Christopher Wilson & Assoc.

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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Wanted: New Political Party?

So here we go again. For the fourth time in seven years we’re going back to the polls to elect a ‘new’ New Government of Canada. Excited?

The Government was defeated on an opposition motion of apparent principle that found it in contempt of Parliament. It lost the vote because the Government’s budget buy-off of the NDP wasn’t large enough. The NDP was a bit like the hooker claiming insult by an offer of $50 and saying, “do you think I’m a whore?” To which her potential client says, “We’ve already established that. Now we’re just negotiating on price.” It was a wonderful start to the silly season and a fitting end to one of Canada’s least remarkable and least productive Parliamentary sessions.

A fitting charge against the Government might have been its stunning ineffectiveness in terms of its ability to get Bills passed into legislation. Since 2006, when the Harper Government took power, only 42% of the bills introduced, 117 of 279, have been passed compared to Lester Pearson’s minority government which successfully passed 85% of its legislative agenda. A lot of that has to do with the Government’s political tactics including prorogation, fewer days in which Parliament sits, the poisonous partisanship, the subversion of the committee process, and its obsession with secrecy and information control. But even then, it is likely we’ll hear all sorts of criticism in the next six weeks of much of the legislation that was passed, despite the support it received from opposition parties to pass it. The level of duplicity present on all sides is staggering.

There has been widespread discussion of late of the dysfunction of Parliament. Some commentators like Macleans’ Andrew Coyne have floated the idea of a new political party that draws from the base of both conservatives and liberals. However, it is not a new party that is needed but a new political culture and a new organizing metaphor for governing this country. The Canadian Westminster system has outlived its usefulness. It’s way past its ‘best before date’, it’s in urgent need of replacement and it’s at serious risk of becoming a cancerous burden on Canadian democracy.

What should be obvious to all is that successive governments (both Liberal and Conservative) have felt less and less compulsion to represent all Canadians. They are increasingly content to represent small slices of the Canadian population and to cherry pick which ones as it suits them. I overheard one senior political operative exclaiming this past summer, his party is confident that they will receive support from at least 30% of the voting public (that’s roughly 18% of Canadians) on any given issue. As for the rest of Canadians – the other 82% -- they don’t really care. Their allegiance is to their supporters, period.

To even the casual observer Canada is a place of many diverse communities – urban and rural; westerners and east-coasters; French and English; rich and poor; aboriginal and non-aboriginal; immigrant and non-immigrant; young and old; gay and straight, religious and non-religious; etc.

Canada works because we are this diverse mix. Canada works because we all don’t think the same way or believe the same things. We are what Joe Clark long ago called a “community of communities”. This feeds our innovativeness, our adaptiveness, our sense of security and our rich sense of belonging. It also supports our sense of equity and fair play. Canada works because Canadians have largely chosen to be accommodating to each other’s differences. It has not worked by making us all the same. In full disclosure, however, I do not mean to equate this with the perverted notion of multiculturalism in common currency that decries the possibility of a Canadian culture and values in favour of the values of any non-Canadian culture.

That aside, I find it highly offensive when I see our governments and political parties trying to pit one group against another in their hopes of riding on the coattails of the largest minority or loudest interest group. Pearson’s Parliamentary success was based on his ability to achieve a large measure of consensus if not agreement.

In my humble opinion, elected governments are meant to represent all of us. They should not be permitted to pick and choose who they represent. Their legitimacy stems not from the meager 20% of the population that may have made an effort to vote for them, but from their ability to represent the interests of the whole population. This has its basis in the very formation of Canada which was not the result of solitary individuals or single groups but the consequence of what was done together. Canada was formed by large groups reaching out across the barriers which divided them – French-English, Protestant-Catholic, and East-West. Forgoing this characteristic, undermines the very authority of government and the willingness of citizens to follow the rules.

Unlike the democratic sham into which it has deteriorated, Parliament could be a wonderful space to encourage multi-party dialogue and learning to better represent the many facets of our Canadian-ness. Yet Parliament has been continuously diminished for the last half century -- its very role and relevance now become the subject of existential debate.

