What's left of parliamentary politics in Canada? The pun is intentional. Stéphane Dion's Liberals have gutted almost everything that remained of a legitimate political process in the House of Commons, which, under Chrétien and now under Harper, admittedly wasn't much.
It is bad enough that two successive Prime Ministers have concentrated so much power in the PMO that even the Cabinet is little more than a focus group. But until Dion came to power, there has been, at least, a noisy and sometimes effective opposition. The last nail in the coffin of parliamentary democracy has been the neutering of that opposition by Dion. The Liberals are so deathly afraid of the electorate that they have simply abdicated. Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition? More like Her Majesty's scared rabbits.
The Ottawa Citizen gives us the hard, cold numbers on its front page this morning. There have been 76 votes in the House during this session of Parliament. Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe cast 73 votes. PM Stephen Harper cast 49.
Stéphane Dion voted 33 times. The Liberals have participated in only 49 of the 76 votes. When they did bother showing up, they supported the government 60% of the time. They supported the budget. They supported extending our involvement in the Afghanistan quagmire. They've given the government a de facto majority.
The Liberals are so so white-faced, pants-crappingly frightened of facing the voters that Harper is pushing the envelope beyond all reasonable bounds, attaching bits and pieces of his agenda to unrelated omnibus bills and daring the Liberals to bring him down. And it's getting easier and easier for him, as he (and we helpless onlookers) discover that there is no line in the sand for Dion, there is no Rubicon, there is no point of honour. Dion's strategy, if you can call it that, is to keep propping up the Conservatives until his prayers for a miracle are answered. But there are no miracles in politics. The voters are unimpressed, and the numbers prove it. Why vote Liberal when you can vote for the folks that the Liberals support?
Jack Layton calls this "truancy." But that's a word reserved for kids who skip school. This appalling behaviour by the Liberals is a threat to the very core of parliamentary democracy, which is all the national democracy we've got. Nothing less. "Truancy?" Let's not mince words here, Jack. What about "collaboration?" What about "subversion?"
So long as there was some hope for social change, for progressive measures, for realizing, in however distorted a form, the popular will, Parliament as an institution was worth preserving. Yes, it artificially restricts political options with the fossilized first-past-the-post voting system, and with two major entrenched parties that are little more than institutions for distributing the spoils of war to their hacks and trained seals. Yes, even the simplest, most common-sense reforms can't seem to find their way through the vast Rube Goldberg political machine that we call Parliament. Yes, it's all smoke and no fire most of the time, it's jockeying for advantage, it's stagey speeches and playing to the ever-diminishing gallery. But it's not just the structure that's the problem--it's the culture. Change the culture (somehow) and maybe the old wagon will get you somewhere, I thought. (Hey, I've been a Jack Layton supporter. I live on blind optimism.)
But today, thanks to the Citizen, I've been awakened from my torpor with a needed bucket of cold water. Folks, we're in real trouble here. The system is headed for disaster, and nearing the point of no return. We had a shot, once, even if that was largely an illusion: every few years we could take part in, well, something, and hope for the best. Politics was based upon a (mild) adversary system, and the opposition actually stood for, well, something. Once in a while we might even win a modest victory or two, allowing us to imagine that we counted. But I've never seen anything like this. I think it's historically unprecedented. The Liberals have turned tail, and the NDP is running after them, hurling insults. The Conservatives must be wetting themselves laughing.
Perhaps it's time to raise some more workable version of the New Politics Initiative once again. The NPI was what got me into the NDP, although the latter proved to be a bit of a straitjacket, as is the case, I hasten to add, with all parties that play the game. I still play it a bit. I like my MP, Paul Dewar, very much, and may well work for him during the next election, whenever Harper's mandate runs out. Call it political somnambulism. But I have really given up hope in Parliament as a change agent. It's interminable bad theatre, it's comedy, it's melodrama. And now it's tragedy.
The NPI fell apart for a number of reasons. Somehow our projects died right after the meetings that birthed them. We couldn't agree, couldn't coordinate, and worst of all, couldn't organize. Some of us tried to keep things together across the country through regular information-sharing, and we ended up being derisively called a "Central Committee" by suspicious local activists. We stopped going to meetings. I couldn't stand the smell of vegan hotdogs, myself.
But, for all that, we (and by that I don't simply mean progressives, but ordinary citizens of all stripes) do need a radically different approach. We need local, daily politics: continual, genuine citizen engagement, democracy at the grassroots. We need to build our own democratic institutions and capacities. We need a bottom-up approach, which means overcoming the deep social conditioning that encourages our passive acceptance of top-down rule. We need to create our spaces of freedom, in which we can flourish.
I'm not calling here--just to avoid any misunderstanding--for the overthrow of the Parliamentary system. I'm suggesting, rather, that we simply ignore it. Let it fade into well-deserved obscurity. Put it in a museum. It doesn't meet our needs.
And I've deliberately chosen very vague phrasing indeed to project an alternative. I'm not sure that it's even an sketch, in fact--just a canvas; I don't believe in blueprints and Maximum Programs. Critique offers the opportunity for new imaginings. So, in that spirit, I invite commenters, left, right, middle, whatever, to contribute their thoughts:
Is there an alternative to the current political system, now seemingly in end-game? And, if so, what might it look like?
Over to you.