Tuesday, 10 March 2015

What if we are getting exactly the "democracy" we deserve?

What if Jim Prentice was right? OK, just simmer down, I don’t mean right for the reasons HE likely meant ……. But what if he was right all the same? What if we the people, are being governed by exactly the government we allow, and deserve? What if it IS our fault?

On March 4th, 2015, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice said (during a phone interview with CBC radio) said “in terms of who is responsible, we need only look in the mirror. Basically, all of us have had the best of everything and have not had to pay for what it costs.” Albertans didn't take it well. It felt a little, erm A LOT, like he said “Let them eat cake”. Many Albertans were flabbergasted that he could suggest WE were in charge of how Government money was raised or spent, more were hurt that he thought we’d all had it so good up to that point; It’s that same old ‘how dare citizens demand a liveable wage, quality education, and accessible healthcare’ drivel we seem so perpetually surrounded by. Albertans exploded into a public discourse that, while entertaining with all the clever internet memes and all, was largely useless. It was a flash-point for change and we wasted it by NOT changing. So I’m asking: What if our government IS our fault?

Let’s start with voting rates. In the past 22 years, Alberta’s voter turnout for Provincial elections ranged from a high of 60.2% to a low of 40.6%. http://www.elections.ab.ca/public%20website/927.htm (The pattern is strikingly and embarrassingly similar for Federal elections). We are NOT engaged. If we passed a law prohibiting 40 to 60 percent of currently eligible voters from voting in the next election, it’s safe to say that we’d have half the free world pointing WMDs at us, but when the same number of people just don’t bother to show up no one even bats an eye. I've heard it said a million times “if you don’t vote then you don’t deserve to complain about what the elected do” but I prefer to think about it as “if you don’t vote will your wishes about how we run society be considered?” I’m sure people don’t vote for many reasons, but deep down I suspect it’s mostly because non-voters truly believe it won’t make any difference. And that’s not OK. When did we give away our faith in such a basic democratic philosophy? True, the notion of a perfect democracy is about as real as a Fairy, but if we don’t try to believe then that Fairy is going to lose her wings. 

Maybe people feel their vote won’t make a difference because our Party system has created a competitive game within what ideally should be a cooperative Parliamentary Democracy. Political parties were conceived, I’m sure, as way to collect people together into their like minded affiliations, to organize and categorize people into boxes which made it easier for the electorate to discern where they fell on the political spectrum. It would have been possibly relevant at a time, when issues were simpler, governments provided little in the way of social or public services, a ruling class was assumed, and voting wasn’t a universal right. But today, it’s just plain polarizing. We choose our party allegiances on largely imaginary constructs, and then vote knowing we will never be able to measure how true they stayed to their own philosophies because we support a political system which pits the winning party against the runner up party/parties and expects them to cobble together public policy. Then we’re surprised when they present solutions based not on public service nor reasonable compromise but on strategic concession. It’s a game; and we willingly elect players.

And who are the pool of “players” we choose from when we vote? Does our current political climate encourage ordinary, smart, committed people to step forward into the arena and serve the public? Or does it largely favour ambitious, extremely confident, highly motivated individuals to run for leadership? And while I must acquiesce neither set of qualities is inherently good nor bad, I hope you’ll agree that one archetype seems more vulnerable to losing sight of the greater good somewhere along the way. Even if I can’t convince you of that, please consider that politicians must, within their parties, navigate a storm of conflicting ideologies and competing interests and are financially “supported” by a huge variety of outside individuals, businesses, industries, and special interests, and realistically must have enough financial backing to sell themselves to the voting public and win. Which type of person is more likely to get caught up in the need to win over the need to stay true to his/her principles? Which type of person is more willing to buy YOU with your own money? Which type of person has more tolerance for that game? Which type of person is more likely to even play? I truly believe most people get into politics for the right reasons, but we have allowed the behind the scenes process to become so competitive, so “sponsor” driven, and so non transparent, that we might as well just let the candidates settle it gladiator style in an arena with hammers ……….. it would likely be less bloody and far less confusing.

