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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 22 February 2014

This Just In: There's Just Us

It's a grand tradition in most arts not politics; you introduce your hero's secret strength early on in the story, tease it as drawback at the end of the First Act, bring it back to a hopeful theme at the end of the Second and then build to your climax where the hero prevails.

People wanted it to happen, hoped it would happen, and are rewarded with a satisfying conclusion.
So, yeah - I approve.  But we're not into the Final Act yet, are we?

The Tories are about the win, and they won't like the idea of losing a majority to an upstart.  Harper especially.  They're going to be looking for anything and everything they can do to further their narrative that Trudeau is unpredictable, unstable even, and certainly not up to the job of leadership.

Which, of course, brings us back to another story-telling trope of unintended consequences getting more predictable as desperation sets in for the piece's villain.  They won't believe you if you try to tell them that, though - it's an empire thing.

That's the trick with great stories; it's not about the story teller, it's about the experience of their vision.

An experience that creates community, builds around a theme grander than any player, part or stage.

And if that's not quintessentially Canadian, what is?

SOCRATA: Introducing The Open Data Ecosystem

I get to meet the most interesting people.  

There were a bunch of them at Open Data Day Toronto yesterday, including two fellows from SOCRATA.  We talked web design, open government and empowering citizens access.

They shared the following slides with me.  This, folks, is where we're headed:

From vending machines...

 ... To Ecosystems:

Friday 21 February 2014

Political People

A good piece by Delacourt, though I'm biased:

So on and so forth.

But I think she's dead wrong on one point - a key point:

Fans celebrate Team Canada win
How many Team Canada jerseys did I see on the streets today?  How many people put on garb and makeup for athletic events in general?  Or do Cosplay, or dress like a hipster, or wear a pin for cancer awareness?  Why do we spend so much money on fashion in the first place?

Symbols matter; we see the world through the lens of symbols.  That's not something that sets us apart; that's something we have in common.  We also understand the world through identification - threat, benefit, no value.  That's basic biological hardwiring. 

The more competitive we are, the more we rely on these narrow frames; one group to belong to, another to define ourselves against.  There's nothing unique to political people about this.  It's innate to everybody.  By gender, language, ethnicity, sexuality, even music preference we're always creating "us" and "them" categorizations.

You put anyone under conditions of extreme, chronic competitive strain, they will distill the world down into zero-sum competition; with them, against them or in their way.

You see, there is fundamentally nothing different between us and political people - it's the competitive, time-sensitive and increasingly expensive pressures of political culture that makes them feel the need to differentiate from us.  It makes it easier to be manipulative of voters and vicious to their opponents - and controlling of their own teams.

We need to dehumanize people before we can treat them in inhumane fashion.  And that's exactly what politics does; this is why partisan politics is spiraling down the ethical drain and increasingly focused on micro-targeting key messages to key, targeted constituents.  It's not about growing the country equitably; it's about fighting over shrinking resources.

Which leads into the real nub of the issue here.  When "Canadians" start to see themselves as different than those "political people", it's not because they're trying to figure out why the behavioural differences; it's a subconscious way of dehumanizing them, allowing for less humane treatment back.

We can't say we weren't warned, though.

I shouted out
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

Open Government: The Peaceable Revolution

I'm doing a presentation about this on Sunday.  It'll be the first time I've presented to a group this way in years.  It may be recorded; wish me luck! 

Open Government: The Peaceable Revolution


Before we can talk about what Open Government is, we need to have a bit of clarity on how government works. 

In front of you is a sheet labeled “About Government.”  I want you to harken back to your high school civics classes and see how many of these questions you can answer:

-          Who is Canada’s Government accountable to?
o   Parliament – not the Canadian people
-          According to our Constitution, who is Canada’s Government?         
o   The Queen, acting on the advice of her Privy Council
-          What powers does our Constitution grant Cabinet?
o   None. Cabinet isn’t even mentioned in our Constitution
-          Who elects Canada’s Prime Minister?
o   Nobody.  In fact, the Prime Minister doesn’t even need to be an elected official
-          What responsibility does the Prime Minister’s Office have to the Canadian public?
o   None. They are just the support staff of the Prime Minster of the Crown in the Queen’s Government

If you had some trouble with these questions, don’t feel bad – you’re not alone.

In 2008, Canada faced a Parliamentary Crisis; the Opposition Parties in the House of Commons took issue with the content of a fiscal update presented to Parliament by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Governing conservative Party.

An agreement was made between the Leaders of the various Opposition Parties to vote down the update, triggering a federal election. 

Instead of letting this happen, Harper went to the Governor General to request prorogation – essentially, to shut down the Legislature and hit the reset button, neutering the Opposition’s ability to bring down the Conservative Government.  Then-Conservative House Leader John Baird explained the tactic to avoid an election thusly:

“We’ll go over the heads of the members of Parliament; go over the heads, frankly, of the Governor General; go right to the Canadian people."

