In politics, loyalty can be dangerous

(October 29, 2020)

NO government — however tyrannical — survives for long, except by consent of the people.

It doesn’t matter who you are, where or when you are, or how much power you wield. If the people withdraw their support, it is game over for any politician, government or system. “Power to the people” is just a reminder of that political reality, not some revolutionary call to arms.

Accountability is the thin red line between order and chaos. It’s what keeps in check the anger of the crowds at mishandled situations or poor government. Things may be wrong, things may be bad, but at some point, the people responsible will pay for what they have done and things will get better.

Lose that accountability, however, and all bets are off. Overnight.

American democracy is on display right now, if not actually on trial. The question is whether U.S. President Donald Trump and the Republican party will be held accountable for the gong show that politics down south has become, especially during the last four years.

Historically, we rejected the divine right of kings to rule over us, in favour of democratically elected governments. It is therefore ridiculous for any politician or political party these days to think they have some natural right to govern. Long terms of office, especially, are a mistake in any political system, because power without accountability tends to breed arrogance and entitlement.

For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was first elected a senator for Kentucky in 1984. Perhaps, like other longtime incumbents, he has been held accountable by the people of Kentucky every election since then, and they have just loved the job he has done. But given the evidence of the last four years, I suspect his continuation in office more likely reflects voters’ loyalty to the Republican party (McConnell became a U.S. senator five years before Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born — and it shows).

In fact, it is fair to say this U.S. election, from the start, is more about loyalty than about issues or accountability — especially personal loyalty to Trump and his version of the Republican party.

Yet, if all politicians were truly accountable to the people, everywhere, there would be no long-term incumbents or safe seats of any political colour. Politics would certainly be much more interesting, as a result — and the people or parties that do a poor job would be punted out.

Without real and regular accountability, however, politicians and political parties come to believe they can govern with impunity, as long as they placate their “base” of forever-loyal supporters. As a result, they promote social, economic, racial and ecological injustice, trampling the rest of us underfoot — for now.

Believing you can govern with impunity is a dangerous, delusional attitude that can only have an inevitable and catastrophic outcome — in the United States, or in any society, anywhere else, including here in Canada.

At some point, the people will inevitably demand accountability. When that day comes, scores will be settled with those who at the moment arrogantly consider themselves the new “untouchables” — those political and economic elites whose positions (they think) are above any challenge from the rest of us.

We need loyalty; of course we do — not to individuals or political parties, but to the ideals on which a just society is founded. If we don’t hold our leaders accountable to those ideals, loyalty to individuals or a political party inevitably will become lethal to the democratic principles that are increasingly under threat in our climate-changing world.

Those ideals include the rule of law. When, in the Canadian West, the RCMP arrest Indigenous grandmothers to protect construction of a pipeline whose existence is harmful to the planet, as well as local ecology, but then stand by in the East and watch non-Indigenous lobster fishers torch the livelihood of Mi’kmaq lobster fishers, there is something seriously wrong with our system.

If the federal opposition Conservatives had wanted to demonstrate responsible leadership instead of childish petulance, they should have investigated the purchase and then construction of that pipeline, which wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars. Instead, playing to their loyal base in Alberta and on Bay Street, they chose to hyperventilate about the WE fiasco that did little more than wreck a charity doing good work.

Rather than actually safeguarding the finances of Canadians or working toward a sustainable future for everyone, they are playing pointless political parlour games — impressing themselves, but no one else.

This is why young people such as Greta Thunberg and Autumn Peltier are frustrated and angry, because they find themselves having to be the adults in the room, as the world around them — and their future — burns.

I could wish a plague on the houses of all the immature, irresponsible politicians, but it is already here.

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Pallister’s legacy: not easy being blue

(October 10, 2020)

If Premier Brian Pallister had not chosen (for his own reasons) to dodge Manitoba’s fixed election date law, we would have been headed to the polls in this past month.

The Progressive Conservative government would have spent the last year spinning explanations for its unfulfilled promises. Its response to the COVID-19 pandemic would have unfolded in the harsh light of pre-election scrutiny. Voters would have had the chance to decide how well that plan worked — or didn’t — as schools opened and the second wave hit.

So Pallister didn’t just dodge a law — he dodged a bullet. Several bullets, in fact. No doubt party faithful have raised a few glasses in his direction over the past six months.

Yet, apart from grimaces at his various gaffes since the last campaign, people on all sides now seem to be waiting for his forecasted retirement. Pallister himself is not behaving like someone who expects to account for his actions — or his inactions — for much longer.

Most charitably, the current throne speech was aspirational. Less charitably, it was delusional. Confident projections of Manitoba’s economic health, despite the ongoing effects of a global pandemic, sound like something normally found on a Twitter feed from the White House. While implying (tongue in cheek?) this outcome would require two more generations of Progressive Conservative government, Pallister did not anoint himself “Premier for Life.”

Instead, he appears to be in “legacy mode,” acting like someone heading into retirement after two decades of public service. For that dedication and longevity alone, he deserves our appreciation — but his legacy as premier is not something he can decide.

For example, the recent self-congratulatory skewing of Manitoba’s last fiscal year toward the black (ignoring all casualties) was stunningly tone-deaf — especially as next year’s outlook, thanks (in part) to COVID-19, is catastrophic.

If Pallister thinks he will be remembered for that accomplishment, along with reducing the provincial sales tax, then someone should at least clean his rose-coloured glasses for him.

Whether he has time to make amends before leaving office remains to be seen, but here is what his legacy looks like to me, regarding a sustainable future for Manitoba:

First, despite a growing global climate crisis driven by continued use of fossil fuels, in the past four years, Manitoba has done nothing substantive to reduce its own emissions. Pallister has fought, undermined and sidelined Manitoba Hydro, instead of finding ways to enhance our production, sale and domestic use of electricity.

