Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"discussitis interminabilis" and other paralyses of Canadian governance

By Preston Manning, Globe and Mail, February 28, 2012
Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
We Canadians have many virtues, but we also have our faults. One of the most worrisome is our growing tendency to substitute discussion for action on key public issues such as health-care reform, productivity improvement and energy policy.

We increasingly seem to think that a major issue is being “dealt with” when someone writes a paper, article, report or book about it. Further “progress” is then measured by the extent to which the paper, article, report or book has been peer-reviewed, conferenced, editorialized, blogged and tweeted, with the original discussants linked in and befriended by an ever-growing number of fellow discussants via the Internet.
But who’s going to do something about what’s being discussed or proposed? Where’s the acceptance of responsibility to act on what has been proposed and discussed? Where’s the implementation plan and to-do list that translates interest, concern and discussion into actions that achieve results?
Never would I have anticipated including a quote from this source, Mr. Manning, on this blog, so far apart are we in our political views. However, the former leader of the Reform party hits the nail straight on the head on this issue.
Politics in Canada is not only infected with the disease Manning dubs, "discussitis interminabilis," but, as historian Arthur Lower wrote so many years ago, we "muddle" along in our politics, never really deciding anything. So when those two "traditions" are combined, we manage to change the faces of the people who sit in our parliament, and, to some extent we shift the em pha' sis that we place on issues; but really very little is accomplished.
Recently, I was asked to submit a "values" statement for a political organization, so I included several "action" steps simply because I believed that politics of all sides had forgotten that action was an integral part of the game. Immediately upon its receipt, my phone rang, wondering why the piece was so "long" since others had submitted their "statement of values" and they ran to one paragraph.
Of course, my piece was ridiculed because I did not "understand" that values did not include action.
However, my retort was that "action" as part of my "values" statement, and without action, the values meant nothing.
It was in 1979 that then N.D.P. leader Ed Broadbent moved a motion in the House of Commons to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. The bill received unanimous consent. That means that every single Member of Parliament voted "for" the bill. Today, in 2012, child poverty has not only not been eliminated, but it has grown exponentially and there are simply no consequences for that failure.
And that is only one of the examples of "good intentions" talked about, talked through, researched, and even voted upon, without a single act having been taken to follow up on the issue. Our history book, including our government's basements are clogged with Royal Commissions, most of which have never had a single recommendation acted upon. The "story" has simply faded from the front pages, and the politicians have simply moved on to other "hot button" issues with which they wish to become congruent, fearing a termination in their parliamentary tenure at the ballot box.
We have heard slogans about politics such as: politics is the art of compromise...and in the U.S. the gridlock has seen that bromide turn into frozen salt.
"Politics is the art of the possible," is another slogan used to describe politics but that seems more a contemptuous derision of the arena than an ideal, especially when what is possible is merely another committee meeting, and another press release, and another photo opportunity, or another trip abroad for some politician in another government plane.
"All politics is local" is usually used to mean that nothing of "national" or "international" interest or consequences means very much to the average voter, given that s/he is really concerned about his own back yard...like how much gas costs, or how high the tax bill is, or whether the Old Age Security pension will be withdrawn. This is another tightening of the noose around the political potentials, because the voters are both quick and loud in their resistance to change, and they have several routes to informing their MP's about that resistance.
Another reason that politics is about little more than "discussitis interminabilis" is that the media's having exposed the private lives of Members of Parliament, there are very few really outstanding individuals who wish to expose themselves to such depraved scrutiny. Consequently, mediocrity hangs like a cloud over the parliament, leaving the rest of the country wondering if and when anything really exciting and remarkable will happen, for us to cheer about.
We used to have serious debates about the future of the country, given Quebec's penchant for sovereignty; Harper virtually ignores Quebec, favouring instead, the voters and opinions of the "west".
We used to have debates over the constitution; that has been killed by the fatigue and the miniscule details into which those debates devolved, so no one wishes to bring up the subject.
We have had debates about the future of the environment; those have been etherized by the tsunami of corporatism that has taken over this government, one that is completely disinterested in global warming and climate change, preferring to serve as cheerleader for the tar sands oil project.
We used to have serious debates about the relationship between Canada and the aboriginal peoples, and that has been reduced to "we need a financial administrator" in Attawapiskat.
A terse one-line reductio ad absurdum is no substitute for a debate, a serious and public and open consideration of the implications, and the options available to any government on any important file.
So, for the benefit of the "media" we now have preparaed "talking points" issued by the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) to be memorized and regurgitated on television by the acolytes in the governing party, so that everyone is "kept on message"...and nothing falls amiss.
Yes, Mr. Manning, we do suffer, virtually from a faux government, given the many excuses for both serious consideration of issues and the need for real and sustainable and even supportable actions by our governments. Now, should you wish to discuss the direction and content of those actions, I would be more than pleased to debate them with you, since our agreement likely terminates on too much talk and too little action.

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