Lastly, we still only really invite the gladiators to the table. We've left no room for the unsure and the unresolved. We know when we pick a jury that they must be deemed suitably impartial, and unfettered by pre-drawn conclusions. We innately understand that justice cannot be served if every defendant and plaintiff isn't given that gift. The jury decides together what is right and is guided by law. It’s a process they give their full self to, and gain nothing particularly from. They serve. We hold that as the ideal for the Judicial branch of our government, but not for our Executive or Legislative branches of Government; it makes no sense.  We've sold ourselves a bill of goods about what a good leader is like, but we make the call with our gut, and not our head OR heart. We assess them like celebrities: looks, confidence, charisma, financial success, how they dress, and how fiercely they debate. But how often do we, The People, give due consideration to a candidates skill set for serving The People? Do we consider how well they listen, their knack for building consensus or achieving fair compromise? Do we ask ourselves if we feel they are genuine and sincere in their willingness to serve? Do we celebrate their compassion and wisdom? Do we ask about their greater vision and ideals, or do we pester for specific and impossible plans and promises (when we logically know that the candidates could not possibly know yet how things will go because they don’t yet know the future problems nor the team they will be working with to fix them)? Do we leave room for the beautiful “I don’t know” and the creative “there are many possibilities” or do we only consider rigid black-and-white thinkers for leadership and end up overvaluing decisiveness and undervaluing thoughtfulness and sense of responsibility? In democracy as we know it, we’re very fond of saying we value every voice, but we don’t seem to mean it; at least it’s not apparent by the way we vote.

I have often thought of running for politics, because I like following public policy, I believe in democracy, and I feel government exists (or at least should exist) for The People. But I am no gladiator. I am a Mom, with a fiercely humanist bent, who works as a playschool teacher because I love it so much and feel it is very important (even though as a society we treat the people who raise, teach, and care for children as if they have very little value *). Remember Alison Redford, who (though my polar opposite in political philosophy) is a Mother just like me? She succumbed to the court of Public opinion, not because of her political positions and decisions, and not even really because of her self-entitled personal spending while public services were being cut and public service jobs eliminated, but ultimately it seems to me the public turned on her because she was bringing her daughter with her on trips. I fully agree that using a government plane to move family, lo HAVING a government plane, is an abuse of privilege and out of touch with what real working parents are facing, but the criticisms from the public, The People, kept taking on this ugly anti parent slant. There was this intangible undercurrent of accusing her of playing the “Mommy card”, and worse yet, somehow playing it wrong. ARGHHHH! Did we really just go there? Women, especially Mothers, are little tired of the ‘where are you today on the spectrum of feminism?’ game. Like we can be a professional at work, a change maker in the boardroom, but at home we’re just a Mom. Um, I carry my Mom hood everywhere I go; it’s like a Victoria Cross but it probably has some snot and throw up on it. And my ideas are worthy, my voice is just as valid as anyone else’s ……. whether I shout it from the boardroom or the kitchen. We have to stop doing this to public servants. Family members should be putting families first, this doesn't make them better or worse at work, but it makes them better at life. Regardless of gender, or family makeup, whether you’re a family with children or without, whether you parent alone or as part of a big messy blended mix, however you as a family define and fulfill your roles, family should come first. The fact that we criticized a public servant for doing this raised a lot of questions for me. Shouldn't government be setting the bar and then cultivating the standard to The People in their workplaces also? Wouldn't that actually improve quality of life for everyone? Are we as committed as we say to the concept of diversity in Politics when we can’t even accept that a parent might want to have his\her child with him\her when he\she travels? I’ll say it again, no one has the right to abuse their power or take advantage of public resources, but if we want to attract more people who truly see Political involvement as Public Service and would hold themselves to a high ethical standard then we might need to embrace some change. We can never write enough laws, nor make them iron clad enough to make people be honest, forthright, and ethical; the trick is voting people who are honest, forthright, and ethical. Food for thought I hope.

*As an important aside, my playschool pays me as well as they can and are very good to me but cannot afford provide benefits, or offer a pension – it’s symptom of our societies priorities and values likely not corresponding with governmental priorities and values and The Peoples compete apathy towards changing it, but I digress.

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