Political Integrity

 

This month we are asking “How do I live with integrity”  This sermon reflects on the recent election.  It begins with a 2011 Postmedia article by Richard Foot.

Reading

What happened to political integrity and respect for Parliament?BY RICHARD FOOT, POSTMEDIA NEWSAPRIL 22, 2011

It seems almost fanciful now, but in the 1993 and 1997 federal elections, candidates for the Reform Party were required to sign a contract committing them to the politics of integrity. If elected, their actions would be governed not by the partisan demands of their party but by the will of their constituents and above all, their own moral conscience.

Keith Martin, the British Columbia MP who came to Ottawa as a Reformer and was later elected as a Liberal, always kept the old document in his briefcase during his years in office as a reminder, he says, of how things ought to be.

“That’s frankly why I joined the Reform Party,” he says. “We had a very democratic mandate.”

Seventeen years after Martin arrived in Parliament, political integrity seems a rather a quaint and quixotic notion, discarded amid the dark thickets of tactical scheming, rule-bending and permanent party warfare that consume federal politics today.

Martin, a medical doctor, has had enough. He retired from politics and vacated his seat before the election campaign, turned off by what he calls the “poisonous culture” of Parliament and the “groupthink” mentality that forces otherwise good people into hyper-partisan team players more interested in destroying their political opponents than in co-operating to find solutions to the country’s challenges.

“It’s a lot like battered spouse syndrome,” he says. “As a physician I’ve treated battered spouses and I see the same thing in MPs. They can’t break away from an environment that’s harmful. You see the energy sucked out of them over time as they learn that being objective, driving ideas forward, putting constituents above your party are not only regarded with disinterest, but you’re actually penalized for doing that.

“It’s an affliction that affects all political parties.”…

…”I sometimes wonder if (the ugliness of modern politics) is really new,” says Alison Loat, co-founder of Samara, a new Toronto-based think-tank aimed at renewing interest among Canadians in their democracy. “Perhaps things are just more visible now that there’s more social media, and a faster news cycle. Everyone’s warts are out there for all to see. That probably accounts as much for what’s happening as politicians behaving worse than in the past.”

Yet Loat also says MPs have lost their way. A series of groundbreaking exit-interviews Samara conducted last year with 65 departing parliamentarians revealed deep disagreement and confusion about what an MP’s job actually is.

“We had 50 different answers from 65 people,” she says. “It shocked me that there was such disparity in how people viewed what was essentially the same job.

“If the leaders of an organization, i.e. Parliament, don’t have a shared view of what they’re supposed to be doing, is it any wonder that our political culture is so chaotic and short-term focused and all about little wins and grabbing on to what you can?”

Political integrity, once undermined mostly by sex, money and patronage, is now also being eroded by more disturbing trends: the erosion of democratic rules and customs, and the decline of civil discourse…

Sermon

In her excellent homily last week, Karen Mills pointed out that most of us have at least a somewhat wrong idea about the word ‘integrity’ might mean.  We tend to think of it as living consistently and striving to achieve noble values in all things.  It’s a popular idea as in this first Oxford Dictionary definition:

in·teg·ri·ty

noun

  1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness.

But Karen spent time exploring the second definition:

2. the state of being whole and undivided.

That one is a little more morally…ambiguous.  It really comes down to how we define the values that guide the living. Integrity, in definition 2, mostly means living consistently according to A set of values, that is living an integrated life. The morality aspect is open to wide interpretation.  You can be a pretty nasty person and still live a life of integrity, as long as the values you serve are pretty nasty ones.

A good example is the fictional character Gordon Gecko in the 1987 film Wall Street.  Who can forget Michael Douglas stepping up to the microphone at a shareholder’s meeting and beginning his soon to be rousing speech oh so quietly and powerfully with the words, “Greed is good.”  Gordon Gecko is the shadow reflection of the popular idea of moral integrity, and yet he lives consistently according to his own warped code. That’s why he is such a success.

When it comes to integrity in the political arena, Richard Foot, the author of our reading would probably suggest that it is a world shaped far more by the values of a Gordon Gecko than a Mahatma Gandhi.  He has a strong case, certainly when one considers our last federal government.  As much as I disliked his policies pretty much across the board, Stephen Harper had a kind of hard integrity in most things.  It was born of a set of values based, I believe, on his conviction that he was the smartest person in the room and that nothing should get in the way of his management of the nation.

The list of things that might have gotten in the way grew over his years in the PMO.  With complete consistency he silenced his own party, gutted the independence of Cabinet, silenced the scientists, attacked liberal charities, showed disdain for the Press, for Parliament and its traditions and procedures, and even showed disrespect for the law, the constitution and the Supreme Court of Canada.

The complete consistency of his approach to government was only matched, in my view, by his sheer gall.  I was about to say, “and by his disrespect for what it fundamentally means to be a Canadian”, but in the interests of fairness (a value that guides me, I hope),  I will temper that by saying that he and I have very different views about what it means to be a Canadian.

And yet, one could argue that Stephen Harper governed with real integrity.  There was nothing wishy-washy in his approach and very little inconsistency in his policies.

On Thursday I heard Thomas Mulcair claiming a degree of victory in the face of his party’s dramatic fall to third place.  He said that the first goal had been to defeat Stephen Harper and that progressive forces had done that.  As a side note, it certainly seems that a good share of NDP losses came at the price of Mr. Mulcair’s principled moral stand about niqabs.  That certainly cost him support in Quebec.  It is sad that it cost the NDP votes, but I adore the integrity he displayed.

