The House: 'You're the one catching the fish'

Rather than simply lament for how little attention is paid to the institution, I thought I’d ask some smart people if they had anything to say in response to my piece about the state of the House of Commons. Over the next little while, those responses will appear here. Next up, Scott H. Payne.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to spend about a month working at a fishing lodge in the far north of British Columbia. This part of the province is home to some of the best salmon fishing in the world and it behooves one to take advantage of that fact while you’re there.

So very early one morning, I hopped into a boat with one of the guides and set sail. About an hour passed and just as I was beginning to wonder what had possessed me to wake up so early on the precious occasion of a day off when my line started to jump.

Grabbing the rod I started reeling in my catch. I wrestled with the line for nearly ten minutes, pulling and heaving and winding and gasping. With every passing moment more profanity seemed to spring from my lips, louder and more distasteful as the fight wore on.

Just as I was about to give up and throw the rod to the floor of the boat, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a voice behind me ask, “Now, what makes you think it’s the fish’s fault?”

Aaron’s look at the House of Commons is interesting not just because he provides an inside look into an institution that is at once so sacred to Canadian politics and at the same time profoundly obscure, but also because the analysis mirrors the state of our politics writ large.

In asking whether the House still matters, comments were solicited from and solutions directed towards our elected representatives. But little if anything is heard about or from the electorate those representatives purport to serve.

The article starts and finishes with politicians because we’ve largely written ourselves out of the picture. As Aaron noted, “we vote to elect representatives to mind such business for us.”

The results of this situation are bound to be off kilter and out of balance. Not surprisingly, an Abacus Data poll notes that 55% of Canadians believe that nothing they think or do will change anything about their politics.

Democracy is by design founded upon the participation of its citizens. Are we then really surprised that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people — without the people — has gone so badly astray?

In saying that, I’m not suggesting that there aren’t structural problems within our political institutions or that some sort of civic flagellation can properly address them. But to look only at our politicians and political institutions is to miss a vital part of the equation.

So if the answer to the question, “does the House still matter?” is, as Aaron’s article suggests, “not really;” let me offer an alternate question: as citizens, what can we do about it?

There’s no “I” in “Team”

Part of the challenge with our disengagement is the effect that it has on the political opportunities we afford ourselves. More often than not, electoral outcomes break as cleanly along party lines as votes in the House.

Otto von Bismarck famously described politics as the, “art of the possible.” But Canadian electoral debate more often resembles an exercise of the impossible. As in the House, political partisans focus most of their efforts on discrediting their opponents and anything for which they stand rather than an honest exchange of ideas.

On a recent tour of Canadian cities, Michael Ignatieff engaged in the time honoured tradition of creating false dichotomies by suggesting that a vote for the NDP or Bloc was a vote for the Conservatives. “What I’m saying,” Ignatieff exhorted, “is that it’s time for Canadians to make a choice between two governing parties.”

That kind of thinking has a way of weaving itself into the very fabric of our political mindset.

A different Abacus Data poll measuring the party’s respective brands noted that many Canadians think highly of the ideas expressed by Jack Layton and the NDP, but feel that those ideas are “unrealistic”. This despite the NDP’s efforts over the past eight years to ground their goals in tangible efforts.

The Party’s latest list of goals is a good example: tax reductions on home heating, modest increases to the Canadian Pension Plan and Guaranteed Income Supplement, a home-retrofit tax credit, and accessibility to family doctors.

Is that sentiment a product of the actual impracticality of the ideas or the self-restricting nature of our political process? If we want to see a real debate in our political institutions, perhaps we should start by working to create a real political debate amongst ourselves.

Hey, Kids, Rock ‘n Roll. Rock On

An EKOS poll showed that if only younger voters were to decide the fate of the Government of Canada, the Green Party of Canada would emerge victorious. And yet, Elizabeth May’s Greens are the only federal party without a single seat in the House. The connection speaks for itself.

Younger voters don’t get involved because politicians don’t pay attention to their issues and politicians don’t pay attention to younger voters’ issues because they don’t get involved. We find ourselves in another of Aaron’s political cul-de-sacs.

And yet, the political terrain of the country has never been more accessible to young people. Social media like Twitter and Facebook, the calling card of younger generations, are increasingly the sites of political events.

Industry Minister Tony Clement is as well-known for his voracious tweeting as he is for political portfolio. And the Prime Minister’s last cabinet shuffle was leaked, confirmed, announced, and reported, all on Twitter.

If ever there were an opportunity for younger voters to shape the agenda of Canadian politics, now is it. And no amount of coddling or number of GOTV campaigns will convey the fact that if younger voters want to be taken seriously, they simply need to decide to get involved for themselves.

Vote Early, Vote Often

Aaron rightly laments that our 2008 federal election saw historically low voter turnout. Even more disturbing than that is the degree to which Canadian political engagement begins and ends in the ballot box. As if by taking an hour or so to vote once every two-to-four years means we’ve done our part.

Every so often an issue will manage to capture the public’s imagination — the scrapping of the long form Census or a vote on the long gun registry. But by and large, the country’s politics and kitchen tables rarely meet except on election day.

Meanwhile, comparatively serious parliamentary transgressions like our government’s secrecy over documents regarding to its actions in Afghanistan or International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda’s disingenuousness on CIDA funding barely register a blink.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions: country-wide anti-prorogation rallies that occurred on January 23, 2010, the HST and Recall campaigns changing the shape of politics in BC, online actions by groups like and Avaaz. But even here, the problem is that each of these movements is centred around a particular issue with a definitive timeline.

What the country really needs is a movement that seeks to address the very defeatism lying at the core of those Abacus numbers. We need more groups like Canadians Advocating Political Participation (off shoot of the anti-prorogation rallies) highlighting meaningful ways to make political activity — be it membership in a political party, blogging, or a family culture of volunteerism and community engagement — a part of our everyday lives.

As American political activist Ralph Nader cautions, “there can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.” Our Canadian experience suggests that Nader’s calculation is correct: democracy without robust citizenship and civic engagement quickly devolves into kabuki.

Later on, I was enjoying the balance of my day off with a beer in the staff quarters when I saw my guide friend enter the room. Eager to demonstrate that I’d learned something from the morning’s misadventure, I tilted my beer in his direction and quipped, “As old Lao Tzu would say, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,’ eh?”

Smiling, he replied, “Something like that. You just need to remember that you’re the one catching the fish, not the other way around.”

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