In the talk leading up to the 2012 Quebec provincial election, I spoke about the possibility of running for office. My son was horrified.
“Why do you want to waste your time doing that? Politicians don’t do anything important anyway. Are you trying to lose my respect?”
Unfortunately, his comments reflect the opinion of too many people. So to try to change his mind, I’d like to mark the beginning of the 2012 general election with commentary about why politicians deserve our respect even when they blunder, lose or look stupid.
Politicians get a lot of grief. If they’re extremely successful, they get to be the least knowledgeable person in a government ministry with the impossible task of communicating and defending everything it does. They have to learn enough about finance, education, health, transportation, energy, governance, culture or tourism to set the policy for experts while being constantly criticized for mistakes those same experts make. They have to manage large complex teams of people while being deprived of sleep, all in the public eye.
Whether they get into government or not, winning politicians have to set up a local constituency office and try to help people in their ridings wade through government bureaucracy at all levels while avoiding making enemies so they can keep fundraising to get re-elected four or five years later. They have to deal with the whiners and the brilliant as though they’re all the same.
The winners must collaborate with colleagues with whom they don’t agree, without ever showing their disagreements publicly. Those with experience have to defend every decision the party made during their tenure, regardless of whether they personally supported those decisions. Those who are new have to act as though they could have solved any problem ever faced by any previous government if only they’d been in charge at the time.
Losers have an even tougher job. After setting aside five weeks of their life to work harder than they’ve ever worked before to get judged by their peers and then ridiculed for their service, they have gracefully thank the public for voting in the other guy and then restart their lives as if nothing ever happened.
The whole level of bravado is ridiculous. It’s a wonder that anyone runs. And yet they have.
I have to say that I’m glad that I didn’t choose to join them too. I like to think it’s because I don’t have any experience in the field or because I’m not confident that my French is good enough to adequately represent constituents in the National Assembly. The real reason is much simpler than those excuses.
I’m a coward.
While tending the garden at my Rosemont-based church last night at 8 p.m., I got to hear the casserole demonstrations first-hand. The clanging of various pots went on for about half an hour or so before it stopped.
I heard about the idea of protesting by banging on pots between 8 and 9 p.m. earlier this week, but last night was my first chance to hear how it sounds firsthand. Wow, I thought. What a creative way to avoid the ramifications of Bill 78.
As I drove home through downtown neighbourhoods an hour and a half later, however, loud pot-banging could still be heard. I wondered how parents with small children cope with all the noise.
This kind of volleyball thinking is typical in Montreal these days. Citizens are becoming more and more polarized between those who hold disdain for student protests and a growing number of people who join them. At this point, neither student nor government leaders are in control. I’m not sure that anything other than an election will stop protest momentum now.
So far, every move the government makes increases the number of people joining the protests, in part because politicians have no way to test their actions before they take them. There are no referendums, no consultations, nothing. Citizens have no way to get the government to reverse or change decisions other than protesting.
Meanwhile, we’re all hearing how student members of the largest student group, Classe, get to comment on and vote to approve every decision their leaders make. This on-going direct democracy gives student leaders the grass roots knowledge they need. It also has allowed them to retain legitimacy even in the face of media and government accusations of the possibility of intimidation after some associations chose to hold open votes.
Those of us who are unsatisfied with representative democracy the way it functions in Quebec are inspired by the direct democracy the students enjoy and their creativity at affecting change between elections.
We also worry about those suffering the consequences of so much pandemonium.
For background on why people are banging pots and pans, see
For background on the law that’s caused all the fervor, see this story by two University of Montreal professors in the New York Times:
Many commentators have asked “what’s wrong with Bill 78?”
My answer: Division III: the entire section about “peace, order and public security.”
A person, a body or a group that is the organizer of a demonstration involving 50 people or more to take place in a venue accessible to the public must, not less than eight hours before the beginning of the demonstration, provide the following information in writing to the police force serving the territory where the demonstration is to take place:
(1) the date, time, duration and venue of the demonstration as well as its route, if applicable; and
(2) the means of transportation to be used for those purposes.
