I read two posts this morning published by former London-North Centre MP Glen Pearson (@GlenPearson) and London City Councillor Paul Hubert (@phubert1961) that got me thinking about and started on this blog. Glen wrote for the Huffington Post in this article about Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Paul wrote in this blog about his experiences of this past week, dominated by the city budget approval process on Tuesday. I’ll start with a quote from Glen’s article:
When [Lincoln] and his opponents had reached a standstill, he would sometimes say, “Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.” Is there any of this kind of reasoning in our politics anymore? Is anyone grand enough to say it … and mean it? Every party says they want peace, prosperity, a cleaner environment, and better communities, but they start with the divisions and not the commonality. The vitriolic and partisan mudslinging continues even as once-prosperous nations continue their downward slide.
We all want the same things, yet only our party’s method is correct. Canadians watch with dismay as all sides of the House become embroiled in controversy and petty insults. I have heard many citizens say with disgust they feel they don’t know where to turn, with comments such as “The Liberals bullied through their agenda and cheated taxpayers with the Ad Scam fiasco, and yet the Conservatives seem little better. Who can I possibly vote for? They’re all crooks and liars as far as I’m concerned.” How can we possibly bring ourselves back from the brink of such skepticism and frustrstion, especially when it seems so well-founded?
Meanwhile, London is seeing a similar situation playing out in our own City Council chambers. This year’s budget has been heatedly contested despite the fact that last year’s budget passed relatively smoothly even with a 0% tax freeze. As several councillors against the contested “B” cut list have observed, prudent cuts were achieved last year without discussing using city reserves and services to reach 0%. That all changed this year, and with it, the tone of City Council. As Councillor Paul Hubert observes:
The mocking of members statements and denigration of their principles does not win the respect of Londoners. Sadly this inpoverishes the debate of issues and the character of council.
I and others watched in dismay from the gallery as not only personal philosophies but also the person themselves became targets. Councillor White made a backhand remark that despite downloading occurring in the city because of the McGuinty government, if Councillor Branscombe (who ran in the last provincial election as a PC) and Tim Hudak had succeeded we’d be in much worse shape. This type of partisan politics sickens me when it occurs in the “correct” sphere, but to have it made to attack another’s character and position on the City of London budget left many shaking their heads. Several of these types of personal animosities flared up as the night dragged on.
I imagine many citizens see these kinds of displays and say “If this is what civil engagement and politics is all about, forget it”.
So there does this leave us? People have pointed to the Occupy movement that has circled the globe as a positive step for democracy and engagement of young people in the process. I applaud the messages Occupy has sent about numerous issues including income disparity as the gap continues to widen and the environment as our country continues to push for rampant resource extraction despite the costs to our planet – but I believe it must evolve and participate more closely with the public system to make its voice and message heard and influential. Some Occupiers seem to embrace this as they speak and participate in groups the London City Symposium/Citizen Panel discussions, while others keep a skeptical distance. I understand our system is flawed and even in democracies like ours corruption can still build deep roots, which fosters this disillusion. The embarrassing conduct of our elected representatives at times can also breed disgust. For my part, I believe we must “occupy the system”, engage and meet with our representatives, work to become those representatives to make the difference we want to see.
I expressed disgust and outrage at the conduct of some occupy members at last Tuesday’s 2012 budget approval as they stood, waved banners and chanted slogans from the public gallery at City Council – despite the fact viewing members of the public were to be silent observers – as contentious cuts were passed. I wrote and talked to Council members about my concerns and watched as a bitterly divided Council voted to approved the cuts 8-7. For my part, I stayed silent though I was deeply dismayed. I expressed over Twitter my frustration with their conduct; while some echoed my sentiment, others said they believe it was important for the community to speak up against these “shameful” cuts, and sitting quiet sure wasn’t accomplishing anything.
I imagine those same occupiers that were with me in the gallery might feel I was the one not engaged. Who can say?
As times change, perhaps our methods of engagement might need to change to attract people to the process. Some council members expressed frustration with the occupy group that interrupted the proceedings, but I was deeply impressed by the quiet but commanding way Councillor Matt Brown chaired the session, and patiently waited for occupy to show respect and allow Council to continue. To me, he was a prime example of what our democracy should work to be. Respectful, controlled and patient. Council and citizens demand respect, but members of both groups have failed this agreement. All parties involved need to show the type of reasoning Lincoln embodied. We all want the same thing – a vibrant, active and engaged city, province, country and world. We should all ask ourselves not what is different between “us” and “them”, but to see commonality and work to bridge the gaps. Easier said then done.