Fiddling While Rome Burns? Not so fast Mr. Martin

Lawrence Martin complains that Canadian political scientists are not speaking out on the malaise that affects our democracy (“Canadian Political Scholars Fiddle While Rome Burns”, Globe and Mail, June 4, 2013).  He quotes political scientists who share his lament for our profession.  It is true that as political science becomes more narrow, technical, and abstract it loses relevance to the practice of democratic politics.  But there are also powerful forces that push us in the direction of public engagement.

Like many political scientists, I am not happy with the state of parliamentary democracy in Canada today.  We all lament the excesses of party discipline, the toxic levels of partisanship, the media focus on negative attacks, and the failure of many parliamentarians to live up to the ideals of the institution they serve. But laments are not enough.

That is why UBC brought political scientists and practitioners together to create a Summer Institute for Future Legislators (watch a superb W5 documentary on our boot camp here).  We are actually training aspiring politicians in the art and craft of parliamentary practices. In developing this program we take inspiration from a series of books published by UBC press from the Canadian Democratic Audit (which Mr. Martin does not mention).  Indeed, we assign David Docherty’s book from that series, Legislatures.  We also draw on the work of Samara on the role of parliament, a project that mobilized the knowledge of many political scientists.

We agree with Samara’s main finding: we need to empower ordinary MPs.  For a constitution to work well, MPs must find their voice and reassert their authority – over the bureaucracy, over parties, and even, from time to time, over the Prime Minister’s office.  Brett Rathgeber is no maverick.  He is doing what MPs were elected to do.

Of course, as a political scientist I am under no illusions that my discipline can produce better legislators.  Aristotle famously said that politics is a practice, and practice demands experience.  Few political scientists have real world experience in politics.  No amount of peer reviewed research can replace the knowledge, experience, and judgment of an able practitioner.  That is why our summer institute seeks to bridge academic reflection and practical experience.  Preston Manning, Mike Harcourt, Anne McLellan and many others have volunteered their time to help us create a new generation of democratic leaders.

It is true that this takes the university into uncharted territory, and not all political scientists have an appetite for that challenge.  Some will continue to focus all their efforts on abstract research while leaving to others the task of translating their knowledge into practice.  But to suggest that we’re all fiddling while Rome burns is to miss at least part of the action.

Canadian democracy is not exactly in crisis, but our political institutions do need to be revitalized

From Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand’s Canada’s Democracy Week Blog.

Canadian democracy is not exactly in crisis, but our political institutions do need to be revitalized. Many people – particularly youth – no longer see politics as the critical arena for making change. Few of my students want to run for office, though many are public-spirited. They’d rather start a fair trade café, use social media to advance awareness of homelessness and environmental issues, or fundraise for research on cancer or MS. They have civic virtue, but politics is not their vocation.

Many good people are deterred from political participation by the disrepute into which politics has fallen. Scandals over expenses, toxic levels of partisanship, and the media emphasis on political theatrics over the prosaic grind of legislation give politicians a bad rap. Canadians reject the culture of entitlement, Question Period antics, bullying and infighting. That is why UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions created the first-ever Summer Institute for Future Legislators.

We began with the premise that universities can and should prepare people for public life. Not academic preparation but training and mentoring by practitioners who could help impart the skills and know-how to be effective as legislators. The Summer Institute was cross-partisan – we included practitioners and participants from all parties. The only requirement was an aspiration to participate in politics. We recruited over 50 men and women of all ages and backgrounds – from business, the media, students, First Nations, lawyers, civil servants – and put them through a kind of boot camp: four Saturday workshops followed by a model parliament in the Legislature in Victoria. Others participated for free online.

The boot camp not only inspired greater interest in politics as a career, it provided an exemplar of what democratic life could be. Rather than replicate parliamentary business as usual, our political wannabes raised the bar. They came away with a deeper appreciation of the demands of political life, yet were not deterred; it actually made them feel more confident that they knew what they were getting into. We saw how quickly group-think kicks in, as participants began to operate as teams, but also how effectively they were able to monitor and overcome the tendency to bully, grandstand or exclude. As a result, mock legislation was passed by broad majorities following impressive deliberations. A sense of accomplishment was palpable as we ended the sitting.

