A Better Way

I have what you might call a big operation, spending roughly $280 billion last year, and I’m about to hire an executive board. Of course, my board members participate in decisions on only about 40% of that total budget, or just over $120 billion, since the rest is pretty much committed. I’ve taken money from people for years, promising to fund their retirements, and now I need to come across. I also run an insurance program for people who lose their jobs, so that money is spoken-for. I have deals with 13 subsidiary operations and they rely on me for the money to run their own activities. Finally, I owe the bank a lot of money and have to pay them interest. Still, it’s still a bigger operation than most.

I’m hunting for 308 board members, which might strike you as sort of unwieldy, but don’t fret. I don’t expect them to do much beyond staging mock fights for television, arguing fiercely and generally behaving rudely.

How does it sound, so far? Welcome to Canada’s House of Commons.

How has it worked, so far? Well, you be the judge. The Conference Board of Canada rates 17 countries on a whole raft of measures. As of February 2010 we scored near the top in education (oh, that pesky Finland, keeping us from the Numero Uno position) and the recent global economic crisis saw us move up from 11th to 6th in economic matters (oh, those boring bank regulators, keeping us safe — at least comparatively). On health outcomes we scored 10th, below Japan, Norway, those northern European countries (what, Finland again?), Italy and Australia. Apparently what’s sacred about our health care system isn’t the outcomes it delivers but the options it doesn’t. And as for innovation, we beat only 3 of the 17 countries, but it’s an over-rated virtue, don’t you think? Not that the Conference Board thinks so: Overall, countries that are more innovative are passing Canada on measures such as income per capita, productivity, and the quality of social programs. So that doesn’t bode well for our ability to stay Number 2 in education, for example, or even Number 10 in health outcomes.

It seems to me that if we want to do better, there’s lots of work for lots of folks: that’s OK, because there are a whole lot of them coming soon. The free-for-all to choose them — aka the federal election — is well underway, but it’s just the beginning. After the people have spoken and our representatives have been chosen, what then? Do we get real value from 308 Members of Parliament (not to mention their staffers and the public servants who execute their will) by institutionalizing a confrontational, win-lose mentality?

If value for money is what we want, there must be a better way than rewarding the antithesis of cooperation. There is a better way: organizations as diverse as business and sports have found it. It’s called teamwork.

In my profession, I routinely work on teams to deliver proposals against hard deadlines. For several weeks, a group of people who have nothing in common except their place of employment will move heaven and earth to decipher a customer’s requirement, plan how to meet it, and write a compelling case for why the customer should pick us. I love it when people work late, not because the boss said they had to, but to help someone else meet the deadline. I love to see creativity soaring under pressure, and I love the satisfaction a team gets from chasing perfection and settling for pretty damn good.

In my spare time, I sometimes watch baseball or hockey. At this time of year, I can do both. I love it when the boys of summer jump up out of the dugout to see if a soaring hit is going all the way. I love to watch grown men on skates hugging and hollering when someone scores a goal, and to see the players pouring over the boards, all exuberance, when they win a game.

All this effort and excitement is driven by competition: some inside the team, for sure, but most directed at the opposing team. That’s what’s so screwy about Parliament and politics in general: everyone acts as if the other parties were the opposition, when the true opposition we face is our real live problems. Maybe our politicians need some new expectations laid on them. I just happen to have some.

I expect our elected representatives to work with respect for their colleagues — Hard on the issues, soft on the people — and to work together for the country’s good despite their differences. And I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Do I expect them to stop playing ‘Gotcha!’ with each other’s every misstep? No, not really, although a girl can dream, can’t she? But if we can’t get our politicians to see Canada’s problems as their real opposition, maybe we can harness some of their natural combativeness by focusing them on competing with other countries.

Guys. Listen up. We can do this. We can go all the way. At least we can take Finland, for God’s sake.  Team!

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11 Responses to A Better Way

  1. I am sick to the back teeth of confrontational, win-lose mentality, as you say.

    What happened to statesmanship without an eye to the next election cycle? What happened to Liberalism? What happened to the middle class? When 1% of Americans dictate 40% of the economy, where is their incentive to change anything? (I would say to them: watch the Middle East …)

    As I watch American politics creep into Canada I despair. A Harper majority? Please no. He already thinks he’s the President of Canada with Executive Privileges. Roll on contempt of parliament charges…any news on that, Isabel?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      As I understand it, the Speaker’s ruling on contempt of Parliament was the end of the matter – expect that it allowed the Opposition parties to say they were defeating the Government on that basis, rather than the budget.

