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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

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Thinking outside the ballot box

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Jeremy Shindman

The quality of political discourse in Canada is declining. Working in a member of Parliament’s office, I find the effects of this immediately visible and troubling. Niche voter issues like mandatory minimum sentencing receive a disproportionate voice over broad societal problems such as effective mental health identification and treatment. The rise of targeted issues at the expense of all-embracing ones is worrisome for the state of our democratic culture, and the Jewish community should be especially concerned.

The public forum of ideas and free expression is essential for the maintenance of a tolerant, inclusive society. When the pool of ideas and participants shrinks, the loudest voices co-opt the debate. This is plainly visible in practically every issue: oil industry development (or environmental regulation, or economic development, depending on where you stand), firearms regulation, and especially the Israeli-Palestinian issue. When moderate views are quiet, they are drowned out by more extreme voices. The lack of reasonable alternatives implicitly gives these extreme voices increased legitimacy.

As an intern in the office of a federal member of Parliament, I see the results of this constantly. The unfortunate truth is that anger is the most effective motivator for political action. As a result, the face of public debate is slanted toward emotional grievances and argument rather than constructive criticism and compromise.

However, while political messages are managed to the point of ironic satire, and Question Period is widely seen as an unproductive hour of blustering indignation for the purpose of humouring democratic accountability, qualitative debate can happen. When MPs participate in parliamentary committees, the high calibre of debate can be a shocking difference. When MPs meet with people or read letters, they do listen. Effective political work does happen, but if the only voices speaking up are highly charged. The moderate majority is unheard and unrepresented.

For a Jewish boy from Toronto, working for a rural Maritime MP is a positive experience in perspective. The multitude of opinions on issues not necessarily popular or even relevant outside particular regional divides – rural and urban, east and west, among many – demonstrates the breadth public debate needs to take. The issue of firearm regulation in Canadian cities often takes a crime prevention stance, but to many rural Canadians, it is an attack on their way of life. If there is no constructive exposure to different opinions, the debate and resulting actions are not as valuable or effective, or necessarily beneficial for the country.

A democracy requires multiple voices seeking positive results. Rather than excusing yourself from participation, make dissatisfaction with the quality of political processes a reason to become more involved. An experience working on Parliament Hill is a unique opportunity, but anyone can and should become involved in public debate. The Jewish community knows that failing to do so is a non-option.

Jeremy Shindman is a Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs intern in the office of the Hon. Wayne Easter, MP for Malpeque, P.E.I. The deadline to apply for CIJA's Parliamentary Internship Program is April 21 – visit www.cija.ca for details.

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