In the place of multilogue, the hucksters and spin-masters have asserted that only one view is possible, their view, and that Canadian-ness is somehow a one-dimensional phenomenon. In a very Orwellian way, every Canadian must look, think, speak and act like them. All others (amounting to 70-80% of the population) by implication are classified and treated as enemies, subject to whatever legal abuse as can be devised. Over time these anti-democrats have been stripping us of the skills and capacity for sustaining the greater Canadian commonwealth and pitting us against each other in endless rounds of fruitless competition.

Our legacy Westminster system has as its most basic tenet that someone is ‘in charge’. But if ever there was a place on earth that demanded a system of distributed, poly-centric it is Canada. What Canada needs is not another political party playing the same old games of rational self interest, what we need are parties (the current ones are quite sufficient) willing to play a different, more collaborative game.

To achieve this would require a willingness to embrace the diversity represented in Parliament and to rethink fundamentally the appropriateness of our top-down, adversarial Westminster system (if there truly was ever a time appropriate for it). In its place is needed a more partnership form of governance, one that seeks to harness our differences not eliminate them. We need facilitators of cooperation not commanders or leaders. We need those who can generate a sense of shared belonging and ownership both in and out of the House. We need those who can help us articulate a common possibility towards which we can all collectively live into. We need those willing to listen, to learn and to teach. We need those who will not presume to be ‘in charge’, or assume that success at governing is merely a product of political gamesmanship. We don’t need those who make fraudulent promises or try to bribe us with our own money but people who can take Canadians on a journey that never ends.

Don’t expect progress on this front from any of the current crop of so called ‘leaders’. My hope is that Canadian collective consciousness will mature sufficiently so that one day we will simply wake up and sweep away the self-serving, old guard, even as it is being swept away in the Middle East, reclaiming the collective ownership to our own governance in the process.

In the current election, there are serious issues to discuss with little hope of an adult conversation -- health care, two wars, national productivity, decaying infrastructure, climate change, energy sustainability, and a new risk of an economic hollowing out. We need all of our human and physical resources to tackle these challenges together. But if insanity is defined as doing the same things and expecting different outcomes, then what we may really need is something to shake us out of our collective dementia.

Saturday, March 05, 2011


On Friday February 18th Aaron Wherry wrote in Macleans about the sham the House of Commons has become. While observing the largely empty Chamber pass perfunctory law, Wherry reflected that “to witness such a moment is to see the House of Commons at both its most serious and least relevant, to understand the gravity of the institution and the sense of neglect that hangs over its proceedings. Indeed, of all the questions the House of Commons must consider on a daily basis, there is one that underlies everything: does this place still matter?”

I found the article quite a sad but unsurprising illustration of key issues related to a much needed rethink of the outdated form of Westminster democracy we use in Canada. Issues such as the irrelevance of MPs; the respect for citizens; the lack of learning; the superficiality of political debate; and the absence of a sense of community are all illustrated by this story.

As Jeff Simpson once observed, we have allowed our elected leaders to become “friendly dictators”. The people we elect to Parliament no longer represent us to government but they represent the government to us. Since the time of Trudeau, the House of Commons has been stripped of its primary authority for approving annual budgets by the imposition of time limits for debate and the process of ‘deeming’ budgets to ensure their approval should debate take too long. The practice of padding the budget with all sorts of extraneous legislation in omnibus bills demonstrates a further erosion of respect for Parliament and its authority. Governments no longer seem capable of representing even a majority of Canadians, let alone Canada as a whole. They are content to merely represent the largest special interest group. We have allowed Parliament to drift into irrelevancy at just the time when we need it the most as the country’s foremost forum for public dialogue.

For you see, the House is in decline because no one cares to listen any more. Wherry pointed out that “attendance is not necessary to follow what is said”. But attendance is not necessary because no one is paying attention to what is said -- in Parliament, or for that matter, elsewhere. No one really wants to listen to anything anybody else is saying. The House is therefore simply reflecting a major culture shift that has occurred in Canadian society in the last decades.

