Maxwell Cameron is a professor in the Department of Political Science and the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia.
The increased threats and harassment that politicians are being subject to has led to renewed calls for civility in politics. If politicians value civility, however, they must learn to model it. Too often they accept negativity because it works. I’ve spent almost a decade training politicians, and I know they can do better.
Politics is a practice like any other, and performing it well demands ongoing reflection. One way to foster a more collaborative approach in politics is by opening spaces for facilitated cross-partisan discussions. This encourages politicians to step outside their partisan roles and identities and recognize the features of parliamentary life designed to bring them together. In 2011, as incoming director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, I organized a conference with the provocative title “Why don’t more good people enter politics?” The politicians who participated in the conference emphasized that good people do enter politics, but are often corrupted by it.
Afterwards, I was approached by politicians from across the spectrum who complained about the inadequate preparation given to parliamentarians, their excessive partisanship, and the often unproductive and adversarial nature of parliamentary debate, especially Question Period.
With the support of former politicians Preston Manning, Mike Harcourt, Joy MacPhail, Anne McLellan and many others, we launched the Institute for Future Legislators (IFL), a bootcamp designed to give aspiring politicians experiential knowledge of parliamentary politics so that they would enter the political arena with a deeper appreciation for both the contributions and pitfalls of parties.
We found, as expected, that many of the participants in IFL were well motivated. They wanted to serve their constituents or advance a cause. Most were party members, but few felt deep attachments to their parties.
Despite this, as soon as parliamentary simulations began, we observed the very hyper-partisan, adversarial and uncivil behaviours that we and many of our participants expressly disliked. “It is really easy to fall into existing roles,” lamented one participant.
So we did something that is often done in medical and other professional schools. We introduced reflective discussions – small, carefully facilitated, cross-partisan conversations in which our participants were primed to anticipate and observe hyper-partisanship, to deliberate about its effects on their own actions, and, at the end of the program, to decide what kind of partisan they wished to be.
I have rarely seen a more transformative pedagogical intervention. In plain language, our participants became more collaborative, deliberative and civil. They even came to better appreciate the importance of parties as teams that are necessary for the productive functioning of Parliament.
They grappled with inescapable dilemmas, like how to balance the interests of the party with those of other parties, their constituents, and the dictates of their own consciences. They learned to distinguish between good and bad compromises. They also showed a willingness to learn from each other in mutually supportive ways. In short, they began to find common ground.
It would be folly to think that facilitated reflective discussions would automatically produce the kind of moderate, balanced partisanship we need to see in our parliaments. But for years, practitioners have been saying that opportunities for cross-partisan collaboration are crucial to the functioning of parliaments. Our legislatures already have many spaces for cross-partisan interaction – committees, fact-finding missions, parliamentary commissions, as well as informal social interactions.
For these spaces to serve as opportunities for the emergence of reflective practice, they need facilitation. When a marriage is on the rocks, couples go to counselling. When workspaces become toxic, mediators are called in. Politics is not different.
Our politicians need proper training and ongoing facilitation. An independent officer of Parliament could be charged with the task. There is no lack of opportunities, only the political will to act.
But it will take political will for politicians to come together to clean up the toxicity in their own workplaces. This is especially critical if we are to recruit women and Indigenous representatives, for they are the least likely to accept a toxic workplace. It is also necessary for the health of our democracy.
We elect our representatives for many reasons. One of them is to animate our parliamentary institutions as models of self-government. The word “civility” comes from the Latin civilitas, meaning the art of government. It must be modelled in Parliament.
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