(Image Credit: mohammed_hassan at pixabay.com; the image is at this link)
Dysfunction & general ineptness in government are often points of complaint from Canadians. But this sad state of affairs is only a natural outcome of the process that brings certain types of individuals to elected office.
In a recent conversation with a friend, I opined grandly that while it was common to hear about disputed nomination contests among Conservatives, and sometimes the NDP and the Greens, the Liberal party was immune to such public washing of dirty laundry. This, I offered, was due to greater cohesion among the Liberal ranks; Conservatives are naturally a fractious lot, and both the NDP and the Greens have allowed divisive issues to creep into their parties by choice.
Just two days later, I was proved wrong. I heard that the recently held nomination contest for the federal riding of Brampton Centre was mired in disputes. A petition was going around, purportedly started by one or more of the losing candidates, claiming the usual laundry-list of irregularities: people of unproven / disputed membership or identity voting for the winning candidate, some losing candidates’ supporters being thwarted by various means from voting , a disproportionate number of ‘members’ voting in the last half hour (when the voting was spread over two days in order to account for Covid restrictions) and so on.
In the Punjabi press, one opinion writer was especially harsh on the entire political system; the article is titled ‘Canada’s politics is becoming a mistress of organized groups’. Maybe it is my cultural bias, but the Punjabi word for mistress, ‘rakhail’ – also common to many South Asian languages – is a lot more derogatory than its English equivalent.
… AND ANOTHER
Just one day later, I came across a letter floating online, purportedly from a group calling itself ‘Kanata Rising Community Engagement Initiative’, expressing discontent at the fact that the replacement candidate for the sitting Liberal MP for Kanata-Carleton, Karen McCrimmon (who had announced, just a day earlier, that she would not be seeking reelection) had been appointed by the party. It appears that the entire process for nomination has been bypassed in that riding. The letter expressed disappointment that while ‘there were highly qualified and engaged racialized women ready and keen to contest the nomination’,’ a party that values both diversity and transparency’ had chosen to act in this manner.
I started taking interest in politics only a few years ago. Soon thereafter, one frequently occurring headline related to alleged irregularities and assorted shenanigans in the nomination meetings of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party (OPC). In all, I counted 14 ridings where there were credible reports of fake memberships, stuffed ballots etc.
The then-leader of OPC, Patrick Brown, and the Party President Rick Dykstra tried to explain these allegations away by saying that there was ‘unprecedented interest’ in seeking nominations as OPC candidates, in view of the extremely high dissatisfaction among the people with the performance of the Ontario Liberal Party, which had been in office for some 14 years by then.
What they did not bother to explain – because no one asked them to – is this: WHY were these aspiring candidates so extraordinarily interested in securing a place as an OPC candidate?
My explanation – which I expressed freely in public – was as follows: By then, it was clear that the Liberals were headed for a crushing defeat in the election. Therefore, the probability of an OPC candidate winning his / her riding was much, much higher than normal. In many cases, it was as good as a certainty. Therefore, securing the OPC nomination was seen by these aspiring candidates as a sure-fire ticket to a seat at the (dining) table.
This optimism percolated down to the backers – both financial and of other kinds – so they flocked to extend support to their preferred aspirants. This is understandable – they saw an opportunity to extend their reach into the policy-making circles in government.
In sum, all the parties involved knew that the real election was taking place at the nomination meeting; the actual election was reduced to a mere formality. Their opinion was vindicated in the results of the (formal) election.
ALL IN THE GAME
Given that specific interest groups back specific candidates, it would be natural for them to expect a quid pro quo if and when their candidate emerges victorious in the election, especially when the candidate’s party also forms government. The only hurdle in this path is the sense of commitment to public benefit among the candidates themselves. Do they have it?
Their pious claims aside, I think it can be said without great controversy that people who, as colleagues in the same party, are willing to cut each other’s throats – figuratively speaking – in pursuit of a personal goal are unlikely to be inclined to prioritize what we may call ‘the public good’. Their selfishness is demonstrated, and the debts that they owe to their backers, although often hidden from public view, are a matter of public knowledge, broadly speaking.
Add to this the priorities and obligations of the Party itself (it could be any party, there is no difference among them when it comes to this issue), and one can be dead sure that the governing agenda of any government will be light-years away from what people expect, or were led (often willingly) to believe.
In a nutshell, therefore, poor governance results because there is enough supply to accommodate the demand for it – and vice versa. The only ‘hurdle’ is the ability of the elected individuals to govern wisely.
Do they have it?
STEP UP, STEP DOWN
Another factor affecting the quality of our politics is that many people who inhabit that world, once they are voted out of office at one level of government, seek (and often succeed in obtaining) elected office at another level. Let us see a few examples of this special breed:
- Patrick Brown was formerly a city councillor in Barrie, then became a federal MP from the same city, then the leader of OPC and later an Ontario MPP, then ran for the position of Regional Chair in the District of Peel, and when the election was cancelled altogether, ran for the mayor of Brampton. He won that last election.