In short – Baird was suggesting that the Queen’s Government go over the heads of her own representative (the Governor General) and over the heads of the people to whom they are accountable (Parliament).  Not something I suggest you try at work yourself.

An Ancient Rite: From Absolute Monarchy to Responsible Government

“I’m the king.  That means I get what I want.”
-          Robert Baratheon, Game of Thrones

Canadians do not elect their government, nor is that government constitutionally answerable to Canadians.  It’s not even in our Constitution that what we think of as government (Prime Minister, Cabinet) have to be elected officials.

Canada is a Constitutional Monarchy whose basic governance model dates back to 1066 and the beginning of feudalism in Britain.

At that time, there was no notion of the commons, no concept of citizen engagement and ideas like transparency and accountability weren’t even thought of in abstract.  The Monarch’s rule was absolute; the role of Privy Council (of which Cabinet is a sub-committee) was to advise and provide administrative support – which is why we refer to Ministers of the Crown today.

Parliament didn’t have its beginnings until almost 200 years later when Britain’s feudal barons
forced the first restrictions on the Crown and its Ministers, putting on paper that no law could be made or tax imposed without their approval.

This was the beginnings of what we now call Responsible Government.

A responsible government is one where the Crown’s Ministers are responsible to Parliament, rather than Parliament being accountable to the Crown

For British colonies like Canada, this meant having the Crown’s Ministers responsible to our own Parliament, not one that existed across the pond.  There’s a plaque in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly which commemorates the “Peaceable Revolution” that led to the first example of responsible government in Canada.

But where do every day Canadians fit in?  We elect Members of Parliament, the people who hold the Crown’s government to account on our behalf.  We don’t vote for governments

It has become convention for governments to be comprised of Parliamentarians, just as it has become convention for Prime Ministers and their unelected staff to exercise iron-clad control over Cabinet Ministers. 

Neither has always been the case.  Ministers of the Crown used to have much more independence and a lot less coordination as they administered their files.  As recent in Canada as the 1960s, the PM was seen as “first among equals” rather than The Leader.  While increased coordination between Members of Cabinet allows for more strategic and efficient planning, it also results in a more uniform voice across government.

This is why it’s problematic that bitter partisanship is taking over our Parliament.  To have any hope of advancement, MPs must stay on the good side of their political leaders who either lead government or hope to.  Instead of offering alternative policy suggests, Shadow Cabinets are only fulfilling their role as Opposition Parties.  Our system is designed to work the other way.

In our modern context, it’s the Prime Minister who is taking on the role of absolute monarch with their unelected staff replacing the Privy Council as administrators of the State.

From Responsible Government to Open Government

A responsible government is one that is accountable to Parliament, not the Crown.  Parliament is supposed to have access to government information and the processes by which government decides on its policies so that it can do its job directly.

But what happens if Parliament isn’t holding government to account, but playing to partisan interests?  What happens when Parliamentarians either can’t access or absorb all the data they need to be effective in their jobs, or cherry-pick the facts that suit their Party’s interests?

This is why John Baird should be a big fan of Open Government, which Wikipedia defines as “a governing doctrine which holds that citizens have the right to access the documents and proceedings of the government to allow for effective public oversight.”

The idea behind Open Government is that government data and decision-making processes are open to all Canadians rather than just our elected officials.  This allows for us to more effectively hold our elected officials to account and participate more directly in the policy-shaping process. 

The Open Government movement is our Magna Carta moment, a peaceable revolution of the people.

The Solution to Stigma is Community

I love this story; it captures so many of the positive themes that are out there, waiting to be connected, that can only be connected when people get past what they can take or what others are getting and instead focus on what they can give.

Alvena Little-Wolf Ear made one of the toughest decisions a person can make - to get out from under bullying the hard way, but in the only way that solves the problem.  

She didn't walk away.  She didn't hit back or take our frustrations on someone else to build a reputation for toughness.

Nope.  She decided to build on her own strength and become a rock for others.

This is the kind of hero we like to hold up as a model - the kind that overcomes any obstacle to win in the final act.  But the truth is, not everyone can do what Alvena has done.  Not everyone is cut out to be a leader.

But when we have leaders - true leaders, the kind with visions and determination to help others - they can empower peers and complete strangers to follow in their path.

This is the kind of leader we need today; not the ones who rise above, but the ones who build community.

I Out-Winter Flaherty

flaherty igloo

It's a nice igloo, Minister.

But I made mine myself.  And I slept in it.

