Friday, May 31, 2019

A modest memo to Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould

Modest memo to Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould:

As both of you have honestly and sincerely sought “comment” from “the people” as opposed to the political parties, this memo comes from an ordinary Canadian septuagenarian whose interest and participation in the public life of our country continue unabated, while many personal faculties begin to atrophy.

You are both at the zenith of your political influence, given the honourable and even sacrificial approach you have delivered on the matter of a Deferred Prosecution Agreement for SNC-Lavelin. Your protracted period of reflection on your continued participation in the public debates on the future of our country, however, seem to have brought forth a decision that puts the “perfect” as an impediment to the “good”.

You both want to “do politics differently” and that is a legitimate and widely shared political aspiration. You both want to see more collaboration, co-operation and balanced decision-making in the public interest, as compared with the highly fractious, ad hominum attacks, the iron-clad party discipline and ‘whipping’ of members’ votes, and you both bring professional academic qualifications, one in law another in medicine, to the public stage. Having started out your political lives “at the top of the political influence ladder” as federal cabinet ministers, however, you may have less than a complete grasp of the status, role and influence of “private, independent members of parliament”.

Set aside the issues around raising funds for campaign expenses, although hardly incidental to your potential electoral victories. Your envisioned future “outside” the structure of political parties, eliminates your access to the several, and also significant supports that attend and accompany the political party structure in our parliamentary system. For example, if and when the Green Party should attain official “party status,” public funds start to flow for staff, for research and also for others with whom you can share the responsibility for advocation of specific policy proposals. At the core of Green Party modus operandi, as I understand it, is the specific “concensus” approach to decision-making of which Ms Wilson-Raybould speaks so fervently, as rooted in indigenous foundations.

Political “lives,” unlike “the cat with nine lives” have a predictable and historic “term limit” not so much based on law as on voter support. Given a substantial and potential decade of political contribution (depending both on voter support and on a candidate’s life choices), your likely “term” in parliament could extend to the far end of the decade beginning in 2020. And in that time, the Canadian political “glacier” is unlikely to melt as quickly as the Arctic ice cap seems to be melting. For starters, sustainable, and significant political decisions to mediate what CBC and the Liberals are now agreed to calling the “climate crisis/emergency” (leaving off the “impact on women” codicil that Minister McKenna seeks to include) could well be the best Canadians can expect to be able to look back on in 2030. Your contribution to that existential-threatening file could (and would, it says here) be significantly enhanced through your membership in the Green Party.
Collaboration, compromise, concensus, and a feminist perspective are already embedded in the Green Party culture to which you were evidently invited to join. And while the Kinder-Morgan pipeline, a cornerstone of Liberal policy and commitment, a project you must have had to accept, if not wholly endorse, would have had to be reconciled with Green Party membership, and while joining the Green’s at this time would also have made it more troublesome to return to the Liberal fold, if and when the Prime Minister is no longer leader, your “voice” in both its substance and its reach, would have been more likely to penetrate the public consciousness given the propensity of the media to engage “party” spokespersons ahead of and in place of “private members”. Your capacity to shift that paradigm, in addition to the labour of shifting the national political paradigm, from hierarchical, party-driven-and-founded to the complexity (and the richness) of multiple voices, as you both seem to envision, will be limited at best, and at worse, perhaps even negligible.

The most prominent North American “independent” political actor, Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist by choice and by definition for the full length of his political life, including his term as Mayor of Burlington Vermont, has macheted his way through the political everglades of the American media, and Congress, to emerge in 2019 facing a phalanx of echoes, especially Elizabeth Warren, in his most recent campaign to win the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. Of course, the American political system and ethos is different from the Canadian system and ethos. The “star” meme (or archetype, or icon) “enjoys” a much higher “profile” in the public consciousness in the U.S. than it does in Canada. Sander’s political ideology has driven his every political utterance, vote and policy choice. By comparison, at this time, together your (Ms Philpott and Wilson-Raybould) political agenda reads as “process” over “policy” and process is a much more abstract and more difficult to “inculcate” in the public mind and consciousness (except for the penetration of gross ethic malfeasance) than the policy decisions which can be delineated, debated, compared and tweeked as the public becomes more and more familiar and either supportive or opposed to their import. Personal, private identity, too, is not nearly so relevant to the public discourse as are the political “positions” or policy preferences of the “players” unless or until a private indiscretion rises like escaping crude to the top of the “swamp” of the political theatre.

Furthermore, there is and will always be the tension between the abstraction of a “process” debate” on governance and a debate on policy. For example, the interest and discipline to investigate and to assess public policy is far less intense than the public interest in personalities and process, witness the numbers in the votes on proportional representation already completed, even though the measure has received considerable public debate, and considerable research, not to mention successful introduction and operation in other jurisdictions.

