'Assuage the bitterness' - Macleans.ca
 

‘Assuage the bitterness’


 

Interesting point from a New York Times story on whether Barack Obama’s arrival will change the debate in Washington.

“It’s worth noting that nearly every Inaugural Address ever delivered includes some variation on the ‘change the tone’ theme: Zachary Taylor in 1849 praised efforts to ‘assuage the bitterness’; Benjamin Harrison in 1889 said ‘we should hold our differing opinions in mutual respect’; Calvin Coolidge in 1925 insisted ‘there is no salvation in a narrow and bigoted partisanship.'”

There will, of course, be various reports of newfound civility and cooperation around here as the resumption of Parliament approaches. A few days ago, for instance, there was this (Jan. 9, “Harper pushes for co-operation on upcoming budget”). All of which, you might suspect, will prove about as solemn a vow as this (Nov. 7, “Harper seeks co-operation in Commons”) and this (Oct. 15, “Harper pledges co-operation after election”).

Could the current state of affairs in Ottawa be improved upon? That depends, I suppose—first, on how badly you view the present situation; and second, as noted above, on how edifying you believe our politics to have been through the decades. If you believe that proceedings have been better, it only stands to reason that the proceedings could be better. If you regard Ottawa as an eternal cesspool beyond any and all hope, you can probably stop reading (both this post specifically and everything else posted here in general).

The rest of you, onward.

What would constitute better? Politicians of varying belief will always disagree. For that matter, politicians of varying belief should disagree. But then they should be able to do without, say, referring to their opponents as traitors. Or unapologetically lying. Or, if you want to get technical, purposefully undermining the institutions of Parliament and actively encouraging cynicism of the entire process. It would nice, for instance, to get through the next session of Parliament without anyone being outright accused of sedition, no?

If so, how to go about achieving that better? Good question.

Having considered this for at least a half or so, there are perhaps three options.

1a. As argued in that Times piece, much of the onus in Washington will fall on Barack Obama, who must use his particular talents to negotiate peace in our time. The same is essentially true in Ottawa: the tone of this place is very much dictated by Mr. Harper and, to a slightly lesser extent, Messrs. Layton, Duceppe and now, Ignatieff. For sure, the likes of Van Loan, Baird, Kenney, Poilievre and Del Mastro are all uniquely talented in this regard. But none would behave as they do if their party was led by a positively genteel partisan who spoke only in hushed tones. It is very much Harper’s House—his comrades and foes matching his volume and tone and rhetoric each day. No doubt, the opposition have their days, for both good and ill. But the feel of the place is largely dependent on the Prime Minister’s mood. And if Mr. Harper emerged later this month as a new man, Parliament would be compelled to follow suit.

1b. It is not only, of course, because Barack Obama is Barack Obama that it is possible to muse of change in Washington. It’s also merely that a change in the presidency is happening at all—with the blank slate and opportunity that provides. Could Stephen Harper still personify change in Ottawa, three years after he became Prime Minister? Good question. Put it this way: even if he changed, could his opponents possibly forgive and forget their grievances with him? If you were sitting on the opposition side, how long would it take you to get over being threatened with bankruptcy and accused of treason and plotting to destroy the country?

2. If change from on high is unlikely (1a) or impossible without another election (1b), what about change from the cheap seats? I admit this is the option I find the most potentially entertaining.

Let’s say a group of generally reasonable MPs—probably backbenchers—representing all four parties formed an informal Bipartisanship Committee, publicly committing to pursue civil discourse, joint initiatives and general compromise. Let’s say they organized a series of nationwide town hall meetings—stealing John McCain’s proposal to Barack Obama—at which they agreed to debate and discuss the major issues of the day in front of and with Canadians. Let’s say the members periodically (but politely) broke with their own party leaders and made a point of inserting themselves into the national debate.

Would anyone here not be interested in seeing how this might work?

Is there any prospective prime minister who could possibly avoid endorsing such an endeavour?

As various observers have noted over the last few weeks, no less than the basic concept of an adult conversation taking place here between two people of differing political views is broken. If that’s true—and what I see tends to confirm that—then it would seem we’re faced with no less than rebuilding the very foundation of coherent democracy in this place, roughly akin to teaching a man with two shattered legs to walk again. In lieu of profound inspiration from on high, the first steps are bound to be small and almost infantile.

Footnote: None of which is to say politics need, or even should, be free of conflict or rhetorical jousting or wit. First and foremost, that would make this job terribly boring and compel me to take this act elsewhere. Say, to professional wrestling. Or Taiwan.


 

‘Assuage the bitterness’

  1. 31%

  2. Canadians hate needless elections. Just ask Dave Peterson. It’s like waking someone up early on a Sunday, when they’re hung over. The economic turmoil makes it like using a bucket of ice water, for good measure.

    But I still think the cons will gain a few seats, before all is said in done.

  3. Moving is stressful. All that packing, shipping … yikes.

  4. This is a classic case of psychological projection. Psychological projection is a defense mechanism by means of which one reduces the anxiety of one’s own unwanted thoughts by attributing them to another. See Freud.

  5. I think Harper understands that he’s made no friends within his caucus. In fact, Harper has made some lifelong enemies within the CPC caucus.

    He knows that if he doesn’t bring in a majority govt or, at the very least, more seats to his party come October 14th, his ass is grass.

