Friday, June 26, 2009

A better style of politics in the North

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner)

A recently-leaked quote from Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt has made headlines, but the real issue is being missed. Speaking about Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Raitt said, "She's such a capable woman, but it's hard for her to come out of a co-operative government into this rough-and-tumble. She had a question in the House ... that planked. I really hope she never gets anything hot."

What has been made of this by Opposition and pundits is the lack of full confidence Raitt seems to express in her cabinet colleague. But that kind of thing is natural in politics. The greater tragedy is the unquestioned acceptance that "rough-andtumble" is the natural state of things, and co-operative government is something to be put behind when moving to the national scene.

If anything, the opposite should be the case.

For those who (understandably) aren't familiar with Nunavut politics, here's some background: their territorial legislature is composed of 19 members who are each elected from districts in a first-past-the-post style, but without representing political parties. Once elected, they all serve together in the legislature -- no government vs. opposition benches. Together, they choose the premier and seven ministers of the Executive Council (cabinet) by secret ballot -- so that even if there were parties, there would be no way to "whip" the vote or force voting along party lines.

The Nunavut legislature uses consensus government (as does the Northwest Territories). Although the executive run the government, they are outnumbered by the rest of the members, so they cannot act alone. The premier does not appoint the ministers, so he or she cannot command their actions. Instead, each member works in the best interest of their constituents, portfolio, and the public.

Contrast this with how the House governs Canada. We now have four sitting parties, none of whom has held a majority of seats since 2004 and none of whom has had a majority of votes since 1984. Each treats Question Period as a chance to score points, rather than a way to raise important issues or share key information.

Committees, where much of the multi-partisan policy work used to be done, have been subverted through obstructionism and filibuster. Collaboration or compromise have become things of the past; each party stakes out their own position independently and follows a "my way or the highway" approach. Each motion that passes or fails is seen as a "win" or a "loss" for various parties; the public need, if considered, comes a distant second.

Can a large, populous or diverse nation be governed in a cooperative manner? I would wonder the converse -- does it make any sense for such a diverse country to be run by a single party, a one-party cabinet, or just a prime minister? Most democracies around the world, large and small, are in fact run by multi-party majority coalitions who share cabinet, reach consensus among themselves, and represent a wide spectrum of their electorate.

Does Nunavut's lack of "rough-and- tumble" politics lead to a lack of public interest? Quite the opposite. Voter turnout in 2008 was 71 per cent -- far greater than our own provincial or federal elections. (And this among one of the world's most spread-out populations). It would seem that people prefer to vote for co-operative, consensus government -- and are turned off (and away from the polls) by partisanship.

I dream that our current House could see Minister Aglukkaq's capable experience as something to draw upon and emulate, rather than something to disparage. Canada would be well served by a Parliament that put governing ahead of partisan advantage or electioneering.
Money squandered on attack ads could instead be used informing the public. "Secret" documents describing government spending could be turned into information that feeds discussion, not just something to be withheld or exposed for political advantage. Parties could come together on improving EI, instead of jockeying to see which competing plan "wins."

I think the True North has something to teach us all.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a community activist on poverty issues, environmentalist with Living Green Barrie and founder of the Barrie Green Party.
Special thanks to Eric Walton for inspiring this article.

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