The Cardus Daily

The Commons Truth

Ray Pennings  |  September 19, 2012  |  Culture, Elites, Politics

“Will the honourable minister simply answer the question—yes or no?”

If it only were so straightforward. Voters crave plain-talk from our leaders. They rarely receive it.

This week saw Question Period resume in our federal parliament, after the summer break. In the first session, NDP chief Thomas Mulcair, the Leader of the Opposition, used his allotted questions to ask about the country’s economic situation. But the Conservatives answered to the effect that their policies were better for the country than the NDP’s proposed carbon tax.

“Not fair,” complained the NDP. “It’s not something that’s dignified, and Stephen Harper, if he has an ounce of ethics on these things, will call his MPs to account and tell them to stop lying.”

But as Andrew Coyne points out, it isn’t quite as black and white as the NDP would have the public believe:

So the lie the NDP hotly accuses the Conservatives of telling—that they would impose a carbon tax, rather than cap-and-trade—is simply the inverse of the lie it would prefer to tell: that carbon tax and cap-and-trade do not amount to the same thing . . . After all the accusations and the counter-accusations, then, here is what the dispute between the two parties boils down to. The NDP pretends their policy won’t raise prices to consumers, but will reduce emissions. The Conservatives pretend their policy will reduce emissions, but won’t raise prices to consumers. Glad I could clear that up for you.

Does any of this matter? Shall we just leave them all to their own untrustworthy silliness, join the ranks of disinterested “ordinary voters,” and reserve political attention for election campaigns?

Studies seeking to understand disengagement tell us that those disengaged end up feeling like outsiders, sensing that the system is stacked against them.

As I watched Question Period, parsing the language games that were being played into the plain talk that one might make sense of, I was reminded of George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay Politics and the English Language: “political writing is bad writing . . . designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

This translation can be hard work for seemingly little reward, and the link of this sort of Commons-speak with political disengagement seems obvious. CBC’s Insider’s Panel last night dealt with The Politics of Lying. The nuances of “offensive lying” and “defensive lying” might help insiders rationalize what is going on but, as was pointed out, “low information voters” really don’t take the time or energy to understand what is going on in the complexities of public policy and hence, are really only looking for a “confirmation bias” that their team is still worth supporting and that the bad guys are on the other team.

Without in any way trying to rationalize the liberties that are taken with the truth as an accepted day-to-day reality of politics (something with which politicos with integrity struggle intensely), I want to focus in on the reaction of the disengaged. It is my observation (supported by data) that those in faith communities are often less informed about the goings on of public affairs. The less information the public is working with, the more reductionistic the political debate becomes, not only because the politicians can more easily get away with it but also because the information needs to be more simply packaged.

Reducing the gap between Commons-speak and the plain-talk of ordinary conversation requires commitment from our politicians, and hard work by the public. For our part, surely it is not enough to mouth pious platitudes about the decay of politics, separating ourselves from the fray. If we wish to be stewards of the opportunities presented to us, engagement and not despair ought to be our response.



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