Other places buy the electric buses we make, while provincial support for public transportation in Winnipeg has been reduced, and bus service in the rest of the province has disappeared. There are no provincial incentives for EV purchase, nor for installing public charging stations — but there is $2.5 million for a friend’s report.

Second, there is no functional climate action plan in Manitoba, in part because Pallister has politicized environmental protection for the first time in our provincial history. He has consistently undermined previous environmental initiatives, and seemingly regards environmental NGOs (and now protesters, too) as suitable political targets for retaliation when they object.

In four years, there have been three ministers made responsible for environmental affairs (none of whom had prior experience in the field) and two complete reorganizations of their departments – the most in any cabinet portfolio – making real progress impossible in this critical area.

As an example, David McLaughlin’s first post-campaign job for the provincial government (long before becoming head of the public service) was to do the legwork for a climate plan, especially a carbon tax. I participated in an excellent consultation at the Legislature attended by representatives from across all provincial sectors. We found a lot of common ground, but our advice was essentially ignored — replaced by the interpreted results of that bizarre online public consultation, no doubt at Pallister’s direction.

The freestanding pillars that bedeck Manitoba’s Climate and Green Plan make no architectural sense (outside of mimicking some ecological Stonehenge) and have changed nothing.

On Pallister’s watch, we have already lost four years we will never get back, largely because he has chosen to inject his personality (and ideology) into what should be a pragmatic discussion of what we can do together toward a sustainable future for all Manitobans. He has consistently resisted, objected to and refused to collaborate with the federal government on climate initiatives, leaving who knows how much money on the table that Manitobans could have used.

This week, there was nothing substantive about sustainability in the throne speech — just more of the premier’s trademarked flannel.

Brian Pallister’s personal political swan song might involve rewriting the lyrics of Kermit the Frog’s signature song to It’s Not Easy Bein’ Blue, focusing on his legacy of reducing deficits and cutting taxes. But since he was elected premier in 2016, it has been much harder for Manitobans of all colours to be green — and that’s what will be remembered.

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Wearing a mask puts “we” ahead of “me”

(September 25, 2020)

The ongoing dispute over making face masks mandatory highlights a larger problem in our global society — one that goes far beyond dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic:

To what extent should individuals be expected – or required — to change their personal behaviour for the benefit of others? Or, to put it another way, how much does “we” matter to “me”?

From the start, non-surgical masks were intended to protect other people from the virus I might be carrying — the droplets spraying out of my nose and mouth. The protests against required masking focus on limits to personal freedom, however, ignoring that protection of others. But living together in society always requires ethical limits on what I am allowed to do as an individual. I might want a red traffic light to mean “go,” but the law requires me to stop instead, whether I like it or not.

To put it another way, again, living in society requires “we” before “me,” much of the time.

And yet, that is not what the advertising machinery of consumer society barrages us with, 24-7, every day of the year. We are told to “shop till you drop,” to measure personal fulfilment through perpetual consumption — what we have, instead of who we are. #MeFirst is so much a part of western consumer culture that it does not need that hashtag to trend on social media.

It is troubling to realize this. For example, it means that U.S. President Donald Trump is not an aberration, but embodies what the American dream has unfortunately become for many people. More than ever before, he has made the presidential election about himself — not about principles or policies, but about his personality. In other words, #MeFirst – and it sucks to be you.

While it is easy to point fingers at our neighbours to the south, it is equally troubling to realize that we have exactly the same problem in Canada. Our political equivalents to President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell are just more polite about it — at least, so far.

In saying this, I am not aligning to the left of the political spectrum: selfishness and privilege are members of every political caucus these days. But if there is a spectrum of social behaviour, I would rather identify with “we” than “me.” The trending hashtag should be #WeFirst, instead.

While COVID-19 — and the unfortunately related masking debate — consumes far too much of our attention these days, larger and more important issues related to the growing climate crisis reveal the scale of the me/we problem we face as a global civilization.

There is some bitter irony in the fact that the Me to We/WE Charity organization was the most high-profile casualty so far of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the mishandling of its involvement with the federal Liberal government. But it was the blood-in-the-water, shark-ish response of the other political parties that sealed its fate. No protestations of the greater good, the unmet needs of unemployed students, the importance of the work the organization had done to this point — none of that mattered, especially to MP Pierre Poilievre, who was Conservative fanatic-in-chief on that file.

It takes little imagination to link the ferocity of the concerted attack on the WE organization to protests over compulsory masking, and to the upcoming debate on mandatory vaccination. In a pandemic society, the idea of “we” is under threat from all sides. “We the people” is increasingly being set against “me and my house,” pitting collective welfare against personal well-being, caring for my neighbour against looking out for No 1. It’s #MeFirst, in everything from toilet paper to partying.

Fundamentally, social compliance is always a matter of personal choice — no government, however tyrannical, survives except by consent of the people. It is impossible to get more than a veneer of acceptance by threat or compulsion, which is why it is so important to shift from a culture of #MeFirst to a culture of #WeFirst.

Whether we are talking about responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, or to the climate crisis that is burning what it is unable to flood, somehow we have to see beyond our own personal horizons and appreciate the situation in which the rest of the world finds itself.

As author Damian Barr tweeted in April, we are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same kind of boat. It is very easy to focus on yourself, and ignore others, when you think your boat is large enough to ride out the storm, or when you can head south and avoid the struggles that winter will certainly bring.

Yet when concern for ourselves consistently trumps our concern for others, the survival of global civilization itself is at risk. Choosing to wear a mask in public means more than you realize, to more people than you will ever know.

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