By preparing people for public life we can encourage more good people to enter politics, channel the civic virtue of some of our best citizens, and demonstrate that politics can be done differently. That is just one way to reconnect citizens with democracy.

Why is Obama consulting Congress on military strikes in Syria?

From the Strong Constitutions blog.

In relation to the separation of powers, the key phrase in Obama’s speech on Syria today was:

“That’s [to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike] my judgment as Commander-in-Chief. But I’m also the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.

This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the President, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.”

There are three possible explanations for this.

1. “The Iraq Syndrome.”  Like the Vietnam syndrome before it, the Iraq syndrome means we’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends.  The experience with Iraq has made it impossible to sell military action without major public diplomacy.

2. “Blood Pact.”  Obama needs to involve both his own party and Republicans in complicity with actions he knows will neither be popular nor easy.

3. “He is a true constitutionalist.”  Obama gets that countries are stronger when they use the separation of powers to coordinate the branches of government to act energetically while upholding the rule of law.

The problem with (1) is that, for all the reasons Obama has outlined, this is not at all like Iraq in 2003.  There is no question that WMDs have been used, and the “war” on terror is not being used as a pretext to do what the President has already decided to do.

As for argument (3), Obama certainly has given evidence of wanting to limit the war-making powers of the President.  I don’t doubt that his sentiments are sincere. But so far his efforts have been extremely tepid.  Consider his campaign of drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen.

Argument (2) seems most persuasive at this point.  Obama knows that military action in Syria is unpopular and will be used against him.  Why should he take the fall alone?

That said, especially coming on the heels of the vote in the UK parliament against British involvement in strikes on Syria, it is great to see deliberative institutions being put to work.  Let’s hope some precedents are being set.


UBC boot camp for politicians kicks off

Over 50 people gathered at the Liu Institute on Saturday, June 15, to kick off UBC’s first ever boot camp for politicians. The event was a great launch to the Summer Institute for Future Legislators.

Folks started arriving even before we could get the building open at 8:30 am to begin registration. Even as we mingled over muffins and coffee we could feel a good vibe in the group. One of our participants, Victor Guerin, from the Musqueam First Nation, welcomed us with moving words. I made a few remarks, followed by Mike Harcourt, and we then did introductions all around. This gave us a sense of the range and diversity of the group. Mike asked how many people aspired to federal, provincial and local office, and it was immediately clear that most are looking at running locally and provincially. We formed three political parties (government, official opposition, and third parties), whose first task was to come up with names. The Action Party, Justice League, and Canadian Party for Change were chosen. A welcoming video from Preston Manning was then shown, followed by a discussion of the program and the expectations of the participants.

At lunch CTV’s Jon Woodward showed up with a camera and began to interview some of the participants for a W5 documentary. Jon will follow them over the coming weeks to document how their thinking may evolve and what they take away from the experience. After lunch Stockwell Day gave a terrific talk about his experiences in the House of Commons – everything from question period to handling the media to personal challenges. He was lively and entertaining and offered some wise words of advice.

Gerry Baier introduces Stockwell Day
I appreciated his Tweet: “Totally impressed with turnout and quality of those at UBC Summer Series on Democracy. The future looks good with citizens like these.”

After thanking Day, our participants were divided into three committees. They had to agree on basic rules of procedure and then discuss the role of the MP, reporting back to the larger group. The discussions provided a chance to practice some of the skills needed to reach consensus on substance and procedure as well as to get used to doing simulations, which we will do more of in the coming weeks. Gerry Baier and Campbell Sharman ran a tight ship with each event keeping rigorously to the time table. In all, we’re off to a great start.

Next Saturday we meet in the Choi Building with Mike Harcourt, Preston Manning and Joy McPhail. Looking forward to learning more from the interactions between experienced practitioners and aspiring politicians.