And that’s the challenge with the competing definitions of integrity.  The definition that is focused on winning at all costs leads to winning – at all costs.  The definition of living according to a moral standard sometimes does not.

For the record, I am not intending this to be a partisan discourse.  In my young life I was a member of all three political parties at different times and worked my share of elections.  I have not been a party member since I was ordained, however.  It is my job to welcome all and to minister to all.  But when I venture into discussing politics from this pulpit I do this in the spirit of the apocryphal baseball umpire who claimed, “I call ‘em as I see ‘em!”  And I try to see ‘em through the lens of our UU Principles.

It would be a fairy tale to look to the past and suggest that once upon a time there was a golden age of integrity in politics.  One only has to read the classic treatise The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli to realize the falsity of that hope.  Our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald was thrown out office for political corruption in the building of the railroad…and was then re-elected.  Much the same thing happened to Edmonton’s own Mayor William Hawerlak who was forced to resign for “gross misconduct”, had to pay the city $104,000 in a lawsuit and then was re-elected in what was called the ‘dirtiest election in Edmonton history” .

But we can look to the not-too-distant past and see a time when there was at least respect for the workings of Parliament, the Constitution and the Courts.

Keith Martin a former Reform and Liberal MP from BC quoted in our reading noted, ”In times past, even in the 1990s, you could beat your opponent by having a better idea and being able to articulate solutions,… Parliamentarians saw the other as an opponent, but not as the enemy. There were tough battles over big issues, and magnificent politics, but there wasn’t this vitriol that has poisoned the environment that we’re seeing now.

“People now use the H word — hate — to describe other individuals and other parties.”

That article was written in 2011 during the election that gave the Conservatives their majority. It’s tone was very bleak.  Any sense that moral integrity might matter in politics seemed dead.

Foot concluded his piece with:

Canada is now in the midst of an election, and Martin wonders if the campaign should focus not on the last budget, the personalities of the leaders or even any particular recent scandal, but on the integrity of the political system itself.

Would a campaign about maturity, dignity and integrity in politics re-engage citizens, or put them to sleep? Perhaps too many have already tuned out. As political observer Allan Gregg asked recently: “What if we held an election about democracy, and nobody came?”

I won’t claim to know what was in the minds of the voters in the last month’s election (which means I can never be a politician), but I suspect that a good many of us were engaged in an election about democracy and one of the largest turnouts ever did in fact come.  While a large number voted against Mr. Harper, I suspect many of us were also trying to vote for a return to a higher degree of fairness and decency.

I found it telling that in the last cycle of pre-election tv ads, both the Conservatives and the NDP went with full out attack ads (along with some positive ones) while the Liberals chose to focus instead on a strong message of positive vision and hope. While two parties battled about hair and ‘just not ready’, the Liberals talked about returning to fairness, a social agenda and an end to fear politics. I can’t help but wonder how much that message struck a chord in many voters.

And now, five whole days into a new federal government, we in Alberta face a unique moment in history.  At all three levels of government there have been fundamental shifts. For the first time in city, province and nation the social agenda is being given equal prominence with the fiscal agenda.  Quality of life appears to be as important of quality of bank book.

I have lived in several parts of Canada and I am having a hard time remembering a time when all three orders of government seemed to share a set of values.  Not policies, but values that give the common social good a place of prominence.

For the first time in a long time I am daring to hope and reaffirming my abiding faith in the pendulum of history that swings back and forth between progressive and reactionary.  I think I feel the flower of national pride beginning to peek through the soil after a very long winter.

I am sure the new government will disappoint sooner or later, for that’s the way governments work.  But for now I am enjoying the “Cabinet that looks like Canada” and, “Because it’s 2015” and the restoration of the census and the restoration of diplomat’s and scientist’s ability to speak their minds and the  commitment to open the door to refugees and restore their health care.  And there is the prospect of all the other promises not yet fulfilled.

Will we have an alignment of political and moral integrity?  Perhaps that’s to much to hope for, but maybe we will bring them a little closer…or a lot closer.  That gives me hope.

And you and me?  What’s our takeaway?

Well, I think there is an implied invitation to challenge ourselves about our own living with integrity.

We can take a hard look at how we live our lives, too, especially those parts of our lives that play out in workplaces or volunteer activities.  Are we able to live with integrity in those situations?  Or do the circumstances of our work or the culture of our work place make integrated living difficult or impossible?  I know many of us struggle with that one.

And if it is hard, can we find one or two things we can change to make it a little better?  Do we have the ability to get out of the stuckness that we may feel?  Can we change the job or ourselves or the place where we work?

The first days of the Canadian government and the first month’s of the Alberta government are trying to change stuck political culture.  Maybe we can do that too.  That’s our job, as citizens, and Unitarian Universalists and as individuals striving to live with personal integrity of the first definition kind, the moral kind.

I wonder.  If we knew we were going to die soon and had the chance to pass on a very personal message of integrity to the future, how would it read?  Could you be content with how you have lived your life?  Or would there be gaps – things you wished you had to put right?  Because right now, you have the chance and the time to bring your real life to an integrated place.  Maybe writing such a letter is a good idea.

I want to close with words from someone who did just that.  He penned some of the most inspirational words ever uttered in Canadian politics, a final message by someone no longer bound by the constraints of party politics.  From Jack Layton’s final letter:

Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.