“Things seem a bit better, eh?” The observation from a Conservative colleague as we fought our way through the cold winter blast along Wellington Street this week stuck in my craw. He believed MPs were treating one another better during Question Period. “But we’re still not getting anything serious done.” He considered that for a second, then affirmed, “That’s true, but at least we’re behaving better.”
This last phrase came to mind again yesterday during another raucus QP. I’m all for more decorum – been fighting for it for four years – but it’s useless if the Parliament of Canada can’t discover compromise and move ahead progressively with legislation. My friend had only taken a placebo and was imagining the rest. The true test of professional political behaviour is whether representatives can find accommodations on the vital issues of the country. That is not happening in Ottawa.
Working on development issues on four different continents over the years has taught me some valuable lessons. One of them relates to tribalism and its powerful hold over a people. While providing comfort and security, it also has the capability of keeping people backward in outlook. In Kenya during the political riots a couple of years ago, I was shocked to see the brutal level of election violence in a land many had believed to be the most advanced in Africa. The root of it all, as Kofi Annan observed at the time, was that after years of political domination, the historic tribe of the retiring president was in danger of losing power to a competing tribe and it had upset decades of a more peaceable order. For a lengthy time, the perk posts in the government and service structure had been appointed mostly to the ruling clan and they suddenly proved reticent to willingly give up years of luxury regardless of how people voted.
Ottawa has become the land of tribes. It’s everywhere and it’s entrenched. While the proclivity to retain power and reward your friends has been a part of every society, the present Canadian political order has broken down into the most crude elements of survival and verbal skullduggery. This has had a direct effect on democratic performance, even infesting bureaucratic levels. Of course, semblances of this have been readily apparent for three decades, but the recent government has successfully reduced Canada to the land of tribes because it has been able to maintain the reins of power through sheer boorishness.
To be clear, partisanship is not tribalism. The former is about political leanings, the latter is about political ignorance and brutality and how they are unfolded. Being here for a time has shown me that MPs are usually members of their respective parties for a reason. It’s not just about seeking a position, but is rather about securing a place within a political party that is closest to one’s leanings. There are some exceptions, but the rule still applies. It has been an essential part of the Canadian political landscape from the beginning. Left unchecked by the higher instincts of curiosity, imagination, a sense of respect, and the pursuit for solutions that work the best for all, partisanship can become a base instinct akin to the tribal nature. Yesterday I watched as its clutches rose up and pulled down, however briefly, a very good government MP and friend from my region who had sent out spurious and misleading information about Liberals in a flyer. My heart sank. It was a defining moment for me … and him.
The recent era of vicious attack ads, the inability to reach out across the aisle, power at all costs, the turning of questions into an opportunity for mockery, has crippled this nation’s political effectiveness. It has sadly corrupted the intellect and poisoned the wells of human sympathy and understanding. Honour should belong to those who resist the tribal pull, but honour fled the chamber some time ago. The Canadian people are treated like morons, as if somehow appealing to their base instincts will charge them up to vote for the party. It is doomed to failure, but the present government has been able to hold on to power through that most debilitating of all human traits: apathy.
Almost 150 years of civilization and regional accommodation may have been overtaken by the deep and abiding chasms of tribalism in the House of Commons, but Canadians themselves are largely refusing to go through the blood ritual of membership. They observe the anger, the system of Conservative patronage appointments unmatched in recent memory, the nauseous rounds of panel shows where clubs and spears are mandatory, and 150 years of instinct have trained them to spot barbarism. Not for them, they say. Yet because it’s democracy, they can’t escape its clutches without visiting a voting booth. Welcome to tribalism, Canadian style. It has debauched Ottawa but the jury is out whether we, as voters, will let it consume the country.