Delegative vs. Liberal Democracy in Latin America

Nelson Manrique has touched a nerve with a recent column. The re-election of Correa and Chavez is a dilemma for analysts who have cast these leaders as autocrats, as was the re-election of Evo Morales and Cristina Kirchner. The so-called “bad leftists” – in Jorge Castaneda’s argot – have proven remarkably popular. Reactions have come from Steve Levitsky, Martin Tanaka, Eduardo Dargent, among others. I’m mentioned by Tanaka, so am inclined to add a few thoughts.

Perhaps Manrique should not have rested his case so heavily on survey data of attitudes toward democracy, since we all know that the same data showed the popularity of Fujimori in the 1990s. Democracy is not just a popularity contest. But there are deeper reason for the success of the governments whose democratic credentials have been questioned.

In the first place, they have, by and large, governed well. This is certainly true by comparison with the governments that immediately preceded them. Who can forget the chaos that followed de la Rua’s resignation in Argentina? Or the catastrophic impasse in Bolivia in the middle of the last decade? And does anyone seriously think that any of the leaders of Ecuador over the past 15 years can hold a candle to Correa? Or that Chavez has not governed as well as Caldera or Andres Perez? We forget that these countries went through serious crises before their current governments got them back on track.

And it is not just that they have restored a sense of order, a sense that a better future is possible. They have governed, in contrast to extraordinarily callous neoliberal governments that proceeded them, with a single-minded concern for showing results for the majority of the population. Call it clientelism or vote buying if you like, but they have all tried to redistribute wealth to the benefit of marginalized majorities.

And not just wealth, power too. They have also experimented with a remarkable new repertoire of participatory innovations, from community councils and participatory budgeting to indigenous autonomies and, of course, plebiscitary consultations. These institutionalized mechanisms of popular participation have given citizens a stake in the political order, and in some cases has empowered them in relation to the bureaucracy. I just finished an edited book on this subject, with Eric Hershberg, Ken Sharpe and a great group of scholars from around the hemisphere.

Not only have these governments experimented with new forms of democratic participation, they have largely avoided the kinds of widespread and systematic abuses of rights that characterized authoritarian governments of the past, including the Fujimori regime. It is a gross and ahistorical exaggeration to compare Chavez and Fujimori in these terms, to say nothing of Ecuador and Bolivia. It would also be a gross exaggeration to compare any of the elections that have been held in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, or Argentina with the Peruvian elections of 2000. Nor have any of these countries had an autogolpe. In every case constitutional reform has been pursued by electoral (albeit plebiscitary) means.

There is simply no valid reason to exclude these countries from the set of democratic regimes in the region. There is, however, reason to exclude them from the set of liberal democracies. And this is the nub of the dispute between Manrique and his critics. The problem with using liberalism as the normative base line is that implies that there is only one type of democratic regime. This blinds analysts to the reasons for the success of the delegative democracies we observe in the region today.

Liberalism is about checking the power of the state, but leaders like Chavez and Correa want the state to do things (redistribute wealth, for example), and that is why their followers support them. In Latin America, the tyranny of the majority has never been the central problem. It is the tyranny of powerful minorities – economically powerful groups, the media, the armed forces, and so forth – that prevents the social change demanded by majorities.

Similarly, liberalism offers a passive view of citizenship. Democracy is about voting. Between elections, citizens should be free to pursue their private interests. But the new participatory mechanisms in the region tap into a collective capacity for self-rule that exceeds the institutions of liberalism.

Let me be clear: I don’t like the way that power has been concentrated by the executive branch of government in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. I would like to see powerful legislatures and independent courts serve to represent and protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens in these countries. But we have to start making the case for governing more democratically in terms that are more persuasive to the citizens in the region.

