"In a democracy, leaders should be elected. But in a visionary state, after their election they must remain loyal to the nearby goals and the faraway destinations. They are not allowed to be desperate, they must not wallow in self pity. They must know that even a crisis can be a point of leverage and there is no leader as realistic as the one who has faith." President Shimon Peres as quoted in The Jerusalem Post 3 December 2008Sometimes people who catch lightening say something that refracts light onto another situation. Although he was talking about a crisis in another country, his words resonate today in me. I started musing about how they apply to our own constitutional and political crisis here in Canada.
"In a democracy, leaders should be elected."
Our leaders are in reality elected by their party memberships, not by the Canadian public. And so whoever serves as Prime Minister, or the Leader of the Official Opposition, is in fact not chosen by us. It goes further than that. Canadians said over and over, "I didn't vote for a coalition!" Well, no you didn't. The only thing you voted for -- the only person -- was your Member of Parliament. You didn't vote for a majority; you didn't vote for a minority. You didn't vote for who would lead your Parliament; you didn't vote for who would oppose him.* You never had the choice to vote for or against a coalition because it was never yours to make. You could only vote for the one man or woman who would represent your riding in Parliament. That's it.
This lack of direct election of our head of government I find more troubling than the lack of direct election of our head of state. The former has much more of an impact on our daily lives, although Governor General Michaëlle Jean's decision today to prorogue Parliament for the first time for a Prime Minister facing a vote of non-confidence may have a lasting impact on the health of our democracy.
"But in a visionary state"
Do we have a visionary state? Back in the years leading up to 1867, we had men who came from two warring nationalities coming together with one idea: to form a nation without bloodshed. While across the pond, people of those nationalities thought only of shooting each other, our Founding Fathers thought only of co-operation. Out of that came the famous phrase that defines who we are. Remember it?
Peace, order, and good government.
This may sound bland, but in fact, people from nations at war, who fear their neighbours, their police, even sometimes family members, fall down in relief to arrive in a country at peace. Jesus talks of peace in the Bible as the best gift God can give His children. Peace provides stability and harmony in the human heart. It is the foundation of walking through the hurricanes of crises and arriving at the other side whole. Order provides an environment in which people do not have to worry about mob rule. What happened on Boxing Day 2005 on Yonge Street in Toronto was the opposite of order, a situation uncommon here but too common elsewhere. And today we understood fully why good government is so essential. Without politicians willing to conduct government in a way that is good for the country, they not only create a storm of division and anger and fear, but also paralyse the governance of Canada.
These simple words proclaim the ideal of a new country to build its citizens a foundation on which they can prosper without fear.
"after their election they must remain loyal to the nearby goals and the faraway destinations."
Since the 1960s, sound bites and short-term thinking have smothered complex discussions, engaging interviews, and long-term planning. This trend started probably when television for the first time made an impact on how people perceived presidential candidates. Just as back then Americans who listened to the radio thought that Richard Nixon was articulate while those who watched TV were turned off, last night those who heard Stéphane Dion on the radio thought he made sense, while those who watched him on TV were transfixed by the poor quality of the tape and video production to the extent that they thought he came off as incompetent.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has excelled in all those areas of short-term thinking: good video production; targetted advertising; playing on Canadians' memory lapses, ignorance, and reluctance to educate themselves. His nearby goals have been about taking, holding, and strengthening his grip on power and decimating his opposition. He has had one faraway destination in mind: the Arctic.
But he is not the first Prime Minister to look down instead of into the distance; the last to understand the value of long-distance vision was Brian Mulroney. Whether or not you agree with his Free Trade policies, they did encompass an idea of how Canada should relate to her neighbour and to be in the world. In the last election we had a chance to elect a man who also had distance vision, who understood the environmental changes we're facing and how best to position Canada to prosper in those changes instead of being smashed by them. But unfortunately short-term rhetoric hammered out by Harper through slick, unrelenting ads drowned out the more complex ideas of Dion's long-distance vision, or even Elizabeth May's better articulated one. We have become so inculcated by media and politicians to look at only the nearby goals that our lenses have hardened into myopia and we can no longer see to the far horizon.
