Good Government

According to the British North America Act of 1867, the confederation of Canada was established to provide "Peace, Order and Good Government." Well, two out of three is not so bad. In light of the current shenanigans in Ottawa, it might be worthwhile to consider just what Good Government might be.

The Buddhist tradition offers some answers. While the Buddha was primarily concerned with personal spiritual awakening, he did give some sermons on what we would call political matters. Among the most important of these are the Ten Qualities of a Righteous King. This is often quoted in Buddhist countries, usually to show how whomever is currently in power is failing to live up to them.

These are generosity, high moral character, self-sacrifice, honesty and integrity, kindness or gentleness, austerity of life-style, freedom from animosity, patience and non-opposition to the will of the people. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide how secret tapes (possibly doctored) of secret deals (possibly illegal) fit into this.

Space is limited, so I'll focus on just one theme; freedom from animosity. There is another Buddhist text, which records advice the Buddha gave to the leaders of a republic. In that sermon he advised, among other things, that the assembly "meet often, sit in harmony, deliberate in harmony and rise in harmony." Needless to say we haven't seen much of that lately.

The idea behind the British style party politics we practice is that the government side, representing the majority or at least plurality of Canadians, sets policy and makes legislation according to its vision. The opposition side, quaintly but significantly called "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition," has the important responsibility of critiquing the government's agenda and providing the country with an alternative vision.

In recent times this has been lost sight of, and the opposition has focused not on a contest of differing visions but on a strictly negative attack on personalities. The government side has responded by becoming defensive, so that the top priority has become distorted into holding on to power.

Admittedly, the current minority parliament has exaggerated these tendencies, so that parliamentary affairs lately seem more like an elaborate board game than a responsible government. Nevertheless, I wonder if there isn't something inherent in the British model that leads to this kind of thing. Certainly Canada is not unique in experiencing these paralyzing episodes of partisan infighting.

It is easy to be cynical about politicians, but the truth is that the majority of those who go into public life do so because of a love of country and a desire to serve. And yet it is also a fact that these high-minded individuals nonetheless get caught up in the petty bickering which consumes so much of Parliament's time. Our system is based on the adversarial system, with the idea that two sides clashing will produce good results. Could it be that there is a conceptual flaw here?

Perhaps it is in thinking that out of something negative (animosity) something positive will result. Perhaps we should look at structural adjustments that could lessen animosity and foster "deliberating in harmony." I have heard a Feng Shui expert claim that the physical layout of the House is one of the problems; having the legislators sit in two opposing rows of benches itself creates an atmosphere of rancour. The alternative she suggested was to have them sit in a circular arrangement, something familiar to the traditions of Canada's native peoples.

But maybe we should also be cautious about tinkering. Another of the Buddha's words of advice to the republican leaders was to "maintain and respect the ancient traditions of your nation."

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