We can start by arguing that, in the long run, submissive legislature and politicized courts become obstacles to effective self-government. One of Guillermo O’Donnell’s great insights in his famous article on delegative democracy was that the ostensibly all-powerful delegative leader can quickly become impotent as the institutions of self-rule are eroded by the plebiscitary tendencies inherent in democracies in which mass participation exceeds the capacities of a lawful state. In a forthcoming book I argue that the separation of powers does not make states weak it makes them more powerful. It enhances overall state capacity by mobilizing resources in society for collective action to attain socially desired ends by legally legitimate means.

After all, the common denominator of each of the countries in question is that in none of them has the opposition been able to articulate an attractive alternative. Political scientists, manos a la obra! Our job is to imagine a wider range of possible democracies in which constitutionalism, the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms, and full and active participation are brought together in mutually reinforcing ways to make it possible to collectively achieve a better future for our children and our planet.

Restoring Parliamentary Supremacy

Published in Samara.

How might we redesign parliament for the 21st century? We can begin by asking what we expect or want from parliament. My own view is that parliamentary government is not well understood and, therefore, it might be wise to elucidate the principles and aims that are already inherent in our institutions, and then see if we can make them work better.

The essence of our system of government is captured by the phrase “parliamentary supremacy.” Today, however, parliament is anything but supreme.

Parliamentary supremacy is the idea that parliament is the source of all legislation. Where our system and presidentialism differ is that the executive branch is selected by the parliament. In principle, this means that the executive is embedded within a larger and more important collegial body. But over time the tail has come to wag the dog. Power has gradually been concentrated—first in the cabinet, and now, increasingly, in the office of the Prime Minister. The main source of this inversion of power is the modern political party.

Today, parliament is a pathetic semblance of its former self. It is an electoral college that chooses the government, which then governs with scarcely any concern for parliamentary debate or procedure. MPs are well-trained yes men and women who do what their party leaders tell them. They have little say over committee assignments, few free votes, and, what is worse, they devote precious little effort to legislation.

The inversion of power has come about because parties—which are increasingly PR firms devoted to permanent campaigns for office—control MPs from the moment they are nominated until the day they retire from public life. MPs are more accountable to their party leaders than to the voters. And voters are fed up.
So, if our aim is to restore parliament to some semblance of its former glory, what kinds of measure might we adopt?

To restore the supremacy of parliament would require the empowerment of ordinary MPs. There are many measures that could move us in this direction. They include more free votes, more opportunities for ordinary MPs to submit legislation, more power in the hands of MPs to decide committee assignments and distribute other perks, more power to select the cabinet and remove the leader, and more influence in decisions like prorogation.

The corollary would be less power in the hands of the Prime Minister. Less power to use confidence votes to discipline the house and caucus, restrictions on the power to dissolve the house, elimination of the routine use of time limits to shut down debate, tough rules to stop the abuse of omnibus laws, less influence over perks, assignments, and appointments, and less control over nominations.

The bottom line: parliamentary supremacy, the cornerstone of our system, demands that we clip the wings of the office of the Prime Minister. The alternative is a slide toward elective autocracy.

Will Venezuela’s ‘Chavismo’ survive Chavez?

The Globe and Mail, January 7, 2013.

Venezuela faces multiple potential crises arising from the illness of President Hugo Chavez. The future of the so-called Boliviarian revolution hangs in the balance.

As a presidential democracy with fixed terms, the Venezuelan constitution of 1999 sets the inauguration for Jan. 10. If Mr. Chavez dies, his vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, temporarily assumes office; but after Jan. 10, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, must assume leadership and convene new elections within 30 days.

As long as Mr. Chavez has a chance of recovery, his inauguration can be prorogued for 90 days. Moreover, according to the constitution, if the president cannot be sworn into office by the National Assembly, he can be sworn in by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. There has been some speculation that supreme court justices could travel to Cuba so Mr. Chavez could take his oath from his hospital bed. Needless to say, such scenarios inflame the passionate objections of the opposition. “Is Cuba part of Venezuela?” they ask.