Believe me, it's a completely different feeling when you lie in a bed you've made yourself, with your own resources.  It may be harder to build than to cut down, but the sense of accomplishment is worth it.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Horse Drivers and Outlaws: Politics IS Tribalism

I'm not sure Kate Heartfield would have written this piece were she not an editorialist in need of attention-getting opinions to present.  I would hope she realizes that politics doesn't run on intelligence, at all.  Good guys and bad guys, scapegoats, countless dollars donated to Parties that are telling us we don't have enough money in our pockets to function?  

Partisan framing tugs at emotions.  It concocts coalitions to deliver wins.  Then it looks at policy.  It's audience, issue, emotion and then, at the tail end, appeals to our self-delusions of being rational actors.

Partisan politics is tribal.  It is anything but rational.  And until we consciously accept that our strings are being pulled by vested interests who are just as trapped using Plato's Desktop as they try to develop a newer, tablet-y version of politics, it'll stay this way. 

Andrew Coyne: Canada's Hari Seldon

Stephen Harper's Canada: The Non-Society

Does anyone remember the Great Parliamentary Crisis of 2008/09?  Stephen Harper's Conservative Government proposed eliminating the public subsidy political parties get in an election.  The Opposition Parties opposed this move, and planned to bring the minority government down.
Instead of taking the issue to the public, Harper decided to prorogue Parliament. 
To the ensuing outcry that Team Harper was circumventing the democratic process, then-House Leader John Baird said this:
"We'll go over the heads of the members of Parliament; go over the heads, frankly, of the Governor General; go right to the Canadian people."
The big problem with that statement, of course, was that it reinforced the argument being made against the Tories.  Who, exactly, was going over the heads of Parliament and the Governor General?  The government, or the Conservative Party?  Government is legally an agency of the Crown, represented by the Governor General, answerable to the people's representatives, Parliament.
The Conservative Party had recognized their superior ability to raise money from the public and decided to undercut their opponents' ability to compete with them on the paid media war.  Faced with opposition from Parliament, the Conservative Party circumvented that opposition.
Now, the Conservative Party has a majority - a challenged one, thanks in no part to scandals related to their partisan fund-raising apparatus.  In addition to Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin were key fundraisers for the Tories.
The Conservative Government has brought forward a new bill, the Fair Elections Act, which increases the amount of money Political Parties can raise and kills the public's ability to promote voter participation.  Particularly impacted by this move are Canadians with disabilities/mobility challenges and youth.  As it happens, these groups don't tend to be traditional supporters of the Conservatives.
It's worth taking a look at the Conservative's economic policy as a good frame to understand what they're trying to do with our electoral system.  They have decided that it's in Canada's best interests to be strictly a natural resource export economy; more external trade will create better opportunities for us to sell these resources while anything that gets in the way of the process, like eco-extremists, are threat to their plan.  Anyone who may have other ideas about what Canada should look like are excluded from the process, defunded and demonized.
That's exactly what they're trying to do with our politics.  The Conservatives are attempting to reduce electoral competition (you need big bucks to play) on the back end and reduce voter participation on the front end.  Big picture, it's people with money or that fit a narrow definition of citizen that are encouraged to play.  Those who do play will play dirty - it's compete to win, victory absolves sin.
There's no place for the public in this picture, no real sense of confederation, just individual interests competing monetarily for success.
Which brings us back to John Baird's statement.  It's rather telling when a Party feels it's okay to circumvent the process and "go over the heads" of both their boss and auditors to get what they want.
Now, it's as if the Harper Conservatives are willing to go over the heads of the Canadian people who won't support them, either, to get what they want.
There's a reason the Tories don't believe in committing sociology - from their apparent point of view, there's just them and the people in their way.
So much for the Just Society.  After all, we're an empire now, aren't we?

Roots and Umbrellas: Weathering the Canadian Spring

Justin Trudeau has positioned himself as the voice of change in Canadian politics.  His team has come to the conclusion that a coalition of middle class, youth, and a few other key demographics can buy this message and vault him to the PMO.

To distinguish himself as different from what came before, he has strategically distanced himself from some established political staples.  In times of old, it was common wisdom to surround yourself at big conventions with the winningest faces in your Party's history, hoping some of their shine will rub off on you.  

Not ironically, there are more than a few would-be Liberal candidates out there who spent more time selling their tenuous links to Trudeau than trying to define their own vision and brand.

There's no question that something has to change in Canadian politics; our system has gone off the rails, with partisan convention trumping the actual constitutional functioning of Parliament and government.  

The system as-is offers little shelter to every-day Canadians.  Even MPs don't know what they're supposed to stand for or who they're answerable to these days; on paper it's their constituents, but everyone knows the balance of power lies in the hands of the Party, not the People.

What good is a strong hand at the till if not everyone is allowed on the boat?

Which is why I think disbanding the Liberal caucus was a good thing, in principle (which isn't the same thing as smart politics, but I digress).  There have been disparaging words thrown his way for dismissing loyal Party stalwarts and "kicking them to the curb."  While I can understand the sentiment behind that feeling, I think it's really a symptom of the culture of entitlement that pervades our politics.

