Monday, September 28, 2009

Thoughts on the Milton Town Hall Forum

Last Wednesday marked our first post-Garth Turner Town Hall meeting in Milton. It was hosted by our new Liberal candidate Deborah Gillis, and featured two eminent guest speakers: MPs Michael Savage and Dr. Carolyn Bennett.

As one of the organizers, I was very pleased at how well the event went off given that we only had two weeks to pull it all together. The hall got booked, the ad got into the paper on time, the flyers got handed out at the Farmers' Market the Saturday before, and despite my fears of an empty house we actually had about thirty people show up.

Given that our two guests were the Opposition critics for Human Resources and Health, respectively, we tried to come up with a theme and a title that would reflect their areas of expertise as they applied to local concerns while leaving things open to a broader discussion. Various ideas got bandied about until we finally ended up with "Building Canada's Health and Social Infrastructure".

I did mention we only had two weeks to do this, right?

Deb introduced our guests, everyone gave their opening remarks, and then we opened things up to questions from the floor. There had been some concern that some people would try to disrupt things with endless questions about Ignatieff and why the Liberals are trying to force an election, but it all turned out to be very civilized. I wasn't surprised. I had told Deb that even during the worst of the Garth Turner town halls, the disrupters usually restricted themselves to standing glowering against the back wall.

Of course, the discussion wasn't restricted to just the theme at hand. All kinds of issues came up, from the environment to civic engagement to election strategy in the riding of Halton. We talked about Aboriginal issues and the Kelowna Accord. We talked about engaging youth in the political process. We talked about the problems of promoting Liberal social policy in one of the richest ridings in the country.

Carolyn Bennett is a firecracker. She's one of those intense, passionate, socially conscious politicians that I've always been especially fond of. In fact, when she was talking about grassroots democracy and the ability of MPs to effectively represent their constituents, it was almost like listening to Garth again. Mike Savage is very much the same, although he seemed to have trouble getting a word in edgewise. And just the fact that Deb Gillis was willing and anxious to engage in this sort of public forum only six weeks after her nomination tells me that she is of the same mind.

Watching and listening to these three remarkable people, and having met and spoken to a growing number of other Liberal MPs over the past two years, it occurs to me that whatever the problems are with this party and this country, they are not primarily because of the men and women we have elected to the House of Commons. Maybe I'm self-selecting, but every one that I've met is just as passionate. Every one believes that their responsibility is to represent their constituents and not their party. Every one believes in social justice, and the idea that helping those in need raises us all up.

Beyond that, every one of them has specific, practical ideas for making these abstract values into functioning social policy.

I have no illusions that every single Liberal MP in the House of Commons is as intelligent and as socially committed as the dozen or so that I have personally met, or that every one of them is completely sincere. But nor do I doubt that there are many fine, committed Conservative and New Democrat Members who, while they might have different solutions, care deeply about democracy and social justice and want to see all Canadians live better lives.

So what's the problem? How is it that these intelligent, committed people are all reduced to children throwing spitballs during Question Period and, to a lesser extent, in committees and in the public media?

It's easy to blame it all on the Conservatives, and easier still to blame it all on Stephen Harper. But let's face it - if even half the MPs simply refused to engage in these ridiculous games, it couldn't go on.

Take Question Period. QP and the preparation for it occupies an inordinate number of hours out of the working day for each and every one of our MPs, and there is overwhelming agreement in every party that the whole process is a frustrating, humiliating, and utterly pointless show put on for a public that finds the whole thing disgusting.

Mike Savage colourfully described it as a "putrid, fetid, pus-filled swamp between two fifteen and three o'clock".

So why does it go on? Why isn't there a mass movement in all four caucuses to have QP moved to the morning, have rules of decorum imposed and enforced, and make other changes to turn it from being a circus into an actual exercise in holding government accountable?

Or take the mess that is internal party politics - particularly in the Liberal Party. Every single Liberal MP from Michael Ignatieff down to the lowliest backbencher will happily extol the virtues of "grassroots democracy". And yet we continue to have a system which allows the party leader to bypass the will of local members and arbitrarily appoint candidates.

I have been a Liberal Party member for about three years now, and I have yet to be allowed to vote for either the leader or the candidate of my choice.

Nobody likes this - not the MPs, not the riding executive, not the members - and it never, ever ends well. The squabbling over Outremont this past week is an extreme example, but even here in Halton where most riding members seem more or less content with the way things worked out, we still lost people who really wanted Garth back and were appalled at the way the whole thing went down. And that's not just bad for democracy - it's bad political strategy.

So why does it continue? What's the up side to allowing candidate appointments? It can't just be about getting more women elected - that's easy enough to fix through active recruitment. Is it really just a power thing, getting MPs in who are beholden to the party leader? 'Cause I really don't see someone like Deb Gillis kissing anyone's ring no matter how she got here.

It's puzzling to me. I'm sure that a large part of the answer lies in the power wielded by those unelected advisers, strategists and party officials whose roles seem so arcane and yet whose names keep cropping up whenever these issues arise. But who gave them that power in the first place?

Maybe it's all just David Smith's fault.

As depressing as all this seems, that town hall meeting actually gave me hope for my party and for my country. Because I am convinced now more than ever that there are a lot of good, good people representing us in Parliament, and even more working on the local level to get them elected. I know. I've met them.

We just need to figure out how to clear the way to let them do their jobs.

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