Assuming new elections are held, the Boliviarian movement that Mr. Chavez has built over the past decade – a kind of civil-military, multiclass, nationalist-populist coalition, largely led from above, but heavily reliant on extensive popular mobilization, and unified by broadly statist and socialist orientations toward redistribution – would be put to the test. It is possible that mourning the loss of Mr. Chavez could benefit the eventual candidate to replace him (which could presumably be either Mr. Maduro or Mr. Cabello), just as the death of Nestor Kirchner made his widow, Cristina Fernandez, an irresistible candidate in Argentina’s 2007 elections.

The opposition to Mr. Chavez remains fractious and undisciplined. But there are also distinct factions within the regime, and they could split apart if personal ambitions trump common purpose. It is not for nothing that Messrs. Maduro and Cabello pledged to work together in their recent meeting with Mr. Chavez in Havana.

Moreover, elections could easily become a source of conflict and instability if either side decides not to play by the constitutional rules of the game. Under Mr. Chavez, Venezuela has experienced a drastic erosion of the separation of powers, accompanied by an inevitable concentration of power in the executive branch. The temptation to play fast and loose with the constitution will be high. Whether it is possible for the contest for power to be resolved decisively through elections under these conditions is a matter for speculation.

The deepest crisis that chavismo faces, however, is not governmental or even constitutional. Although the changes introduced by Mr. Chavez over 13 years in office have been deep and in many respects irreversible, the extreme personalism of his rule raises the prospect that the entire Boliviarian revolution could unravel without the force of his personality to keep followers in awe and opponents at bay.

Mr. Chavez has built a formidable apparatus of clientelism and patronage politics, involving huge social investments made by “missions” (social projects to improve literacy and health, for example) and “community councils” (self-governing local associations). These projects are designed to bypass a sclerotic bureaucracy, fragile representative institutions – especially political parties – and sub-national governments controlled by opponents. To sustain this system – and prevent it from degenerating into unrestrained corruption or factionalism – requires discipline and unity of purpose at the top and continuing enthusiasm and mobilization from below.

Whether the Boliviarian revolution and its constitutional and political underpinnings can survive will depend on the human qualities of politicians who, until now, have played secondary parts in the unfolding drama, and to whom falls the task of routinizing Mr. Chavez’s charisma. It will also depend on whether the revolution can retain its élan among the masses in the absence of their providential leader. The latter, above all, will decide the denouement of the multiple crises of chavismo.

Why don’t more good people enter politics?

Canada’s Democracy Week Event at UBC
September 17 2012.

It takes more than good laws and institutions for democracy to flourish. It also takes good people—good citizens and leaders.

And yet a lot of good people would never go into politics. They don’t like the toxic levels of partisanship. The don’t like the intrusive media scrutiny. And they won’t pay the high personal costs of the political life.

Politics has become a despised profession, not a noble calling. How can this be changed?

Let’s begin by asking, what makes someone a good politician? Is it a commitment to the public good? Or an instinct for power? Must a politician have a passion for politics? Or is it all of those things?

Of course all politicians tell us they want what is best for the public. None will ever say they want power. And we would never vote for a politician who said “I want to be elected because I like the salary, pension and benefits, the opportunities to travel and meet interesting people, and the trappings of power!”

Maybe our cynicism about politicians comes from the inauthenticity and hypocrisy that accompanies a job in which, in the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate, under the harsh glare of the TV cameras, you must always right and your adversary must always be wrong. You are always motivated by the public interest, while your adversary is motivated by base and unworthy aims.

We admire people who have the heart to make sacrifices. We admire people who have the brains to do the right thing. We admire people who have the courage of their convictions. “No heart, no brains, no courage – guys, why haven’t you gone into politics?” says a cartoon of Dorothy talking to the tin man, the scarecrow, and the lion.

We see our politicians as flawed because they seem to lack character. Polls show that we don’t think politicians are honest. We don’t feel well represented. We are unhappy with our parties. We don’t like our leaders.

I want to suggest that our democracy is in crisis not because our institutions are bad, but because we’re not doing enough to cultivate the character, judgment, and virtue necessary for our democracy to flourish.