- His federal colleague Bal Gosal (MP from Brampton Centre), after losing federally in 2015, ran for the office of mayor of Brampton in 2018. He lost to Brown.
- Another federal colleague, Parm Gill (MP from Brampton North), after losing federally in 2015, ran for Ontario MPP from Milton in 2018. He won.
- Deepika Damerla, a Liberal MPP from Mississauga East – Cooksville, after losing her seat in June 2018, ran for the position of city councillor of Ward 7 (Cooksville). She won.
- A person that I know (I am withholding the name in the interest of privacy) sought nomination as a provincial Liberal candidate in 2018. He lost. Then he sought nomination as an OPC candidate in the same election. He lost again. Then he ran for the position of city councillor in his ward in Toronto. He lost once again.
There are, of course, many other cases like these, but you get my drift. Every time I hear about one, I am reminded of a short poem that I read in political column in a Gujarati newspaper decades ago. It consisted of just two couplets. I have forgotten the second couplet, but the first one can be translated as follows:
Exiting the stage isn’t new in this nation
You can always re-enter
via another door
In a different incarnation.
Humor aside, I believe that, owing to the classification of jurisdictional duties in Canada, each level of government requires a different set of skills from elected representatives. It takes a person of exceptional talent to do full justice to such positions at two different levels of government, let alone three (as Patrick Brown would have us believe).
So, either Canada is unusually blessed to have so many people of such exceptional talent in politics (and nowhere else), or there is another explanation.
My ‘another explanation’ is ‘personal desire to be at the (dining) table’.
Therefore, now we are at a point where a person holding elected office (and hence a party in office) has neither the ability nor the desire to serve ‘the public good’. No wonder governance suffers as a result.
One peculiar term used for describing aspirants to political office that has always struck me as curiously out of place in politics is ‘passionate’.
I say ‘out of place’ because ‘passion’ is an emotion – and emotion is antonymous to reason.
I believe that making policy that affects millions of people (the number can even be in the dozens, not necessarily as high a ‘millions’) requires a cool, level-headed and, if I may say so, dispassionate approach. A person making – or contributing to the making of – policy cannot possibly be all those things if they are already predisposed to approaching the subject with passion.
Therefore, to the (residual) degree that both ability and willingness to serve ‘the public good’ may exist in an elected individual, they are negated by their non-rational approach to the issue.
This rounds out our discussion of the factors contributing to governmental dysfunction and general ineptness. The task before the politician and the political party is to pretend, successfully, that their government will not suffer from these shortcomings. Campaign periods are long when one accounts for a lack of genuinely good things to say and claim about the candidates and party. This leads to what I term ‘campaign-vacuum’.
To aid them in addressing this challenge, there is a tried and tested approach.
CONCEALMENT BY DIFFERENTIATION
Of course, a party needs to fill the campaign-vacuum with something. They do this by deploying two types of tactics:
- Distractions, and
- Attacks on their opponents (whether based on facts or, shall we say, imaginary in nature).
Number 2 above is self-explanatory. As for number 1, the issues that help fill the vacuum are, in alphabetical order: abortion, climate change, ‘fair share’ of taxes (a euphemism for class envy), gun control, LGBTQ+, Multiculturalism, Pride Parades, ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white supremacy’.
Filling the campaign-vacuum with these issues affords one the ability to avoid the real issues, which are (again, in alphabetical order): manufacturing capacity for critical items, national security, overpopulation in urban centres (leading to a host of challenges), technological domination (which is a component of national security and a separate issue in its own right) and societal cohesion.
The net result of this ‘concealment by differentiation’ is that the entire exercise of campaigns, party platforms, election debates and electioneering in general is reduced to a tragi-comic exercise in nothingness. It wouldn’t make a whit of difference to the country’s future if the whole exercise were to be cancelled outright. We would get the same kind of people holding elected positions, and the same (mis)governance.
But human nature demands that we believe that our lives, and everything that we do in the course of living it, is worthwhile. So we convince ourselves that we are engaged in a meaningful exercise – indeed a vital one in a democracy – when it comes to (formal) elections. We don’t want to believe – let alone acknowledge – that it is an exercise in futility. ‘This is the most important election in Canadian / provincial / municipal history’ gets dusted off and trotted out with unfailing regularity. Given how the outcome of the previous ‘most important election in Canadian / provincial / municipal history’ amounted to not a single bag of beans in terms of better governance is dutifully ignored. Politicians, and political parties (which here includes the media) help us cope with this by filling another vacuum – that of potential meaninglessness – by dividing us into partisan camps. As a result, we are left too busy fighting acrimonious but ultimately useless verbal battles with our ‘opponents’, not realizing that both the ‘sides’ are on the same side, viz. that of the ill-served. The crumbs that each government throws our way – whether in the form of ‘free money’ or other appeasement (usually via a special treatment in law or policy) convince us that a government of ‘our’ party is ‘working for the people’ – and vice versa. In reality, it is only working for itself, its caucus and its backers. The ‘representation’ that we fondly believe that we have in the corridors of power is purely nominal.