"They are not allowed to be desperate, they must not wallow in self pity."
These past few days rose from desperation. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was desperate to spread to Canada what Premier Mike Harris did in Ontario and was reversed somewhat by his hated rivals, the Ontario Liberals. Harper reverted to form, desperate always to have more and more power, instead of continuing along the co-operative path he had started talking about when out of Canada after the election. The Liberals were desperate to regain their rightful place as government, except that their leader Dion was already on the way out, and so I wonder about that. The Liberals truly did not want Dion to be Prime Minister -- that was pretty clear during the election. Probably what they were more desperate about was being bankrupt and having their one stable funding source be taken away. People don't like their bank accounts being touched; neither do parties and corporations their funding. (I really can't see the NDP or BQ being desperate as both parties were just doing what they always have.)
Harper first put off the vote by a week and then he decided to prorogue Parliament. These are the actions of a man wallowing in self-pity, for what the Opposition did to him, he had done to Prime Minister Paul Martin back in 2004. And he didn't like it. If you are going to hit another, be prepared to take a hit back and not whine about it.
"They must know that even a crisis can be a point of leverage and there is no leader as realistic as the one who has faith."
People have often said to me to be glad for what happened to me (yeah, OK), that one day I'll be like those others with brain or spinal cord injuries who won't change it if they get the chance. This is known as a crisis being a point of leverage. A crisis is an opportunity in hiding.
For me, this crisis points to how important electoral reform of the House of Commons is, far moreso than the head of state or the Senate. The House of Commons is the one part of our federal government that has real impact on our lives. For too long, we have complained about 4-year dictatorships; whined about our politics being boring (bored now?); moaned about having no say in our government even at voting time; grumbled that politicians don't listen to us. And our election turn-out rates have dropped steadily over time. We have become so disenfranchised, we don't even know how our Parliament is supposed to work.
This crisis is a point of leverage to electoral reform. That is the barely discernable horizon that I see.
The leader who continues to look down to his gleaming shoes will ultimately fail, if not for himself, then us for sure. Already, the main victim of Harper's detonation is Canada, our country. But the leader who has faith in us, in the ultimate stability of our Parliament, and in the ability of the majority of MPs to vote wisely, even when against us and without benefit of a whip, is the one who will still be in the House, standing, and answering or asking questions to the Speaker of the House.
The last minority government leader to lead Canada with wisdom and vision was Nobel Laureate Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. He said:
"There can be no enduring and creative peace if people are unfree. The instinct for personal and national freedom cannot be destroyed, and the attempt to do so by totalitarian and despotic governments will ultimately make not only for internal trouble but for international conflict. Authority under law must, I know, be respected as the foundation of society and as the protection of peace. The extension of state power, however, into every phase of man's life and thought is the abuse of authority, the destroyer of freedom, and the enemy of real peace. In the end, the whole problem always returns to people; yes, to one person and his own individual response to the challenges that confront him. In his response to the situations he has to meet as a person, the individual accepts the fact that his own single will cannot prevail against that of his group or his society. If he tries to make it prevail against the general will, he will be in trouble. So he compromises and agrees and tolerates. As a result, men normally live together in their own national society without war or chaos. So it must be one day in international society. If there is to be peace, there must be compromise, tolerance, agreement."
From Canadians and Their Government: (Source: 1957 Nobel Lecture by Lester Bowles Pearson. http://www.unac.org/en/link_learn/canada/pearson/speechnobel.asp)
* I use male pronouns exclusively for Prime Minister because I see no hope in hell any time soon for a woman to be elected to lead either the Conservatives or the Liberals because the media would defeminize her before she had a chance to even celebrate on her first day as leader, never mind lead her party through an election.