Trust in politicians is at an all time low. Our cynical side doesn’t find it difficult to believe that even those who enter public life with the best of intentions will eventually be warped by a system overcome by special interests, personal gain and lack of accountability.
Scandals such as the SNC Lavalin controversy only confirm our worst suspicions. Back in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s message hit all the right notes, an upbeat narrative of a new way of doing politics. After a decade of suffocating information control under Stephen Harper, Canadians were ready for a change to more open and transparent leadership.
My sense is that Trudeau’s lofty rhetoric wasn’t just puffery, at least not at first. I recall seeing a picture of him and his wife doing a little dance groove backstage at a campaign event. It may have been staged but it came across as genuine, as a snapshot of someone comfortable in his own skin and willing to be authentic in public.
The results that rolled in on election night confirmed that the country was ready for a shot of optimism rather than the negative drumbeat that modern elections too often succumb to. Were we gullible? Should we have expected the inevitable backroom dealing and end runs around the firewalls designed to prevent political interference in our justice system?
According to recent surveys that put the public trust in politicians’ ethics at a dismal 13%, the people we elect to govern us either are truly the bottom of the barrel or they’ve got a huge perception problem. Unless it’s true that politics attracts a hugely disproportionate number of scoundrels and miscreants, our distrust of all things political would be better directed at the bigger picture.
Our current electoral system, commonly known as first past the post, has allowed majority rule by a minority of voters for far too long. Trudeau promised that 2015 would be the last election under that outdated system but caved to pressure from Liberals and Conservatives who benefit hugely from keeping it as is. A shift to more proportional representation in our House of Commons (as well as our provincial legislatures) would go a long way toward making sure everyone’s vote is equally represented.
Backbench MP’s, the ones who haven’t been given a cabinet position or another specific role, are often portrayed as clapping trained seals. We can be forgiven for thinking that, once elected, these folks are no more than bums in the seats, taking direction from the leader and from shadowy, unelected staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office.
In political-speak, that’s known as whipping the vote and the person responsible for making sure that MP’s toe the party line is called the Party Whip. Talk about control issues! Those of us who perhaps naively wish that we elected our MP to be our voice to Ottawa might suspect it’s really the other way around.
Some would argue that any other approach would mean the government would be constantly at the mercy of potential insurrections by disgruntled maverick backbenchers. Let me see if I understand that logic. Your party’s MP’s were elected to deliver on a, hopefully, specific and detailed platform. You then propose legislation that presumably went through numerous drafts in committee to make sure the bill was effective, constitutional, thorough and met your platform goals. And yet, you feel the need to ‘whip’ your MP’s to vote for your bill because too many of them might not support it? Sounds to me like your drafting process missed a step –buy-in from MP’s in your own party.
And if you still couldn’t get that buy-in from some of your own MP’s, perhaps you could consider appealing to folks across the aisle – you know, opposition MP’s who, if they also weren’t being whipped to vote against every bill your government was proposing, might actually support some of yours. It happens more frequently when we have a minority government. Our healthcare bill was an outcome of that sort of process.
Ah, but that’s pie in the sky, the pessimistic 87% of Canadians might say. It’ll never change since it has ever been thus. Not so. Today’s adversarial politics is a modern phenomenon and the tribal impulses that have driven it in that direction can be directly linked to the snowballing inequality in our societies. That inequality is a direct result of an economic system known generally as neoliberalism.
That soul-destroying ideology has brought us to this crucial point in history where the wealth gap has become a Grand Canyon and climate change on steroids leaves us scrambling to head off its most nightmarish scenarios. In a nutshell, neoliberalism is the religion of deregulation, infinite growth, self-correcting markets, and the transfer of assets from public to private sector. As I write this, it’s becoming clear to me that I’ll have to dedicate a future column or two to this topic alone.
Our two major political parties are in thrall to neoliberal thought and we can’t expect them to purge this sort of ingrained thinking overnight. In the meantime, the antidote is to elect MP’s who subscribe to politics as a coming together of people with a wide range of views, recognizing that to make a country work, we need to have respectful dialogue that crosses ideology and personality. The economy should work for the greatest good of the largest number of people and it falls far short of that goal in its current state.
I have stepped up to be the federal Green Party candidate in Brandon-Souris for this fall’s election. This decision certainly wasn’t driven by a desire to be reviled by 87% of Canadians; I can think of better and less time-consuming ways to be unpopular.
Researching and writing about politics for a few years now has made me realize how necessary it is for us to pay attention to the health of our democracy. There’s no rule of the universe that says we should always have a say in how we are governed. I can think of plenty of folks who are more qualified to be an MP for our riding but they are busy making a difference in other areas of life.
A popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. I’m putting myself forward as a candidate for a party that offers an antidote to politics as usual. I sincerely hope that spending the next months connecting with as many of the residents of this part of Manitoba as possible will, in some small way, begin to rebuild the trust in those who run for elected office. The job of Member of Parliament should be a badge of honour and reflect the stamp of approval of the people who voted for that person to be their voice at our country’s kitchen table.