  2. This was on TVO’s Big Idea Series, well worth the watching.

    Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges
    lecture (45 minutes)


  3. Dave says:

    It’s not one team but five teams competing to win the competition. If you want teamwork in parliament it will only come with representation by population. This would mean that elections would be fought on ideas and the elected would have to work together to form coalitions in in order to govern. Someday?
    Thanks to Barbara for the reference to Chris Hedges talk. It is well worth a listen.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      I sure like the idea of elections being fought on ideas (as it were), but my concern about ‘rep by pop’ is that it pushes the competition for seats even more into the internal party apparatus. That is, candidates compete internally for positions on ‘the list’ – the further up the list you are, the better your chances of winning a seat. And the things that get you higher on that list don’t necessarily make you a better representative from the people’s point of view. It also eliminates the link between a given area and an individual representative. Not that I’ve ever asked my MP for anything….

      • Dave says:

        We have local government, provincial government and national government. We would be better off if we could get the feds to focus on national issues and leave the concern for local issues to the other two governments. Also just think we could have discussions between provincial, local and federal governments just like in large corporations betwen headoffice and local branch offices. I am tired of hearing about the boondoggles provided by the local MP of the party in power. No wonder the voters are confused. Am I voting for my local rep or am I voting for the party and its platform. Besides each constituency should have an appointed official or ombudsman(person) that looks after the needs of the locals. In our own riding James Rajotte is well liked by many who have no use for the leader and his party from the dark side.

  4. steven says:

    I’m not sure exactly what “rep by pop” is supposed to refer to, but there are plenty of alternative voting systems. Wonks in this area seem (in my admittedly limited experience of such wonks) to like STV systems, which are essentially multi-round votes, the candidate with the fewest votes being eliminated each round — with the crucial exception that voters have to state their preferences up front, so they can’t vote tactically round-to-round. There were a couple referenda in BC in recent years on such a system, and I think the UK is looking at one now.

    I don’t see how such systems give the party apparatus more power. There is no party list.

    I am also not sure what connection there is between an alternative voting system and the character of political discourse (à la “elections fought on ideas”).

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Sorry – my mistake – I was thinking about ‘proportional representation’ (not ‘representation by population’), in which the parties get seats based on their share of the popular vote, rather than our current ‘first past the post’ system, which can give strong majorities to parties with a minority of the popular vote at the national level. That option does have party lists, as I understand it. It also pretty much guarantees a minority situation and drives coalitions. At their best, coalitions deliver thoughtful, balanced solutions – at their worst, they promote vote mongering and give extremist views undue influence.

  5. Dave says:

    Sorry I meant proportional representation as you define it.
    If we want change then we must think change and that means scrapping the idea of voting for some local guy who is going to look after us. I would love to be able to choose from a set of national parties where the policies and personnel are laid out in advance (a list). I could then vote for the party and the personnel that I would like to see run the country. When you think that the cabinet has to be chosen from the elected members, having a list in advance would permit one to determine whether the group was sufficiently competent.

    Thinking outside the box about how things might be changed to make democracy work better is exciting.

    Unfortunately as in Fiddler on the Roof we are stuck with ” tradition”.

    Anyone for an elected Senate?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      I’m all for an elected Senate. I might even like coalition government, if all the parties came to terms with the reality that majorities were out of reach. But the older I get, the more conservative I get, in the sense (at least) of learning (the hard way) how hard it is to prevent unintended consequences from any change. So maybe we try something for 5 to 10 years with a sunset clause – and keep the change only if a strong majority of voters (not politicians) voted to continue.

  6. Proportional representation, for sure, if it would be an antidote to the current sense of disenfranchisement many people feel. The anger that is the American Conservative’s brand now has seeped, like radiation, across the border, emboldening wing-nuts in Canada. Sadly, a growing number, it seems. I am sickened by the dozens and dozens of gun-sites drawn on Keon’s (ed. Liberal candidate) campaign signs, the eggs thrown & signs cut up in little pieces at the NDP headquarters.

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