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Why I'm Liberal, Yet Not a Liberal

I owe my allegiance to certain principles rather than any political party.

By Rafe Mair 27 Dec 2010 |

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Ralph W. Emerson: He'd get my vote.

I've been accused of changing my politics. I'm now ready to plead guilty but in a qualified way, if I may.

I don't think my position has changed much since my political days -- what's happened is that I'm now ready to concede that I have never given form to much of what I do believe in.

Besides, why should I be defensive about changing? For as Ralph Waldo Emerson rightly observed, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

I've never been able to be a good "party" (political that is) person but have held views that made one party more comfortable than others.

I must also place on record that I have changed and that I've modified some tenets of political faith, political meant in the "overall," not "party" sense.

Further I confess to "going along" with political decisions in order to stay in a position that was more comfortable than the other side of the door and in order to continue to have an impact. In plain language, I accepted rather than lose my place at the cabinet table.

I suppose I'm a Liberal in the sense that Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and John Locke (and many others of that ilk) were Liberals. These are the principles Britain slowly acclimatized to, while they were the foundation of the American republic. The problem is not that those principles have disappeared; the institutions and principles still stand for all to see but the institutions and principles have lost their power except as nice words on the political hustings. This is proved emphatically and tragically at election time when anything more than a 50 per cent turnout is remarkable. People see that cherished principles are illusory and lose interest.

Let's start with parliament -- the fount of all power emanating from the people. Except it isn't and it doesn't. Move away from parliament and look at it as a stranger from another planet might. Let Robbie Burns be our guide -- "O wad power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us."

Martian chronicles

A visiting Man from Mars would see a talk shop with the semblance of popular control but would observe that it was an illusion. The only person with less impact on decision making than opposition backbenchers are those on the government benches. He would see a Canadian system which since 1873 has only seen one government, federal or provincial, fall when it had a majority -- and that before party discipline had taken hold. The notion of "responsible" government, where a majority government is actually subject to the parliament is a hoax in the same class as a belief in Santa Claus. Any visitor would have to say compared to reality, Canadian "responsible government" is nonsense.

In short, the foundation of our liberty has become a line in textbooks for unsuspecting children and a speaking line for when the local MP or MLA visits the local July 1 celebration.

Our Man from Mars would look at how we run our business affairs and would be struck by the way large pools of capital form themselves into corporations that can't be controlled. How would we expect them to be controlled when the people who want nice comfy laws finance the governing party which makes up the rules?

MFM would note that corporations spend huge sums anaesthetizing the public with full paid ads on every aspect of life telling the bumpkins what wonderful corporate citizens they are and how all their decisions were for the good of all. These ads make no reference to the fact that their only obligation is to make money for the shareholder and their good behaviour is in the hands of a friendly, indeed compliant, government.

MFM would see that when corporations are held to account by some government or hearing or another that the fix is in. He would note the British Columbia environmental public hearings and stifle a guffaw as he sees how the government and the corporation are in partnership to stifle any questions that go to the root of the matter by calling them out of order. He would no doubt see that the only difference between China and Canada in this regard is the Canada holds hearings that don't matter and China simply doesn't hold meetings.

MFM would observe that executives in corporations are routinely paid hundreds and sometimes thousands times more than employees and that after they have robbed the treasury they turn to government to bail them out, which happens; whereupon they declare seven-figure bonuses to themselves and that even the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States, can do nothing about.

Corporate dictatorship

The worst part for MFM would surely be that corporations benefit hugely from wars, thus their influence on governments, especially in Washington spares no effort to provoke them. The reasons for wars come right out of the democratic rules of freedom. Somehow it's obligatory that the western world impose its system on others; that the lack of democratic principles in some places like Iraq and Afghanistan are problems justifying western intervention while in others like China are not. That some bad guys can fight back and others can't isn't lost on our Man from Mars.

Our Man from Mars would see that labour unions, once a strong factor in the business community, are reduced to fighting for public sector employees leaving private sector workers with unions, which try hard though they may (and they do), are largely unable to do much more than unions in the old Soviet Union could do. The private sector's principal source of labour now comes from cheap labour in foreign countries where the workers are worse off than a coal miner in 19th century England, so that local workers are happy to have any job whatever the pay and conditions.

MFM would see how the law prevents citizens to protest by permitting corporations to turn a common law action into a criminal act of "contempt" and throw the protesters in jail.

Our Martian would see that a nation dedicated in principle to freedom and equality is in fact a dictatorship where the people's right to vote is ineffective because no matter what the outcome, the corporations will rule the country with only grossly ineffective and reluctant restraint.

Freedom of press, or free ride?

Freedom of the press is, or rather was, the bulwark against oppression. It is called the "fourth estate" because in the 18th century Edmund Burke saw the press as the proper force against abuse by the three "estates" of government, the House of Commons, The House of Lords, and the Clergy. The two major revolutions of the 18th Century, in the U.S. and later in France, recognized and even died for the freedom to write with only a reasonable restraint of defamation.

To maintain this freedom has not been easy, and now it has all but disappeared, because the newspapers, TV and radio are controlled by big business which defends itself and the government that supports it by censorship in two ways: owners only hire publishers and editors that permit the official "truth" to be uttered, and journalists who want to survive self-censor in order to keep their jobs.

A good example is in British Columbia.

From 1991-2001 the NDP government was rigorously held to account by media outlets. One columnist almost alone exposed a huge government debacle over some expensive and unsuitable ferries. This was scarcely the only issue where the government's feet were held firmly to the fire.

From 2001-1010 a "corporation" party, the Liberals, have been given a free ride by the media with only this paper and one or two other "outside" outlets providing free speech where writers like me and many better ones can write what they want subject only to the laws of defamation.

Our Man from Mars, writing his report, would conclude that western democracies call themselves democracies much like communist countries once did. On being questioned about the liberties of citizens as compared to places like China, he would be bound to conclude that these Canadians have more freedom but that's steadily eroding and that, besides, the free speech in this country is about as effective as going out in a boat by yourself and shouting damnation on the powers that dictate and enforce. He would note in amazement that in B.C. policemen -- the same ones tasering and shooting people and indeed getting involved in drugs -- apprehend, arrest, judge and enforce penalties on people they believe have been drinking and driving unlawfully; that this abandonment of the "presumption of innocence" has been met with little resistance.

This, then, is my political confession of actual and developing principles, and I feel better for thinking them through venting them because readers are entitled to know a writer's prejudices.

If anyone concludes that this means I favour one or other political party, I'm afraid they’ve missed the entire point.

[Editor's Note: As per Tyee tradition in recent years, we've closed the comment section for the holidays. Thank you all for creating such a thoughtful, alive and insightful conversation this year. We look forward to more of the same in the next. To you and yours, a heartfelt happy holidays!]  [Tyee]

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