Each of you share and articulate your wish and goal to “listen” to the wishes, opinions, attitudes and preferences of your “constituents”. And while that is highly honourable, and even noble of purpose, those voices, depending on their “access” to your “ears” will emit louder and more penetrating sounds and influence, even if they will not command the power and influence of the mega-donors to national political campaigns.

And, having critically observed and evaluated urban politics at a northern Ontario city hall for a dozen years, I am more than conscious, and thereby highly sceptical, of the power and influence of private money on political decisions, even on issues like retail mall development in the local community. The manner and discipline by which you establish and maintain systems/processes/personnel to discern the “value” and “impact” of each voice seeking to intervene in your political decisions, should you become an independent member of parliament will more than determine your success in modelling this new paradigm in our national culture.

It is not that the “ideal” is unworthy of authentic aspiration. It is, however, begging for highly disciplined and rigorous boundaries, and supports in order to avoid or at least minimize the mere repetition of “local” politics on the national stage. Each of you must be conscious of how political actors are “manipulated” by forces that may or may not have a political party affiliation. Developers, for example, are not reputed to have undue political influence because they are innocent of the charge. Contract bids, in response to RFP’s, whether from city hall or Parliament Hill, magnetize actors and actions that seek their own self interest. And while as an independent, private member, the assumption “going in” is that because your’s is a lonely and sole vote, it is hardly worth spending motivational money to secure its being cast in the “right way” to appease larger, corporate interests.

The recent town hall in Grand Rapids, Michigan, held by Republican Congressman Justin Amash, on the issue of his advocacy for impeachment of the American president, found him uttering these words, when confronted with the challenge from an audience member to express the wishes of his voters: “ I am not elected merely to express the wishes of my voters, but I am expected to uphold the Constitution.” And while the last chapter of your respective political lives closed on the question of a matter of principal and law, those occasions are irregular, intermittent and unpredictable, especially when compared with the public exposure of specific public files and issues each of which beg for reflection by the political class.

Nevertheless, you will have to reconcile highly conflicted opinions of your neighbours, your local politicians, your local business operators, and your circle of influence, just as you have had to do up to now. Only, up to now, the party’s policy position provided guide-posts for your “talking points” and as independent members you will need to acquire and absorb much more research data on which to base your public statements on public policy, in your town halls. Your role as “listeners” will need to be balanced with your role as “leaders” and “innovators” and “trend-setters” with respect to policy and vision. And your focus on “process” will satisfy a segment of your voters; that segment, however, might well not include either the local media, nor the local coffee-shop conversations.

The public consciousness of the political process hardly holds politicians in high regard. One of the principle reasons for this shared gestalt of indictment of the political class is that the “herd” mentality of the party system has such a strong hold on the participants. On this cornerstone, you both have grounded your decision to run for a seat in parliament in October, 2019. The concomitant hollowness of the debate, from all sides, begs the interjection of much more nuanced, complex and visionary views, research and policy options than the elementary school-yard shouting match permits. However, supporting this “shouting match” is a public so disillusioned, and also so divided, and also so reductionistic and even simplistic in its political cognition, understanding and  tolerance of highly sophisticated, even if relevant and applicable, solutions to  public issues.

There can be no doubt about the capacity of each of you to evolve highly sophisticated, nuanced, practical and relevant policy options, irrespective of their potential colouration of a political party’s identity. And your ambition and vision to bridge the chasm between the political parties and their respective identities, however obscured and diffuse and even over-lapping they are, warrants considerable reflection by the local and national media, as well as by the leadership of the national political parties, and to be sure, the local electorate whose engagement, digestion and endorsement of various policy options will become somewhat more evident on the morning after the October vote.

It is the capacity of the political “establishment” including the national media, the political parties, the political leadership, and the national donors to open their eyes, their ears and most importantly their minds and attitudes to  what might become a duet of refreshing, if somewhat “LaMancha-esque” voices. Your injection of the archetype of the “artist” into what seems to be a highly corporate, self-interested, profit-driven (both cash and votes) and ultimately parched political landscape bodes ill should your voices be lost from that landscape.

And, to be sure, your decision to have joined the Green’s would not and could not have assured you or the nation of your continued participation and contribution to the serious needs of our people and our country. What is not debatable is that your passion, and your principled advocacy, your ethics and your willingness to undergo the rigours and the personal debasement of offering your name for re-election are commendable, honourable and worthy of emulation.

Too bad all of those platinum qualities that you bring to the table could not be an integral part of all political parties.


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