When it considers that the planned venue or route poses serious risks for public security, the police force serving the territory where the demonstration is to take place may, before the demonstration, require a change of venue or route so as to maintain peace, order and public security. The organizer must then submit the new venue or route to the police force within the agreed time limit and inform the participants.”
What is a demonstration? Does it include soccer games, church processions and neighbourhood get-togethers? Is this up to the police? Does it depend whether neighbours complain? Does it matter if all the participants wear a red square? What about a green square?
On Friday, the government was proposing that this section cover any group of 10 people or more. As that was being discussed, I worried about whether I should prepare reports of four different events for police for last weekend alone. Now I’m wondering whether volunteer organizers of every other event my family participates in have to be reported to the police.
It seems clear to me that this law gives too much power to the police, who don’t have the resources to implement the section anyway. This is another example of Quebec’s legislature passing layers of laws that no one knows how to implement.
Another problem with this section of Bill 78 is that it hints at Canada’s historic preoccupation with “peace, order and good government” and yet misses the most important of the three for legislators to fix.
You don’t have to know much to see that “good government” is a problem in Quebec. Yesterdays Charbonneau Commission into construction practices is the first sign of problems.
“The Quebec government created this commission of inquiry — which is totally impartial and independent, well-removed from any political considerations,” said Justice France Charbonneau, who will run the inquiry. “Nobody can tell (the inquiry) what to do, whom to interrogate or how to investigate.”
Except that the inquiry only gets to look at issues within the last 15 years and only within the terms of the documents that established the commission. I’m discovering, through research, that many of the problems over land use began as far back as the 1980’s. Hopefully, all the documents used by the Commission will be publicized so that freelancers like me can expose the roots of the problem.
A second hint of trouble was the arrest last Thursday of former Montreal politician Frank Zampino. The former politician worked closely with Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay until he left politics in 2008. Zampino is alleged to have leaked insider information to Paolo Catania of Construction Frank Catania & Associates Inc, who was also arrested last week.
“There’s no doubt that this affects the credibility of elected officials and, in this case, most acutely, of municipal officials,” said Tremblay.
To follow the Charbonneau Commission on Twitter, use the hashtag #CEIC.
To read some English translations of French media and government documents about the student protest, check out the website http://translatingtheprintempserable.tumblr.com/.
As Quebec students prove that lots of people can make change together, it’s worth talking about an extraordinary woman who inspired a series of great walks this weekend.
Jane Jacobs was an urban activist who believed that cities are ecosystems with their own logic and dynamism that changes over time according to how they are used. She was born on May 7, 1916 and died in 2006, but her birthday is still celebrated through citizen-led walks all around the world.
In her most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which was first published in 1961 and reworked in 1992, Jacob’s argued that local residents should have more say over their environment and pedestrians should be able to move easily throughout any city. She also argued in favour of reusing old buildings instead of tearing them down and said that human-sized density instead of sprawl was a priority.
Janes’ Walks are designed to make citizens more active in ensuring that they have a say over what happens in the neighbourhoods they love.
In Montreal, the Urban Ecology Centre (http://www.urbanecology.net/walks) promoted a series of 50 walks, many of which happened today. There are still 23 happening tomorrow though, including one by Véronique Landry along the shoreline of Verdun. It begins at 10 a.m. from Montreal island’s oldest country home, the Maison Nivard de Saint-Dizier, a two-storey stone cottage built by Gilbert Maillet for the Congregation of Notre Dame nuns in 1710. It ends with a picnic at 11:30 a.m. at Parc Monseigneur J.-A. Richard.
Webster’s Dictionary Definition of Obduracy
The quality or state of being:
- hardened in feelings
- stubbornly persistent in wrongdoing or
- resistant to persuasion or softening influences, as in unyielding.”
1) It’s not my responsibility, it’s theirs.
2) Trust me to do the right thing, that’s what you pay, elect, or assign me to do.
3) We’re going to take it one step at a time.
4) Those details aren’t important.
5) Why are you focussing on that?
6) I share your concerns, but this isn’t the time to raise them.
7) We’ll consult you when we have something concrete to present.
8) We need more information.
9) This isn’t a public issue.
10) That decision can’t be made until everything connected to it has been considered.