kings, priests and nobles will rise up among us. The diffusion of knowledge among the people is the only hope of success. Education alone will preserve the sovereignty of the people. Without it the very system designed to represent them would descend into yet another tyranny.”

Odd as it might seem to us in the 21st century, it wasn’t a given way back then. It was one of the reasons Jefferson himself felt so strongly about the need for public school systems at all levels. He believed that without watchful and knowledgeable citizens those in power would stray and government would no longer represent the will of the people. Worse, they wouldn’t even understand their people. He believed, and time would bear this out, that because people who held office were human, that they would be subject to influences that could tempt them away from the public good and towards special interests. He reserved his greatest concern for rabid partisanship, where people put their minds on hold for the sake of selective interest. Informed citizens guard against such opportunism.

Democracy fundamentally requires an informed electorate. The alternative to that is civic decay, which is what so many jurisdictions are experiencing at present. The Achilles Heel of democracy has always been that it doesn’t force citizens to participate. Worse still, it doesn’t force them to understand the very issues that directly affect their own status.

Much has been written lately, especially on social media, that by exercising the right not to vote people are actually making a choice. Fair enough for the short-term. The long-term consequences, however, will be the dumbing down of democracy itself and the hijacking of communities by those who managed to cobble together enough support to get elected when the majority of citizens refused to participate. In doing so, we begin the inevitable walk back to the Stone Age.

As historian, Daniel Boorstin, once put it: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” Exactly. The tendency to land on the support of a certain political party can be a galvanizing moment; it can also lead to the shutting out of our minds of other ideas necessary for good governance. This is where partisanship is its most dangerous. When handled well, it can provide a personal sense of shared conviction, a welcome, and an opportunity to fight for what one believes in. Handled poorly, there is the inevitable exclusiveness, the shutting out of others, and the demonizing of those that disagree. Sadly, at present, there is much more of the latter than the former.

To be meaningful, politics must call out our convictions. But to be effective it must draw us out of ourselves, beyond the present, and set our minds and intellect to a wider setting that extends farther than our private circumstances and personal gratification. Our communities are worth the best our minds have to offer, but to achieve that we must resist the lure of simple thinking and be called out to the realm of greater humanity.

The sovereignty of the electorate – citizens – over their rulers lies at the very core of the democratic experiment. To waste it on the need to always be right or to vilify others merely sells out that sovereignty to the professional manipulators in the political class. Our community requires more than that and we must be smart enough to realize it.

Slap-In-The-Face Democracy

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LAST WEEK I WROTE a Huffington Post piece on the new electoral reform legislation rammed through the House of Commons in Ottawa and how it undercut the very kind of democratic reform people say they seek.  Many of those responding stated that this is the kind of political manipulation that turns them off of politics altogether and then closed by saying they wouldn’t be voting in the next election – something which, ironically, Canada’s Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, noted when he publicly stated that such legislation could result in “persistent and declining voter turnout.”

Countering Mayrand’s warning, Minister Pierre Poilievre said he believed that it was political candidates that would drive up voter turnout, not some government department.  The problem with that, naturally, is that most Canadians hardly know about Elections Canada, but they are well aware of how the present listing of politicians carry some of the greatest blame for the decline of democracy in the country.

There are some necessary steps within the legislation that carried some merit, but it was the overriding sense of government arrogance in pushing through the undermining reforms with just a few hours of debate that caused the majority of observers to conclude that this law to refine electoral practice was, in fact, killing it.

All this is taking place at a time when many municipalities are gearing up for local elections.  Many engaged citizens are desperately seeking political leadership that can turn their cities and regions around.  The trouble is that many are undertaking such needed actions while at the same time ignoring what the federal government is doing in undermining overall democracy itself.  These two jurisdictions are linked and to ignore the national dimension is to undermine local realities.  In a very real way, the fate of cities is dependent on the powers of the more senior political jurisdictions, and any attempt to lower voter turnout out federally will result in even less interest in resourcing local communities.

All this is just another way of saying that candidates running locally would do well to speak out on any issue that would undermine Canadian democracy and citizen engagement in any jurisdiction.  Roads, highways, public transportation, waterways, security, research, environmental protection, financial regulations, international impacts – these and many other living realities are often more dependent on the interests and investments of the senior governments than most communities imagine.  Any effort federally, therefore, to distance the democratic experiment even farther from citizens in general could result in further abandonment of those places in which we live.

We shouldn’t downplay this reality.  Local economist, Mike Moffatt, of the Ivey Business School, has repeatedly and effectively pointed out that federal investment in the southwestern Ontario region has consistently fallen behind that of other regions – something that leaves cities like London with ever fewer resources with which to innovate itself out of difficult economic times.  There is a great need for municipalities  to gain more independence from senior levels of government specifically because, with 80% of our population living in cities, they deserve more right to self-direction and less political manipulation than they’re getting.

There are numerous difficulties with our political realities at the moment, not the least of which is voter apathy.  Advocates want all kinds of reform, but this current legislation isn’t what they were striving for.  Voters have to be motivated to go to the polls.  Why, then, would a federal government introduce a new law that would effectively put an end to Election’s Canada’s participation in outreach programs for the younger generation.  As Mayrand, concerned over this development, put it: “I don’t think it reflects a model democracy that Canadians’ aspire to.”

Mayrand believed instead that the bill should have put forward legislation that would supply the chief electoral officer with the authority to compel political parties and their riding associations to provide Elections Canada with financial documentation to support their financial returns, believing it would make it far easier to follow the money in the system.  But then again, Mayrand was never consulted on the bill because it’s chief purpose was not to provide more clarity for the citizen/voter but more smokescreen for political incumbents.  Or, as the Winnipeg Free Press noted, “the new election bill helps the Tories exclusively.”  Even one comment in the Globe and Mail helped to put it in perspective: “What’s the purpose of this new legislation?  To save us from our democracy, of course.”

I fall back to a quote from my Huffington Post piece:

The government is, in reality, confronting us as citizens and saying: ‘Look we know you believe in the veterans and the practice of proper compensation for their service.  And we’re aware that you want some kind of independent arbitrator for elections and democracy.  But we are taking these actions because we believe that, despite all that you say, you don’t care enough to take it out on us.  We’ll get away with it and you’ll just move on.’

This is a slap in the face of every citizen in this country, but some people in power are banking on the hunch that we’ll just shrug and walk away.  If they turn out to be right, then soldiers and electoral officers alike are going to start wondering what kind of democracy they were protecting anyway”.

This is serious stuff.  If we hope to reform our democratic state in order to make it more responsive to citizens, especially in our local communities, how will that be accomplished when the federal level is removing the course of politics even farther away from us and those places in which we live?

Note:  The Parallel Parliament Blog Posts 2013 ebook is now available for the iPad for free download at the iBooks store here.

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