Friday, November 21, 2014

Let's learn to work together like Canadians

Can you imagine the sitting leader of a political party writing a book endorsed by prime ministers from two other parties? I didn’t, until I picked up Elizabeth May’s latest work, “Who We Are: Reflections on My Life andCanada” and turned it over to find that both Progressive Conservative Joe Clark’s (the first PM whose election I recall) and Liberal Paul Martin’s (the first PM whose candidate I ran against) glowing recommendations on the back.
Last week I introduced some of May’s fascinating background in politics, environment, and government, from the unlikely start of a semi-employed waitress. But most of her new book documents the current ills of our democratic system and suggests remedies. Learn more from Maclean’s Best Orator of 2014 when she visits Barrie’s Southshore Centre this Saturday at 7 PM (tickets at In the meantime, I share some of those insights here.
Perhaps our greatest weakness is short memories, letting us believe politics was always as dysfunctional as now. Yet Canadian politics used to be more inclusive and respectful, as recently as the late 1980s when May worked for a cabinet minister and interacted regularly in committee with MPs on both sides of the House.
Let the colour of this room be a subtle political hint.
Back then, queries in Question Period were answered by the actual minister for the file, and the answer had something to do with the question, instead of being a scripted attack on the opposition with no regard to what was asked, delivered by an MP with little connection to the relevant ministry.
Under majority governments like Brian Mulroney’s, opposition leaders were consulted on major legislation, to see if consensus could be reached; opposition MPs attended international conferences. Nowadays, the government introduces legislation its own MPs or even ministers haven’t seen, and bars opposition MPs from important multinational negotiations.
In the good old days, the PM served at the pleasure of the MPs, persuading backbenchers to vote for legislation on its merits. Nowadays, MPs are told how to vote on each motion, saving them the trouble of having to read or think about the actual text.
How did this change? One major switch, which seemed a good idea at the time, was shifting approval of candidates from local riding associations to the party leader. With the leader able to authorize or withhold each MP’s candidacy, they risk losing their job if they don’t follow in lockstep. So toe the line they do, on all sides of the House. A private member’s bill by Conservative MP Michael Chong, which has Liberal and Green support, would reverse this mistake.
Another change is committee work, where MPs from all parties meet behind the scenes to revise pending legislation. In recent years, this process has been poisoned by seekers of partisan advantage, with committees now reduced to rubber-stamping legislation instead of improving it. To get around this problem, May has joined or even helped found a number of issue-based all-party caucuses whose unofficial status allows MPs to put partisanship aside and interact based on science, evidence, and public need, then bring those ideas back to their own parties. May sits on the executive of 5 such caucuses, addressing the issues of women, climate, oceans, population/development and HIV/AIDS.
A true Canadian value is putting aside differences to work together. May continues to prove it can be done, as the Right Honourables Paul Martin and Joe Clark affirm.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Political parties can sometimes work together"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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