Agreeing or Being Agreeable? Partisanship vs. Opposition
It’s been a while since I’ve responded to Ted Falk; there hasn’t been much to say about his recent posts, except that they’re more or less exactly what an MP should be writing about. He’s telling us what the government is up to, and how it affects us here in the riding. He’s recognizing volunteers and veterans, announcing new services, and even putting out calls for proposals for new programs and events. Well done, Ted! I love to agree with what Ted is doing, though I often find it difficult to agree with what the Conservative government is doing. If I seem critical here, it’s because I’m supposed to. Allow me to explain.
A coworker recently told me that he really doesn’t like Elizabeth May. I was surprised; she’s always struck me as being the most positive, gracious, cooperative politician around. But my coworker pointed out that she disagrees with whatever the Conservatives say or do, and his perception of her is that she is a negative person who can’t bring herself to agree with anything. Ted Falk, on the other hand, has a very high opinion of Elizabeth May: he knows her both personally and professionally, and both likes her and is impressed by her work ethic and collegiality. But he admitted to me that he thought it would be nice if she agreed with the government more often.
My coworker is reacting to negativity and perceived partisanship in politics, and that’s good – our political system has become far too partisan and combative. Some people react to attack ads, for example, by becoming cynical about the whole political process and refusing to participate. (That’s actually quite deliberate: the Conservative campaign strategy is to alienate and suppress non-Conservative voters, using the same strategy the Republicans used in George W. Bush’s elections). Other people respond to negativity by just wanting everyone to cooperate and get along for a change. That’s more admirable than tuning out and refusing to vote, but it’s not a recipe for good legislation or an accountable government.
Agreeing vs. Being Agreeable
Ted and my coworker would both like Elizabeth May (and undoubtedly the rest of the MPs in the opposition) to agree with government legislation and policies rather than always arguing so passionately against them and pointing out their flaws. If she were to do so, she would be utterly failing in her job as an MP in the opposition. This is because our government is an adversarial system: one party (or a coalition) writes legislation and attempts to pass it, while the other parties, who have less power, pick it apart to ensure that it’s actually good for Canadians. The role of the opposition is to find the problems with a bill (and no bill is perfect) and point them out, and hold the government to account when it begins to overreach. The Senate has the same function. The reason we have this system is because we want to ensure that no individual person, party, region, or class has absolute power to act in their own interests at the expense of all Canadians.
So when Elizabeth May argues passionately against a government bill, she’s doing her job. She’s still friendly with MPs from other parties, and still supports them as people even when she doesn’t like their bills; and she still tries to work together with others whenever possible. She’s agreeable. And when I pick apart Conservative policies and Ted’s columns here, I’m doing mine. I want to represent you in Parliament, but until I’m elected the best I can do is try to keep Ted sharp and on his toes to ensure that he’s doing what’s best for you. This doesn’t mean that I dislike Ted, or that I don’t agree with anything he says on principle. That would be partisanship.
Partisanship is when a representative from one party opposes representatives from other parties simply because of their party affiliation. It’s a refusal to cooperate, putting the interests of the party ahead of the interests of Canadians. The role of disagreement in Parliament is supposed to be a refining process, altering legislation bit by bit before it is passed in order to make it better. Partisanship undermines that role, because it causes MPs to refuse to hear each other’s suggestions and ideas regardless of how good or bad they are. Partisanship takes an oppositional process of refining legislation for the good of all and turns it into a power struggle, or as a “team sport.” The trouble with this view is that politics is not a game: it’s our lives, our society, our ability to create a better world by working together.
Refusal to work together is being downright disagreeable. I would rather work with someone I generally disagree with, than refuse to acknowledge someone I might agree with because of who they are or who they represent. And I have no problem saying that Ted’s political communications lately have been good, even though I think some of the things he’s been communicating aren’t as good (lapel pins and certificates for veterans, after the dog’s breakfast this government has made of actual services for veterans? I don’t know if lip service is better, or worse, than nothing – if you want to help veterans, restore the services that were cut!). If Ted were in a position to actually represent his constituents rather than being a back-bencher in a party that controls his vote, and if he were using his position to argue for long-term sustainable policies and programs that benefit Provencher, then I’d be working with him. There are many places where Ted and I could see eye to eye, and I’d love to hear him say that his party is willing to compromise, to work with others, or even to allow for proper debate and amendments to the legislation they ram through Parliament. We’re willing, but cooperation is a two-way street.
The Green Party has consistently invited the other parties to work together toward shared goals. In regard to democratic reform, we invited the other parties to work with us toward instituting proportional representation in Canada; they refused, not because they don’t want proportional representation, but because they don’t want to cooperate to get there. There was even a leaked NDP memo telling NDP MPs that they could not even read the letter on this subject that Elizabeth May sent to them. There have been calls to cooperate on many other issues, always with similar results.
We’ll continue to try to work with the other parties to create a better Canada, even if on the surface that looks like we’re opposing them. What we won’t do is refuse to hear an idea because of who’s saying it, or band together as a “team” in order to try and “win.” We’re all Canadians, and we’re all in this together – but agreement has to start with being agreeable.