  6. He thought it was a costume party.

  7. did anyone else find it a bit surreal that the news conference live broadcast for the conservative platform started with a book raffle?

  8. I guess the larger point in highlighting this is how the context for the announcement was a little odd. It seems to me that this announcement of the platform was scheduled over top of a previously scheduled event, and that the intro to the prime minister was the intro to the event this ‘platform release’ effectively preempted. The overall impression I was left with, regarding this aspect of incongruity, was of an ad hoc affair.
    And while I am here, ‘exploiting our possibilities’ also sounded a bit off. It’s not that the phrasing is terrible, but it isn’t very polished, and has an unpleasant aftertaste to it, again, suggesting a last minute effort.

  9. Harper is comparing himself to Noah? Isn’t that just a little bit over the top?

    Really, does anyone think Harper is like Noah?

  10. “Really, does anyone think Harper is like Noah?”

    Neither of them would let a same-sex couple onto the ark.

  11. *Harper is comparing himself to Noah?* Would that be Noah Comment? Or Noah Way? ;-)

  12. Navigator–Noah idea.

  13. “And if Mr. Harper emerged later this month as a new man, Parliament would be compelled to follow suit.”

    Once could argue that Mr. Harper attempted to emerge as a new man during the last election, and Parliament failed to follow sweater.

    There was a good piece a few days ago about introspection that highlighted why it’s difficult for a pol to change his stripes after following slash-and-burn tactics. For one thing, nobody would trust him, and assuaging the bitterness would have to begin with trust.

  14. For co-chairs of the Bipartisanship Committee, I nominate Glen Pearson and Ed Holder.

  15. Or just change to a republic and elect a president for 4 years. No need to be overly partisan then, your governence is much more secure.
    Do we really want a “hold-hands” committee. I think we need to put things in perspective, they designed the original house so the opposition was 2 sword lengths away. When you go through some of the historical dysfunction, and animosity in the house, the current shenanigans actually look fairly mild.
    Could everybody grow up a bit, absolutely. Do they need a babysitter, hardly.

    If we feel that strongly, we could just e-mail our brats (MP’s) once in a while and let them know the tone they are taking is unacceptable and threaten to not support them if it continues.

  16. Or just change to a republic and elect a president for 4 years. No need to be overly partisan then, your governence is much more secure.
    Do we really want a “hold-hands” committee. I think we need to put things in perspective, they designed the original house so the opposition was 2 sword lengths away. When you go through some of the historical dysfunction, and animosity in the house, the current shenanigans actually look fairly mild.
    Could everybody grow up a bit, absolutely. Do they need a babysitter, hardly.

    If we feel that strongly, we could just e-mail our brats (MP’s) once in a while and let them know the tone they are taking is unacceptable and threaten to not support them if it continues.

  17. People fall into a trap if they actually believe that our system was designed for anything else than what it has, is and will be. Our system is designed and not only encourgaes but basically has to act just the way it has been anything else is short lived and of little value. It is the ultimate form of hubris to claim otherwise and only goes to show the level of self delusion some people are capable of. Our system of opposing ideas and actions is as they say much like a forge where the impurites of conflicting opinions are balanced and the loser faces the fire. To think that somehow that singing Kumbaya and sitting around in a political circle jerk will ever result in a sound policy is the highest form of political ignorance removing partisanship from the equation is like removing teams and then any and all fighting from Hockey – sure the quality of the game might improve a bit however it would no doubt only result a temporary break with another force coming into a play that destroys the game itself or at the least changing it to the point of being irrelevant.

    • Yup, nothing like hockey to provide a metaphor for government.

    • Oh I disagree. Of course the opposition always opposed, it is their job, and of course the government often put through bills over the opposition’s objections.

      But they had speeches! And they often listened to others! And occasionally, a speech would be so moving, so thoughtful and rational, that members would actually come to agree with the speechmaker! They were ALLOWED to come to consensus, just every now and then. And they could do so because the poisonous rhetoric wasn’t quite so lethal.

      On the other hand, they did burn down the building at least once.

      • But they saved a painting when they did. :)

  18. I like to believe that the majority of our MPs are honest, upstanding people. I know, I’m horribly naive.
    However, there are excellent MPs from every party. Maybe the should form their own political party. The Sensible Politicians Party.

    • Great idea. The rest could revive the Monster Raving Loony Party.

  19. I always think it’s such a pity SH didn’t get his majority. Had he, i believe we would have seen an entirely different man.

  20. None of which is to say politics need, or even should, be free of conflict or rhetorical jousting or wit.

    That’s the issue. It’s all conflict without any rhetorical jousting or wit.

    A sense of humour and genuine wit can do a lot to transcend minor conflict; but with the Harpies, the vilification is too extreme (accusations of pedophila, sympathy with terrorists, treason, etc.), there’s just no room for humour.

    • Yeah! Fuddle duddle seems charming and rather antiquated by the standards of these guys.

  21. Are there such MP’s? If so, how many would you need?

    • well, let’s see now. Presumably we need a quorum. There could be a problem, let me get back t you.

      • Just tell them they’ll all get cool names like “Mr. Green,” “Mr. Black, ” etc., in Reservoir Dogs.

        • There are probably already MP’s with those names ……… well,….. Mr. Pink might be a problem.