Saturday, May 10, 2014

Party discipline in pursuit of power versus the public good

Justin Trudeau's decision this week to screen potential candidates for the Liberal party by demanding they adopt a "pro choice" stance on abortion raises many questions.
First, it questions whether or not Trudeau is confident in the Liberal Party's commitment to a 2012 policy decision to make it a pro-choice party, given that there are sitting members whose personal conviction is "pro-life" and not "pro-choice". There is no pending vote on the question likely to come before parliament, however, and a woman's access to therapeutic abortion in all stages of a pregnancy is fairly well assured across the country through a combination of public opinion and legal and government decisions and omissions of decisions.
So party "purity" and the option to present to voters a potential government that has declared its support for a woman's right to choose what happens to her body, in addition to the "party-purity" that the leader has the right to make absolute decisions regarding how the party will operate on difficult moral questions seem to be at the heart of the matter.
And so there are really two major questions emerging from this surprise decision.
First, is it wise for a political leader of any stripe to declare party policy, based on "pursuit-of-power" needs, even though historically this matter has been one of conscience, and open to a free vote without the restrictions of party discipline? Is Canada now at the stage in our political development where matters that were once considered too important to be "ruled" by party 'whipping' (in parliamentary terms) have become the exclusive purview of the political class, its leaders and its insiders?
While the writer has declared, many times, in this space, support for a woman's right to choose, this space has also sought space for diversity, for tolerance of diversity and for a tolerance for ambiguity that lies at the heart of generating space and gas in the body politic's 'shock-absorbers'. Not governments, nor religious institutions nor social institutions, nor schools nor colleges nor universities... none of these social organs should be advocating for an absolute position on any single issue. In fact, it is the pursuit of absolutist positions that lies at the heart of much of the conflict in the public discourse and conflict.
Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, in his acceptance speech at the Republican national convention, once declared, "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." Is Trudeau's declaration worthy of being considered "extremism" or is it merely one neophyte party leader's attempt to gain control of his right flank internally, and "market" his party to the voter as a unified "brand"?
To Roman Catholics, and traditionally the Liberal Party has been and been seen to be the party to which most Roman Catholics gravitated, the Trudeau announcement has already provoked considerable protest, erupting in demonstrations on parliament hill only one day after its release. Trudeau's attempt to appear more inclusive, however, is fraught with the grafted perception that his perception of the issue as "settled" renders him naïve, simplistic and reductionistic, not to mention outright unacceptable to many hard-line Catholics, including the hierarchy.
If his decision is one that seeks to extricate the party from religious influence, and can and does succeed even to a limited degree, that would be a result worthy of the effort. However, rather than 'let sleeping dogs lie,' Trudeau may have, ironically and perhaps even tragically given rise to all of the voices in all of the political parties who seek to put an end to "state supported" abortions in Canada, through some combined initiative that crosses party lines, or some legal process that comes before the Supreme Court and somehow reverses the current status of the issue.
It is the question of the role of religion, formal religion, represented by specific faith communities on government policy that has raised its head in so many cases and places over the last decade plus. Extremists, religious zealots spring from all regions of this country, as well as from all countries on the globe. Their zealotry is often not restricted to terrorism and murder but includes many examples of exclusion and isolation and alienation and various forms of "gate-keeping" designed to preserve the "purity" of the faith, more literally, protect the faith dogma, as if that dogma represented the word of God. And for many of those zealots, it does.
Dogma, those declarations of belief that incorporate the application of belief to life decisions, especially around moral choices, has filtered down through the centuries from the pens and the pulpits of many mostly men. And, of course, in the pursuit of its preservation and protection, elaborate institutional 'extremes' have been designed and implemented, including in the Roman Catholic church the "Congregation of the Faith" in the Vatican. It is highly unlikely that Trudeau's single declaration will be more than an irritant to that "establishment" however strong his motive to separate his party from the formal and informal influence of the church.
And from a narrow 'vote-getting' proposition, with the NDP firmly committed to the "pro-choice" agenda, not from its leader's edict but from long-standing debates and decisions at the grass roots, it could be that the new home for "pro-life" voters will be the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper.
Sadly, Trudeau could have, in a single press statement, done more than all of the forthcoming advertising his party will underwrite, to re-elect the Harper gang. This issue does still have "legs" and tentacles that reach into the most private reflections of thousands of Canadians.
On another level, in attempting to project "authenticity" of the political party, Trudeau has raised the spectre that in order to "comply" with party discipline, individuals will respond to questions on "pro-choice" matters put by the party, in a way designed to meet the "party" litmus test, while continuing to maintain, in their private lives, a "pro-life" position in their spiritual and religious life. And that seeps deeply into the kind of culture and nation that permits and condones such hypocrisy.
We all know that "trust" is the currency of all relationships; and that politics is the public stage for the enactment of that exchange. To the degree that we trust our political representatives, to that degree they "earn" our votes". It was Andrea Horwath, the Ontario NDP leader, who declared that she did not "trust" the Liberals to enact their budget proposals and so she had to vote against the budget, bringing down the minority Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne/Dalton McGuinty.
“There’s a real danger here for Andrea Horwath that we’re going to enter into an election that will be highly polarized,” said Bryan Evans, a professor of politics at Ryerson University who studies the labour movement in Canada. “It could very well be that Andrea Horwath has committed the NDP to a kind of self-destruction” in which the party will be “squeezed” between two completely different visions unless it can differentiate itself greatly from the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives.
(By Sarah Boesveld, Andrea Horwath’s Waterloo? National Post, May 2, 2014)
By analogy, given that politics is one of the least "nuanced" of human endeavours, Trudeau may similarly have given Harper and his muzzled back-benchers enough new "conservative votes" (pro-life votes) to return to power, in a political culture that is equally polarized across the country.
Throwing Harper out in 2015, considered in this space a national cleansing, long overdue and long sought by millions of Canadians, will not result through a divided centre-left voting block. And Trudeau, should he really be committed to defeating Harper, might use the considerable public resonance of his and his family's persona, to form a coalition with the NDP, inspite of Michael Ignatieff's "There is only a red door and a blue door!" dictum when a formal coalition to bring the Harper government down dissipated. (The quote comes from Thomas Mulcair's lecture at Queen's University just a few days ago.)
Short-sighted, cryptic and headline-grabbing comments, such as the one Trudeau dropped on abortion, are not the sign of a seasoned political veteran, and while everyone has a learning curve, "on-the-job training" is not likely something Canadians are prepared to vote for in the election of 2015.
There is a legitimate and growing public voice being heard on the need to throw the "political class" out of power, given the nefarious and incestuous enmeshment of political operatives on the right and the left  to both big money and the support of the status quo. Trudeau's comment, while not likely intended to grow such voices and perceptions, could, nevertheless, generate more scepticism about the people from whom Canadian voters have to choose as their next leader. And that would hurt the political process, not only the Trudeau Liberals.

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