Sunday, 14 September 2014

Politics, law and morality - seldom in the same room at the same time

Having spent three months now examining the issue of the separation of church and state, I've concluded that politics is a poor method for obtaining moral objectives that are not already included in prevailing societal norms.

[By morality, I am referring to the concept as understood by Christians who draw their system of principles, virtues, ethics, and morals from the Christian Bible. In the U.S., this is typically referred to as Judeo-Christian morality. Of course, most of Christianity's moral positions are shared by the world's other faiths.]

There are precious few moral giants* among our current crop of political leaders, and not many modern-day Martin Luther Kings or Ralph Naders bringing influence to bear. Consequently, if one wants to pursue a moral objective (whether it is addressing aboriginal alienation, having affordable housing and homeless policies with teeth, or establishing fetal rights and ending abortion, to name a few that are important to me) where society generally is either opposed or indifferent to you, or is not changing rapidly enough to achieve a critical mass, then methods other than agitating for changes to laws must be found.**

With respect to issues related to fetal rights, abortion, and crisis pregnancies, much useful laying of the ground is happening, although a lot of it is being done on a shoestring by hardworking, unsupported, and unappreciated amateurs. I want to start highlighting some of these noble efforts in subsequent posts.

*A fascinating study has just been released by the Manning Foundation for Democratic Action ( 162 current and former politicians were asked to rate themselves on a variety of politically-relevant issues. They gave themselves a score of just 3.95 out of 10 for overall performance of politicians (Canadians generally give a rating of 4.49). Only one-third of the respondents believed that "ethics and integrity" was the most important skill set for a politician.

**I have had many opportunities to observe the political scene up close over the years. My late father
Donald J. Sutherland (pictured right) was quite active in politics as a municipal politician, campaign manager, and a federal candidate in Ontario. He was on a first-name basis with former Prime Minister Joe Clark and several federal and provincial cabinet ministers. I have been, as my reader knows, a school trustee since 1983, which requires frequent interaction with the Ministry of Education. Two of my former colleagues on the board of education are now cabinet ministers, one federal and one provincial. Others have served on our city's council. In addition, I was charged with lobbying the Ministry of Labour when I worked with CLAC, a labour union. I have been invited by three different provincial/federal parties to consider running myself. I couldn't say NO fast enough. Through it all, I have developed a fairly dubious attitude towards what can be accomplished politically, and what cannot, as a result of my experience.

Just today I read an article from Sun News (not a source I normally consult, but it was emailed to me and the headline grabbed my attention). The author has arrived at conclusions much like my own regarding a political leader's reluctance to step outside of societal norms (he calls it society's "sweet spot") despite their personal moral convictions (

Here is an excerpt. The context is the political scene in New Brunswick, where the provincial Liberals, under the leadership of Brian Gallant, are leading the polls. The author's observations could not be truer to my own experience.

Now most political know-it-alls from all parties will tell you abortion is like a third rail, take any position on the issue - pro-life or pro-choice - and you lose more votes than you can get.

Their logic is that the sweet spot in politics is in the middle and taking any position on abortion moves you away from that big-tent sweet spot and towards a place where there are fewer votes.

And yet, here is Gallant, leading in the polls in New Brunswick across every demographic, income level, education level, and gender.

And not only is Trudeau leading every poll these days, but in May, the Liberal party actually sent out a letter soliciting membership and support using his pro-choice stand as the hot-button issue.

Sounds like those parties are in a pretty sweet spot.

Meanwhile, the conservative opponents of Gallant and Trudeau - those to whom pro-life advocates in Canada look to champion their views and who they hope would legislate restrictions on abortion - are timid and weak in their opposition to the bold, moral certitude of Gallant, Trudeau and, it must be said, New Democrat leaders at both levels.

The best that both Alward's Progressive Conservatives and Stephen Harper's Conservatives have been able to do is to point to inconsistencies in their opponents' parties. Gallant, they note, will have pro-life Liberal MLAs in his caucus if he wins, just as Trudeau does right now.

Conservatives also like to mutter something about being proud that they would allow free votes on matters of conscience like abortion.