Let me give you an example. Consider the job of the typical MP. She must balance the needs of constituents, the voice of her own conscience, the demands of her region or language or ethnic group, passion for issues, and a commitment to the legislative process.

To do that well demands not only heart, brains, and courage, but also empathy, judgment, a spirit of compromise, a capacity for deliberation, and the moral will and skill to do what is right for her self, her caucus, her constituents, and her country. That is a big job.

But what do we see? We see the circus antics of question period. We see legislation rammed through parliament with closure imposed to limit debate. We see MPs unable to perform even the most perfunctory oversight of the financial business of the nation. We see parliament reduced to an electoral college. We see ordinary MPs who no longer even think of themselves primarily as legislators.

Let’s be frank, political parties are a big part of the problem—all the parties. Party discipline has become excessive. Party leaders have more control over MPs than voters. The party line matters more than the conscience of the MP or the will of her constituents. There are few free votes, few non-partisan initiatives. The non-confidence convention is used by government to stifle and shorten debate. And the energy of the opposition is no longer harnessed to ensure government does what is right for the country as a whole.

Parties have become more powerful as electoral campaigns have become permanent, not episodic. Partisanship is no longer set aside in the interest of governing well. As a result, the spirit of compromise is destroyed. The capacity to build bridges is lost. Empathy is replaced by enmity; listening by shouting; deliberation by dictat.

American style hyper-partisanship and negativity has begun to turn us into an angry and polarized nation. Rather than persuade you to vote for me, I try to discourage you from voting by demeaning my adversary. That’s called voter suppression. In extreme cases it is illegal, as in fraudulent robocalls.

But before we place all the blame on parties and politicians, perhaps we should ask whether we’ve grown too complacent with the idea that as long as we have competitive elections, democracy will be fine. “Elections are war by other means” say our most cynical pundits. No, they’re not. Democracy is about citizenship not just elections. And citizenship demands public spiritedness, a capacity for compromise, care for others, a willingness to sacrifice for the good of all.

But we can’t ask for great leaders if we’re mediocre citizens. And what is our duty as citizens? In the first place, to vote. This simple act is at the heart of the democratic process. Yet voting turnout, as we’ve heard, is declining, especially among youth.

We have no business complaining about our democracy if we don’t vote. So I have a modest proposal. One answer to voter suppression and low turnout is to make voting mandatory. Paying taxes is mandatory. It is mandatory to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Is it such a stretch to ask for voting to be mandatory?

Some might ask why they should bother to vote. After all, all politicians are the same — right? What people who say that are really telling us is they don’t have the discernment, or weren’t paying enough attention, to know the difference between the politicians competing for their votes. With mandatory voting, you’d have to pay attention. You’d have to cultivate the skills for citizenship, which takes practice and learning by doing.

But voting is not enough. A flourishing democracy demands active citizenship. How? There are lots of ways to get involved. Join any of a large number of groups promoting democratic causes: Apathy is Boring, Samara, Big Money Out, Fair Vote BC, Lead Now, the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Your Country, Your Constitution. Join a party or a movement.

At the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, we recognize that universities could do more to help prepare people for public life. We want to work with schools and local governments. And we’re even exploring the idea of creating a training ground for future leaders and a space for democratic experimentation.

When the challenge is to be better citizens and leaders, the ultimate answer is for each of us to look at what we are doing — as educators, students, business people, professionals, workers or farmers, civil servants — and to ask how could we contribute more to the public good. We need to cultivate the skill to deliberate and act in the public interest, to hone our capacity for empathy and dialogue, to discern opportunities for compromise, and find the will to make a difference.

In this respect, UBC’s motto is apt: Tu um est. It is up to you. It is up to all of us.

Canadians love their parochial politicians

National Post, July 13, 2012.

Watching the video of Stephen Harper calling Calgary the greatest city in the greatest country of the world reminded me of a scene from Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, in which a member of parliament for the little town of Mariposa arrives by train from Ottawa. “Most of the time,” wrote Leacock, “John Henry Bagshaw had to be at Ottawa (though he preferred the quiet of his farm and always left it, as he said, with a sigh).”

