Tuesday, February 07, 2006


For the Conservatives not to use all legal parliamentary precedents to their advantage because of concerns over principle and optics, will only ensure the return of power to a Liberal Party proven to have no such reservations. Kate McMillan, SDA

Calgary’s blue-eyed boy, Stephen Harper, rode into weak power with a minority last month, partly on the basis of his promise to clean up government. On his second day in office, he showed what he was really made of, appointing a non-accountable Senator to the troubled post of Minister of Public Works and Government Services, and welcoming a Liberal into the Cabinet fold all of two weeks after the election.

The voters in Vancouver-Kingsway who put a Liberal in because they wanted to keep the Conservatives out were taught a short, sharp lesson in what “Canadian democracy” is all about. So, too, were those voters across the land who bought into Harper’s promise of government accountability. But feelings of betrayal and a looney will get you a cup of not-very-good coffee these days. A sufficient number of Canadians put Harper on the horse, and now, our system being what it is, we’ll just have to suck it up for a couple of years. "A dictatorship punctuated by elections," someone once described that system, and so it is.

To their considerable credit, a number of right-wing bloggers aren't willing to let go of their principles so easily. But perhaps it is indeed all about power. As Kate McMillan so charmingly puts it: "[Y]ou're goddamned right it's about power. This is politics. It's not the Special Olympics." If this is indeed the case, as it so clearly was with the disgraced Liberals, then the voters never did matter, elections are simply a means to an end, and, if they can be supplemented by grossly immoral political acts, all the better. Enter Nicolo Machiavelli.

As a student of The Prince, I happen to believe that Machiavelli has been unfairly portrayed in the popular mind. He was a brilliant state strategist, cutting through the rhetoric, the appeals to faith and honour and principle and so on, to the Realpolitik of it all. He helps us understand, at least to some degree, the current geopolitical scene, and probably current Canadian politics and political culture. His question was simple: do you want to come out ahead? Do you want to win? Then here’s what you have to do, Sire. It isn’t pretty, and it sure isn’t democratic, but it’ll get you where you want to go, and keep you there.

Now, this is actually description disguised as advocacy. Whether we like what Machiavelli has to say or not doesn’t really matter. It’s how things work, at least at present. Words like "democracy," "accountability," even "principle," have their uses to sway the public mind, but can easily be supplanted by other words if necessary: "leadership," "efficiency," "pragmatism," and the like.

Is Stephen Harper another avid reader of Machiavelli? You decide:

Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft. Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word.

[A] wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that caused him to pledge it exist no longer. If men were entirely good this precept would not hold, but because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them. Nor will there ever be wanting to a prince* legitimate reasons to excuse this nonobservance.


[I]t is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them. And I shall dare to say this also, that to have them and always to observe them is injurious, and that to appear to have them is useful; to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite.

[I]t is necessary for him to have a mind ready to turn itself accordingly as the winds and variations of fortune force it, yet, as I have said above, not to diverge from the good if he can avoid doing so, but, if compelled, then to know how to set about it.

One prince of the present time, whom it is not well to name, never preaches anything else but peace and good faith, and to both he is most hostile, and either, if he had kept it, would have deprived him of reputation and kingdom many a time.

--Nicolo Machiavelli, "Concerning The Way In Which Princes Should Keep Faith," The Prince

I for one don’t hold to a too-absolute notion of "principle." I've seen too much of that sort of thing in the past: people trying to ford their way through unfamiliar waters using principle, and only principle, as a guide. But there are some political values that one gives up at a considerable price. Honesty is one of them. Democracy is another. The abandonment of either for reasons of expediency corrupts the body politic, as years of Liberal rule should have taught all of us by now.

That Harper is following on this sordid path isn’t particularly surprising. Canadian political culture has, in truth, never been particularly honest or democratic. Even in the heady early days of Reform, policy wasn’t made democratically, despite the grass-rootsy nature of the movement: it was decided by a small inner circle with their eyes on the long-term. The question is whether an alternative is even possible. If so, nothing less than a transformation of political culture is needed.

At present, the pundits bemoan low voter turnouts, “apathy” and the like. A 2003 poll in the CCPA Monitor indicated that only 28% of Canadians think citizens have any political influence; 28% have confidence in Parliament; 13% have confidence in our political parties; and only 25% trust the federal government to do the right thing.

This is precisely the sort of thing that gladdens the hearts of those who would rule for the sake of ruling. Public cynicism and apathy are the handmaidens of corruption. No wonder the major parties are lukewarm on electoral reform, for example. Implementation of some kind of proportional representation would ensure that few votes are wasted: the House of Commons would more accurately reflect the electoral landscape. That might encourage more involvement by ordinary Canadians in the political process, and with more involvement comes more public scrutiny.

But we need to go further than that, much further. The very notion of "politics" needs to be fundamentally democratized, built and maintained from the bottom up, leadership made accountable on a daily basis, and involvement encouraged, not by empty rhetoric, but by results. Building new "machinery," like recall petitions and an elected Senate and rules against floor-crossing won't do it. Those are just new hurdles for the unscrupulous to jump.

People need to know that they matter in the political process, at all levels of government. Telling them that they do is not enough.

Is there an alternative to Realpolitik in Canadian governance? Government, if not by pure principle, at least by vision and integrity? Democracy that is more than purely formal, that excites the imagination and prompts the involvement of ordinary people? Representation that goes beyond political parties?

I invite discussion.

*Nor to some of the prince's advocates, it appears.

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