The once-Liberal Senators haven't been kicked out of the Liberal house so much as they've been set free to follow their conscience instead of partisanship interests.  And that's what the Senate is supposed to do.  In fact, partisanship on the whole is more convention than the law of the land - it has its value but often becomes a thick lens that obscures our politicians' ability to see and hear Canadians.

But I don't think it's smart to completely distance oneself from the past, good or bad.  

Here's why.

1) Canada is a temporal creature that must be understood in the context of where we've come from to properly determine the right course forward.  Engaging with leaders of old is about more than just borrowing their brand; it's about receiving their counsel.  What's been tried before, what didn't work?  What meta-trends have they seen form over time that younger people might be able to read about, but not feel and understand in their bones?

2) Today's seniors were yesterday's youth.  If you turn your back on the past, you are choosing not to represent those who shaped today's present.  It's bad for policy, bad for image and equally as important, it sets a precedent you might not like.  History shows us how this works.

3) Those who fail to understand history...  I have been involved in a few leadership campaigns where relative Party "outsiders" decided they were going to change the system that they felt was flawed and exclusionary.  They were determined to "do politics differently."  

Once they won, that is.  When it came down to the brass tacks of political logistics, I saw nothing different between their operation and the operation of the establishment.  Top-down hierarchies, closed-door meetings of insiders, divide-and-conquer strategies, so on and so forth became the fire in which this opportunity to do things differently would be forged.  

You cannot do politics differently by simply switching the paradigm and leaving those in the ivory towers and skyscrapers to rot.

4) Canada's future must be built on common ground.  

We cannot talk about big tents or moving forward together if we are consciously leaving people behind.  It's as simple as that.  This isn't cheap rhetoric or an idealistic fantasy - it's fact.  The greater the collaborative diversity, the stronger our chance of successful adaptation.  

From severe weather to increased political unrest in places that have been stable for generations, things are changing out there.  We need all hands on deck to weather the coming storms.

So yes to sunny ways, to the essence of good leadership - which is persuasion, not force, and setting the example, not micro-managing from afar.

But a tree without roots cannot hope to grow far and it never hurts to carry an umbrella.  That's the sort of experienced wisdom our elders have to share.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Mutant Pride: Ellen Page Represents

Good for Ellen Page.  I don't imagine it's an easy thing coming out, or even admitting to yourself that maybe you aren't what society expects you to be.  There's got to be some cognitive dissonance that goes along with that which must be taxing.  It reminds me of a quote from X-Men: First Class - 

The X-Men have often been used as a metaphor for people who are stigmatized for their differences; it's worth noting that gay actor Ian McKellan has said friends and colleagues told him his acting improved after he came out, as though he was suddenly better able to inhabit his roles.

Both Ellen Page and Ian McKellan play the roles of mutants in the X-Men franchise.

Accompanying Page's coming out has been the usual trolling responses anyone gets when they come out as gay, having a mental illness or anything else that makes them "extra-normal."  Straight people don't make a big deal out of their sexuality, why do gay people have to parade themselves in front of everyone?

Reading these comments got me thinking - why does it matter that people public declare themselves "extra-normal?"  

It matters internally for the reason stated above - no one should have to live in denial of themselves.  Of course, no one should have to fear reprisal for being themselves, either, but that's clearly still not the case.  

From Toronto Mayors to Russian Presidents, LGBTQ people are still heavily stigmatized by many for something other than the content of their character.

Which is why coming out matters externally, too.  Whatever we tell ourselves, gay people are still considered "extra-normal" in the same way that you don't see that many women on Bay Street or black men in politics.  It's considered a kiss of death to publicly disclose you have a mental illness - and this in spite of the grand tradition of great leaders, innovators and catalyzers all being a bit "extra-normal."

When a black man becomes President or a popular actress comes out of the closet and retains her career afterwards, a message is sent to others in society that it can be safe for them to live externally who they are internally.

In essence, the message conveyed is that mutants can co-habit successfully with their more normal (straight, white, whatever) peers.

Of course, the end goal should always be to get to a point where there's no need for people to come out, because we'll have an expanded enough understanding of what it means to be human that it really won't matter what your faith, sexuality or any of it is.  You'll be exposed to variety and encouraged to find and be true to yourself from day one.

That vision of society is still a long way off, though.  In truth, we may never get there.  

So I'm glad that people like Ellen Page are prepared to stand up and take pride in who they are, "extra-normal" or no.  If we're ever to retire the notion of "extra" from humanity, it's going to take people folk like her to lead the way.

  1. @Poynter Silly @guardian. You can't catch gay by hanging out with people. But you catch Awesome from hanging out with @SirPatStew!
MT “@Gruaig_Rua: @Poynter Silly @guardian. You can't catch gay by hanging out with people."