Some thoughts now on Mark Kingwell’s recent essay, not necessarily in response, but at least inspired by. Andrew Potter has posted some of his thoughts here. Both Andrew and Mark are exceptionally smart and have offered valuable perspective and insight. I apologize for the complete lack of references to Aristotle in what follows.
Turn to page 21 of John Duffy’s indispensable Fights Of Our Lives and you’ll find an editorial cartoon depicting Canadian politics as a seven-headed dragon: some of the heads are named Perjury, Drunkenness, Bribery and Calumny. The cartoon appeared in the January 22, 1874 edition of the Canadian Illustrated News. Our country was, by then, less than seven years old. Five pages later, Duffy describes the 1891 election thusly:
Macdonald saw before him an unexpected and timely opportunity to turn the spotlight away from his decaying government and onto his opponent’s proposal. He transformed the election called for March 5, 1891, into a two-month attack on Laurier’s loyalties, arguing that unrestricted reciprocity was “commercial union” and tantamount to “annexation” by the United States. Macdonald played both of the country’s militant extremes against the middle, hammering the Liberals as traitors in English Canada while enlisting his church allies in Quebec to trash Laurier as an anti-clerical rouge out to destroy Quebec’s Catholic character. It worked. The Tories managed to hang on to their majority despite losses in Ontario and Quebec.
Twenty years ago, a story appeared in this magazine under the headline “Politics of Abuse.” “Many analysts,” it was reported, “say that civility is disappearing from Canadian politics.”
It’s possible that in the century in between, Canada achieved, however briefly, a state of civility: or at least that we were somehow better than we are now. But it is probably fair to say that Canadian politics has never been a gentleman’s pursuit, defined principally by reason, eloquence and goodness. Our politics is inherently and intentionally adversarial. It is populated by people who must first have the ego necessary to put one’s name on a ballot and assert one’s fitness for leadership, power and privilege. When such people are placed in opposition, unpleasant things will occur. Distasteful remarks shall ensue.
All of which is to say I’m not convinced that we are somehow worse off than we have ever been. In two and a half years watching the daily ritual of Question Period, I’ve seen and heard things that have made me depressed, angry, despondent and various other adjectives that would probably qualify me for immediate medical attention. I can recall, on one occasion, finding it hard to remain in my seat and watch, actually feeling the urge to flee the area. But I’m not sure I’d be able to say anything different had I somehow been able to watch the previous 140 years in their entirety.
I don’t think it much matters though how now compares to before. However better or worse or the same it was in the past, it should probably only matter how it is at present, and how acceptable we consider that to be. If we aren’t happy with how it is, that should be enough, regardless of precedent.
So let’s start there. What precisely is wrong with what we have now?
Question Period is, at present, a fairly witless exercise. That members should ridicule or mock another’s position or circumstance is to be expected. That it is currently done so stupidly is consistently disappointing. In addition to its substantive and practical value, politics should at least be somewhat entertaining. At present, there is more wit on display in the average high school cafeteria at lunch than in the average session of Question Period. If I must watch, I would appreciate better jokes.
What else? Is too much power concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office? Is Question Period poorly structured? Are Parliamentary committees insufficiently empowered? Is publicly funded propaganda too prevalent? Are confidence votes misused? Many such flaws in the system could be legislated. In the past week, Parliament has moved to end the blight of ten-percenters and, at least in theory, limit the Prime Minister’s power to prorogue the House. There may even be voters willing to look kindly on parties who show an interest in such things.
Are the Parliamentary Press Gallery and the country’s major media outlets failing the population they are supposed to serve? At times, yes. On this, there is perhaps some hope in the current turmoil of the media business. If, as we move forward, outlets are compelled to focus financially not on advertising but on drawing and maintaining readership and viewership, we may find that what many readers and viewers want is nothing more complicated than better and more useful journalism. If I were put in charge of a paper tomorrow, that’s the wager I’d make. If that failed, I’d hire Glenn Beck to be my managing editor.
Do anonymous web commenters often drag discussions down to their basest possible level? Sure. But no more so than those who enjoy talk radio, a medium that has existed for more than half a century.
These are technical points though. When we talk about civility what we’re talking about is tenor and tone, the way political players talk and behave and interact. And on that, I will actually defend our current state of incivility. Or at least assert its relevance.
The suggestion that MPs should act more civilly has always struck me as somewhat misdirected. Truly civil people, I suspect, don’t need to be told to be civil, they don’t need to act. And, with all due respect to the theatrical aspects of politics, I don’t generally believe that what we see each afternoon in Ottawa is anything less than who these people are, or at least who they are willing to be. However grossly they are willing to act, I’d rather it be on display in an open forum. And for all the reasons to disregard the proceedings, much of everything that you could possibly want to know about the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and various other prominent members on all sides could likely be gleaned from watching a week’s worth of Question Period. Whatever else it is, it is a test of character. Or at least it should be regarded as nothing less.
At the same time, it’s impossible, I’d argue, to separate the politicians we have from the people who elected them (or the people who, in not voting, allow them to be elected). Politicians are, strictly speaking, our representatives. But they are, more specifically, our creations. They do what will be rewarded, avoid what will be punished. They are who we allow them to be. As such, the House of Commons between the hours of 2pm and 3pm, as members gather for Question Period, is nothing more than a reflection of the country as it is. Perhaps we are not often quite as angry or indignant or spiteful or petty. But if the discussion is lacking in maturity or seriousness or inspiration or verve, is it not possible that that is merely an indication of where we are as a people? Would it be at all that unreasonable to suggest that we, as a public, are as disengaged and self-satisfied as our politics? This would not necessarily make us bad or stupid or mean. Perhaps we are merely content and in the absence of urgency, our politics languishes.
Ultimately though, it is us. We can turn away, stop watching or dismiss it all as so much nonsense. We can warn of dire consequences if nothing improves. But ultimately our politics, at its highest levels, is what we let it be. And so it becomes who we are. And until we are willing to be something different, we are left with what it is.