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03/29/2019 15:19 EDT | Updated 04/01/2019 10:38 EDT

Michael Wernick Was Right About The State Of Canadian Politics

Political discourse has gone downhill.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick leaves after testifying before a justice committee on the SNC Lavalin affair on March 6, 2019.

Clerk of the Privy Council of Canada Michael Wernick recently announced his retirement from the public service. He had a distinguished career and was well respected. He served in different departments under several ministers in governments led by the Conservative and the Liberal parties.

Wernick's retirement, as a result of the controversy surrounding SNC-Lavalin is, certainly, a sign of things to come for our country.

The political discourse has gone downhill. While we had, in the past, debates on ideas, it has now become about people. You either "like" or "dislike" a politician or a public servant. Ideas matter little.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights met on several occasions to hear from former Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould and other officials — including Wernick — on the controversy surrounding the granting of a remediation agreement to SNC-Lavalin.

As a result of his testimony in front of the Justice Committee, he received insults calling him a "traitor," "dirty" and other similar nonsensical and unfounded epithets. He asked parliamentarians to look at the emails and social media messages containing the insults they chose not to. It was easier for the MPs in this committee to go back to the squabbling and foster more negative social media.

Wernick was right to warn Canadians about his concerns about what politics in Canada is becoming. In his presentation, he mentioned that a deterioration of the political discourse could possibly lead to political assassination and violence. Some viewed this as going too far. But you don't need to go far to show that an increasingly polarized society leads to violence. On March 21 this year, Cesar Sayor Jr. pleaded guilty in the U.S. to trying to bomb opponents of President Donald Trump in the U.S.

What happens when politics descend into the theatre of the absurd?

Social media, encouraged by the behaviour of some politicians, has enabled people to insult others without being held responsible for the language and tone used. Mr. Wernick called social media a "vomitorium" — and, again, he is right.

Mass/mainstream media is not without blame.

Repeating the insults, giving airtime to the childish behaviour that some politicians engage in (shouting in Question Period, banging on desks, etc.) can encourage the behaviour.

And, when looking at the main political shows on the various channels like CBC and CTV, the style is to bring in partisan individuals to comment on the news of the day. The polarization then continues to increase.

Some (often media type themselves) believe that the majority of news coverage of politics is presented with context, criticism and expert opinion. I disagree. While the "right" and "left" wings of the political spectrum blame the other (and related media) for the polarization, some simply believe that the media is not doing enough.

Our political leaders and the media should work to elevate the discourse rather than help it further deteriorate.

Where discourse is heading around the world

What happens when politics descend into the theatre of the absurd? Simple, we observe results similar to what is happening in several countries in Europe, the Americas and Asia.

In Brazil, in 2018, a politician was elected despite telling a female colleague that he wouldn't sexually assault her because "she's not worthy of it." He received 55.5 per cent of the votes in the national election and is now the president. A very similar situation exists in the Philippines where President Rodrigo Duterte uses language that I wouldn't repeat to describe women.

Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
French riot police use water cannon to disperse yellow-vest protesters on the Champs-Elysees during the 18th consecutive Saturday national protest in Paris, France on March 16, 2019.

In Europe, we have people in the streets burning stores and restaurants in the centre of Paris; far-right and far-left politicians joined together to lead Italy; a surprise Brexit vote a few years ago in the U.K.; far-right politicians making gains in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany. In Ukraine, a newcomer on the political scene — and comedian — is now leading the polls for the upcoming presidential election.

Many of these politicians were elected because they were seen as outside the mainstream movement of politics.

It is not necessary to evoke U.S. President Donald Trump. Canadians take pains to paint Canada as "different than the U.S.," as if what is happening south of the border couldn't take place here. I'm not sure that's true. We have in the U.S. a president that doesn't believe in traditional media — in Ontario, we have a premier that also doesn't believe in traditional media. Other examples abound.

'Descent into the abyss'

In Canada, the words "traitor" and "corrupt" (and many other words not worth repeating here) are being used to describe elected officials and public servants. While most politicians usually refrain themselves from using these words, they certainly — by their words and actions — encourage the descent into the abyss.

When voters have lost complete faith in the political system, they turf out 'mainstream' politicians to elect the extreme.

Having worked for more than 25 years around Ottawa's Parliament Hill, I have seen great politicians and public servants and observed... others. I've agreed with some and disagreed with others. But respect — if not of the individual, at least of the function — is essential for our parliamentary democracy to survive.

Former Prime Minister Harper wrote that "the current populist upheaval is actually benign and constructive compared with what will follow if it is not addressed." I'm not sure that the current populist upheaval is "constructive" or "benign" but I agree with him that if legitimate concerns are not addressed, the result will be worse. Interestingly, he chastises "some leaders and much of the media" for their response to the populist movement.

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Leaders in the mainstream parties should be careful and observe what happens in other countries. Because when voters have lost complete faith in the political system, they turf out "mainstream" politicians to elect the extreme. It would be wiser for political strategists to look beyond the short electoral term and observe odds for long-term political survival. If the system is to survive, it needs to be reformed.

Media is saying that Wernick resigned under a cloud. The cloud hasn't gathered over Wernick; he is a distinguished gentleman that served Canada well. My assumption — and I don't know him personally — is that he probably just got tired of the ridicule of it all. The cloud is over the political class and the media.

Serge Buy, Senior Partner, Flagship Solutions

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