Except that conservative governments do all they can to avoid ever having a debate, let alone a vote, on any abortion-related issue.

And while Trudeau's Liberals sent a membership pitch using abortion as a hot-button topic, I guarantee you there has never been a fundraising pitch from a conservative party that reads, "Send us $5 to help us protect the unborn."

Now, this column is not an argument in favour of restricting or extending abortion access in Canada.
But it is arguing for truth and candour in politics.

On abortion, political leaders on the left are advancing their position in an honest, upfront manner.

But conservative leaders shun the issue, making weak "process" arguments about their opponent rather than dealing with the substance of the issue: Should abortions, as Hillary Clinton said in 2005, be "safe, legal and rare"?

Leaders of the federal and provincial Liberals and New Democrats are loudly answering: Yes. Their conservative opponents would rather you asked them something else.

I rest my case

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

There's no 'I' in team--nor is there any freedom of conscience

Brent Rathgeber is a former member of the caucus of the Stephen Harper government who was disciplined by the party for blogging his mind on government practices that no thinking person would agree with. This is what he wrote in an excerpt from his book that was printed in the September 9/2014 issue of the National Post (

In the fall of 2012, the Conservative party leadership tried to discipline me when I refused to remove, or edit, several blog posts I had written that were critical of such non-conservative practices as ministerial opulence (e.g., expense claims for such things as $16 glasses of orange juice and parliamentary limousines), the F-35 fighter jet procurement fiasco, and taxpayer subsidies to private corporations.

In a riveting discussion of life on the backbenches of Parliament, he talks about fellow Conservative Member of Parliament Mark Warawa's experience with his private member's bill condemning sex-selective abortion, another topic on which Canadians are generally agreed:

In the Spring of 2013, Chief Government Whip Gordon O’Conner (pictured) took the team analogy to new and disturbing limits. Langley MP Mark Warawa wished to deliver a statement in the House of Commons, expressing his disappointment that his private member’s motion condemning sex-selective abortion would not be allowed to proceed to a debate. O’Connor justified denying Warawa the opportunity to speak in the House by stating that the caucus was a team and that he was the coach. As coach, he argued, he had the unfettered discretion to determine who gets to “play.”

As an illustration of how this treatment of MPs who don't "get team" is not restricted to the Conservatives, he cites the treatment received by two members of the current NDP caucus:

NDP MPs Bruce Hyer and John Rafferty, both rural Ontario MPs, split with their party leadership on the merits of the Long-Gun Registry and voted in support of a government bill to repeal it. Both faced internal discipline. As a result, Hyer left the NDP and sat as an Independent before eventually joining the Green Party caucus.

Of course, I have already cited in previous posts Justin Trudeau's requirements for current and future Liberal members that they park the heartfelt moral convictions against abortion at the caucus door. 

What is my point here? Simply this. Those well-meaning but deluded people who think that they can push for political solutions to heartfelt positions (such as pro-life) from within a government or any caucus* which is governed by today's crop of political leaders--guided as they are by polls and perceived societal norms--are dreaming (in my not very humble opinion) in technicolour. I'll give Rathgeber the final word:

I have participated in four elections and many election forums. In almost every one of these job auditions, the question is posed by pundits and voters: “How will the candidate, if successful, vote on a matter of local importance, if the position of the constituents is different than the official position of the party under whose banner the candidate is running?”

Invariably, the answer offered, especially by neophyte candidates, is: “Of course I will stand up for my local constituents.” 

The truthful answer should probably be something along the lines of: “I will support the party position and thereafter attempt to persuade you of the correctness of that position, because if I stray from the party position, I will be out of the caucus and off the team and I can do more for you inside the caucus than I can from outside the tent.”

I cannot recall how many times I have heard elected members use this logic to defend their refusal to fight against an objectionable decision the government had made. The reality is that the longer one has been part of the team, the easier it is to rationalize one’s decision to stay on the team as opposed to staying true to the principles that brought the member to Ottawa in the first place.

*The majority of the present Conservative caucus have voted in favour of various private members bill that have promoted pro life causes, even when their leader urged them not to. Wonderful. Courageous. Every bill has failed, and the government has vowed not to bring any life-related bills to the house, ever.