Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Some proposals to return civility to politics

My grandfather was a great follower of Canadian politics. In his latter years, living in Montreal in a small duplex, he took great delight in watching the House of Commons Question Period in the afternoon. It was his favourite TV show of the day. He got so involved with the action, that he would start to heckle the MP who was speaking, especially if they were a Progressive Conservative. He would puff away on his cigarette, his voice rising, until my grandmother would say in the sharp voice, "Ernest! Pipe down! They can’t hear you!" and my grandfather would grumble a bit and relax back in his chair in a thick cloud of tobacco smoke.

Our political assemblies have always had a contentious history. At the same time, there has always been a civility about our politics.

At the same time, there is a lot of raucous noise and hugely partisan political conflict which has overtaken the civility of past decades.

I heard of one father who took his young son to Ottawa to see the Parliament buildings. They had lunch with their MP and watched Question Period from the public gallery. Any sense of the day being educational was lost when the son turned to his father and asked if they could leave. Disappointed, the father asked why. "I can see this kind of argument every day on the school grounds," the son replied. And that was the end of the lesson in democracy.

Concern of the declining quality of political conversation in Canada has prompted some parts of the United Church of Canada to offer six proposals to restore confidence in our parliamentary system of government.

The proposals are simple.

Restrict, by legislation, party electioneering outside of election campaigns.

Abolish attack ads completely, even during elections.

Abolish omnibus bills.

Restrict the use of confidence votes and increase the number of free votes in Parliament.

Restore the per vote subsidy for political parties.

Protect bills in process from being dropped when Parliament of prorogued unless and election is called.

Initiate a national commission to determine which specific forms of electoral reform would strengthen democracy, while maintaining national unity in Canada.

I can see pros and cons in all of these ideas. They aren’t perfect, but they are a placed to begin.

I like the idea of banning attack ads. The Latin term for such ads is "ad hominem" or "about the person". They use advanced media techniques to attack a political leader, casting that leader in an unfavourable light.

The earliest attack ads were seen in the 1964 US presidential election and have spread everywhere. The first Canadian attack ads appeared in the 1990's and have been a staple of federal, provincial and even municipal elections in larger cities.

I have no difficulty with our politicians and candidates having a robust discussion of issues. I have a problem with them engaging in character assignation, taking quotes out of context and creating a climate of fear and loathing among the voters.

Over the years I have known many politicians. The common denominator among almost all of them was that they all wanted to serve their community and country and most especially, the people who elected them. They wanted to make their community better.

I only remember two politicians about whom I had some reservations. They were not re-elected. Voters are not sheep and they recognize someone who isn’t serving them, quickly enough.

I hope you will consider the United Church’s ideas. I know we are in the middle of a municipal election campaign and we will be in a federal one in a year’s time. Change will not likely come rapidly, but we can start talking about change in our political conversation today.