We like our politicians to be parochial, and they know it. It was no gaffe when former speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O’Neill pronounced all politics is local.

Stephen Harper was elected by the good people of Calgary Southwest, not by the electorate at large. Parochialism is built into our system. We expect our politicians to have the nation’s interests at heart, but were also relieved to know that they are like us. And most of us are a pretty parochial lot.

There is something reassuring about the idea that Jean Chrétien loves Shawinigan, or that Paul Martin lives on his farm in the Eastern Townships. We elect our leaders to the House of Commons, not the House of Cosmopolitans. Cosmopolitans don’t generally fare well in politics. Think of Michael Ignatieff.

So Harper feels patriotic about Canada and loves the city where he was elected. Big deal.

The real question is whether our politicians know how to balance parochial and national interests. In this sense, there is another subtext to Harper’s proclamation. For years the West has complained that Canadian prime ministers governed as if the country were composed of Quebec and Ontario. Now we seem to have a federal government that thinks that what is good for Alberta is good for the country.

I have no problem with the centre of political gravity shifting away from Upper Canada. Maybe the fork has to be bent to be made straight again.

But balancing parochial and national interests demands a kind of wisdom from politicians that is learned through practice. It takes ongoing and often difficult dialogue. It takes balance and judgment. The role of parliament is precisely to transform the narrow self-interest of politicians and their constituencies into something more ennobling and encompassing.

In recent years we have seen parliament diminished by the overweening executive power of the prime minister. To be sure, the problem began long before Harper. Harper’s love of Calgary would be more dignified if all members of parliament could be as passionate about their constituencies and equally able to reconcile their love of their neighbours with their service to the country.

By-Elections Show the Centre Cannot Hold

From the Tyee, April 20, 2012.

NDP victories in Port-Moody Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope expose the vulnerability of the Liberal Party and Premier Christy Clark. The rise of the BC Conservative Party has divided the centre-right vote.

The landslide for former mayor Joe Trasolini in Port-Moody was no surprise. He “could have won as a Marxist-Leninist candidate” tweeted Mario Canseco, of Angus Reid.

But the disappointing third-place showing by BC Conservative candidate John Martin in Chilliwack-Hope is good news for the premier, who can still make the case that the Liberals remain the party of free enterprise. “If you care about free enterprise in British Columbia,” Clark warned before the by-elections, “remember this, in 1991 and in 1996, Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark were elected because there was a split in the free enterprise vote.”

Add Gwen O’Mahony, the new NDP MLA for Chilliwack-Hope, to that list.

Contrarian Conservatives

Conservative leader John Cummins is not buying Clark’s line. It is not just that the Liberals need to articulate why conservatives should vote for them. More importantly, Cummins knows that his main obstacle to power is the Liberals not the NDP. He complains about the “drift to the left” of the BC Liberals, yet admits he voted NDP in 2009. That’s not inconsistent. The Liberals, not the NDP, block his path to Victoria.

The rise of the BC Conservatives makes an NDP victory in 2013 much more likely. Cummins believes that polarizing the party system is worth it in the long run, however, because his goal is to create the conditions for the rise of a more conservative right.

Bit of breathing room for Clark

The fact that the combined Liberal and Conservative vote in Chilliwack-Hope exceeded the vote for the NDP will renew pressure on the two parties to come together. But my sense is that the Conservatives have a longer-term game plan in which an NDP victory in 2013 is worth it as long as the Liberal Party collapses.

Whether that happens depends on the leader. The weak performance of the Conservatives in Chilliwack-Hope gives the Liberals some — but only a little — breathing room. Calls for the removal of Christy Clark may be more muted. But if she wants to win, she has to do something to define herself more clearly. Is she a family-friendly, moderate liberal leader of the ilk of, say, Paul Martin? Or is she a tough-minded pro-business conservative like Stephen Harper?

It is not enough to oppose the NDP bogeyman. That does not cut it with moderates or conservatives. A centre that does not know where it stands will not hold in a polarizing party system.

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