A generation ago, Joe Clark pitched Canada as a “community of communities”. For a while this notion even seemed like it actually represented Canadians and where they wanted to go. Today, however, we are a collection of competing communities with apparently fewer and fewer links between us. We are strangers today when we used to be neighbours. We behave as if we have nothing to learn from anyone else. We behave as if we didn’t depend on anyone else. We exhibit no shared purpose. Our relationship to others is basically self-serving -- to gain as much as we can from them with minimum cost to ourselves.

On the other hand, a community is by definition a group of different people, with different knowledge, different skills and different perspectives. These differences are the community’s strength. Its recognition of everyone’s inter-dependence is the basis of its security, its innovativeness and its resilience. But community is based on the pooling of each others resources and knowledge together with the learning made possible by the ‘mashup’ of differing views. The bedrock foundation of community remains, however, the ability to listen to one another honestly in an environment of mutual respect and trust.

Canadians have largely forgotten this, so why should it be such a surprise that the members of the House of Commons behave in much the same way. Instead of celebrating its differences, the House tries to eliminate them -- either through the force of party discipline or by the force of ridicule. There is only one possible view – the party leader’s – and all others must be stamped out. Unfortunately such an approach must lead politically to the same inevitable outcome as a lack of diversity does in any ecological system – extinction! If one wants an quick rationale for the public’s disengagement with politics, I would say it’s because they can no longer see themselves reflected in the few narrow, superficial and often irrelevant (to them) perspectives being offered.

Parliament is supposed to be the place where our most important conversations take place. It is supposed to be where all Canadian communities can be represented as a single community to hammer out their shared purpose and common agenda.

It is understandable that the House has declined as the premier place to get a message out to the public as more communication alternatives became available. And with more and more channels available through social media, we can expect further decline in the House’s capacity for information ‘push’. However, this is only a partial explanation for the House’s decline.

More importantly, the House has traditionally been Canada’s foremost forum for Canadians to listen to each others' stories and to encourage their conversation together. It was in fact Canada’s foremost social learning vehicle. But while the potential for this type of learning remains with Parliament -- few bother to make use of it because no one cares to listen any more. Why listen when you already know everything? You already have all the answers you need. The only goal is to dominate the group. Such shallow conceit is not be the basis of community. It is on the contrary the basis of its erosion.

The problem of Parliament is not just a matter of MPs feeling impotent or not caring enough to do something about it, as Paul Dewar suggested. It’s about Canadians relinquishing their ownership in Canadian democracy. We have so delegated our democratic obligations that we assume listening is someone else’s job. We want our entitlements and let someone else take care of the rest. And for all our talk about multiculturalism, we are afraid of diversity; terrified of opening up to someone who doesn’t think like we do; fearful of entertaining the thought that someone else’s perspective might be as valid as our own.

We are like the six blind men and the elephant, where each man argues for a view based on incomplete knowledge. One feels the elephant’s tail and claims it’s a pig. Another feels the leg and says it’s a tree. A third feels the elephant’s side and believes it’s a wall. The fourth feels the trunk and warns it’s a snake. The fifth feels the elephant’s ear and says it’s a fan. The last feels the tusk and believes it’s a spear.

Which of them is correct? The obvious answer is, of course, none of them. But such an answer is only possible from the perspective of seeing the whole picture. But from the different perspectives of men whose senses are not providing them with complete information, they are all correct -- at least partially.

A better question than “who’s right?” is, “what can be a pig, a tree, a wall, a fan, a spear and a snake all at the same time?” What reality is it that allows all six blind men to be correct? This is the perennial challenge for our Canadian community, as much as it has traditionally been for the House. Of course, the only way an accurate and complete picture can emerge is through conversation with one another and through the confidence in each others' claims.

In truth, we elect 308 men and women to the House of Commons, all of whom are partially blind in one way or another. They know some things but not everything. While their collective strength and wisdom (and Canada’s) may be great, it rests on the ability to reconcile the differing truths which they collectively embody. If they can’t listen they can’t learn. If they can’t learn they will continue fighting the same old battles and making the same old mistakes. Unfortunately we don’t have a tin-pot bogeyman to throw out like Egypt and Libya. Our bogeyman is ourselves.

If we won’t spend the time to listen to each other, then how can we expect our elected representatives to do differently?