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Politics: War By Other Means
On the real role of Members of Parliament
Politics, it is said, is the art of war by other means. It could also be seen as a professional sports game in which the results matter – and one in which the winning team sets the rules for the next round.
It has always fascinated me, and I started watching CPAC, Canada’s parliamentary channel, as an early teen. For my 14th birthday, I asked for my first party membership, and have spent most of my life since involved in both community and partisan politics. With my focus divided between the worlds of free software and advocacy for better public transit, and my free time going into political campaigns, I eventually found myself on Parliament Hill as an assistant to several MPs until finally running for office myself.
And so, from the election of October 19th, 2015 to the election of October 21st, 2019, I served as the Member of Parliament for Laurentides–Labelle, the 19,694 square kilometre federal riding bridging the rural areas north of Montreal and Ottawa and into the forestry lands of Quebec in which I grew up. I first won with 32% of the vote – and then lost with 33% of the vote.
My unplanned departure left a gaping hole in my sense of purpose, in what is still left to accomplish. That is what I explore here, through anecdotes, writings, speeches, background, and other bits and pieces reassembled from the breadcrumbs of public records and my own notes and recollections. It is not meant as a comprehensive record of my life nor my time in office, but is rather a sampling of both what happened, and what lessons can be taken.
Four years in public office is really only enough to start learning what is possible and how everything works, no matter how many years of involvement and preparation went into getting there. And there is no time quite like the years following public service to think about all the things you could have accomplished if only you had survived just a little longer.
Life on Parliament Hill is not Members of Parliament spending their time at the Parliamentary pub contemplating the deeper meaning of life and how society can be restructured to help those who need it most. It is far more of an endless and unwinnable game of whack-a-mole, where intellectual laziness or the chronic fatigue of 90-hour workweeks can quickly give way to a deferral to self-described experts, paid to provide generally biassed insight, information, and opinions-as-fact under the catch-all description of lobbying.
Most lobbyists on the Hill promote narrow and financially viable private interests. MPs themselves are your lobbyists; their key role being advocates for the public, yet almost none fully internalise this simple concept.
The period since I left Ottawa has been both short and a lifetime, and has left me questioning what I wanted to accomplish, why I was there in the first place, and whether I ultimately succeeded at any of it.
Before being elected, I was determined to bring forward significant society-wide changes on a number of issues, beyond the vague, short-term, or oddly specific commitments of any political party’s election platform. While I never wrote them down as a personal priority list, some that come to mind are:
bridging the urban-rural divide;
transit-oriented infrastructure on a national scale;
true reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples;
seeking true democratic reform but that addresses the right problems;
life-cycle planning for every product sold or manufactured in the country;
free and open source software for all non-classified government needs;
universal basic income; and
the complete demonetisation of politics,
to name but a few.
In the end the only bill I managed to table, too late to move forward and not picked up by anyone after my departure, addressed a single long-term structural issue in Parliament without any obvious relevance to the public prior to the American coup attempt on January 6th, 2021, and the Ottawa occupation of early 2022: the total separation of Parliamentary security from executive influence, a topic likely worthy of a book in its own right.
The above priorities would probably remain undone even if I were still there. There is little likelihood of moving them along because there is no tradition and little infrastructure to support individual elected politicians in actually making a difference. For those wondering why the government generally moves slowly, and rarely in the right direction, this is a significant part of it.
The Parliament of Canada is governed by a strict set of rules. The Elections Act governs getting there. The Standing Orders govern being there. The Lobbying Act and the Conflict of Interest Act govern who you can do what with while you are there.
But many of the rules that actually govern Parliament aren’t written down. They include the rules of human relations, political strategies, and raw games of power. Few people on the Hill hold a degree in political science; the way it really works, in any case, is not taught in a classroom or a lecture hall.
There are strict rules around fundraising and election spending, yet that very money defines every aspect of the political experience. At the same time, investigative and real journalism, essential to a functioning democracy, increasingly lacks funding, and our media environment is reduced to sound bites and artificial “balance” giving voices to well-funded small fringes. Information itself is largely controlled by a small handful of oligarchs within the realm of what we call social media. There is plenty of money in the system, but it is in the wrong places.
The hierarchies of government in reality differ from those on paper. Those who hold the most power are virtually anonymous in the public sphere. Members of Parliament, the only people paid to be lobbyists for the interests of the general public, lack both a clear understanding of their own role and the tools to perform it. Sophisticated lobbyists don’t even bother meeting with MPs except to generate billable hours for clients who do not know any better; they know that is not where the power lies, and they know who to befriend to accomplish the wishes of their high-rolling clients.
From the public point of view in today’s discourse, Members of Parliament are expected to be three things:
first, superhuman, capable of doing anything, solving any individual or collective problem, and being any place at any time;
second, average people with families and lives, who come from private life and will return there within a couple of elections, both empty-handed and fabulously wealthy; and
third, responsible for all the decisions and opinions of their leadership and colleagues, real or perceived – the face of the faceless government.
The role Members of Parliament are supposed to fill is not on this list; that of advocates for the public, there to defend and bring forward the interests of their communities and the country as a whole in a forum of hundreds of other people doing the same thing, seeking common ground to keep society fair and functional.
Members of Parliament are not supposed to be the government’s representatives in the community, nor the government’s representatives in Parliament; they are there to be the public’s representatives in the hall of the common people, and thus be the public’s voice to the government. This body, symbolically themed in grass green, the House of Commons is the primary body overseeing that government and holding it to account, able to express day-to-day confidence, or lack thereof, in the decisions and direction of the Crown as represented by the executive.
Members of Parliament hold the ultimate power and the responsibility to defeat the government and replace it, without the need to resort to violence.
War by other means.