Non partisanship is no pancea

Partisanship turns a lot of people off of politics, and it is easy to see why. The excesses of partisanship are a sorry sight. 

Partisanship turns a lot of people off of politics, and it is easy to see why.

The excesses of partisanship are a sorry sight. Not unlike warring armies, political parties and their loyal legions form ranks and rally around the flag. Partisans will usually refuse to acknowledge when their opponents are right, except when such an admission is unavoidable, in which case they tend to pivot and criticize their opponent for “mishandling the issue.”

Several solutions have been proposed to this problem. Occasionally I hear the odd Yukoner pine for the system of government that our neighbours to the east enjoy when lamenting the sorry state of partisanship in our territorial legislature.

The Northwest Territories and Nunavut both have what is known as “consensus” government. MLAs are each elected as de facto independents. Once the election is over they choose the premier and cabinet from among their own by secret ballot. No one “runs” to be premier of the Northwest Territories or Nunavut in the way we are accustomed to.

Another idea that was floated a few years ago during the controversy over the potential privatization of Yukon Energy was the idea of a “non-partisan” political party. This led to some meetings, but the plan failed to get off the ground.

The hearts of those who are fed up with partisan politics are in the right place. The instinct to “get along” and “find common ground” is both natural and healthy. But the idea of removing partisan conflict from politics strikes me as naive. Whether we like it or not, politics is more often than not a zero-sum game.

There is a feel-good idea in society that if we all just sit down and have respectful dialogue we can arrive at a consensus, or at least a compromise, on just about any issue. But this ignores the fact that there are a lot of “either-or” decisions that need to be made in politics, that people have strong views on these decisions and that we are divided in the outcome we desire based on our ideologies and interests.

For instance, miners and environmentalists are not going to be able to sit down at a table together and hammer out a mutually acceptable solution to the question of the Peel.

Politics is ultimately about who exercises power, and we differ greatly on how we want to see that power exercised.

Partisanship is the necessary consequence of our disagreements. We affiliate with people who share our values and our interests to form a common front against those who do not. Even in allegedly “non-partisan” political institutions (i.e. city councils, student unions, etc.), parties often emerge organically in the form of slates and informal coalitions.

The fact that we tend to act like children in the process is an unfortunate side-effect, but pretending that our differences don’t exist is not the solution.

Attack politics get a bad rap in no small part because it is practised so disingenuously. But ultimately we have to depend on opposing organized political parties to expose the faults of the others. We certainly can’t count on politicians to highlight their own various shortcomings in their glossy campaign materials to allow voters to weigh their pros and cons. It is the others that allows us to see those faults.

“Consensus government” as it is practice in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut is a rhetorically pleasing misnomer. Neither legislature truly functions on the basis of “consensus” as we typically understand it – a broad agreement or something more than majority.

And the system is not without its critics. Those territories may not have political parties but as a consequence their leaders lack any sort of direct democratic mandate and are difficult to hold accountable. The solution to remove a particular political party from power in the Yukon is to vote them out in the next election. Voters in the other territories don’t have that ability and have no way of knowing who their next premier will be.

The idea of a “non-partisan” party, when it was proposed, was a far greater absurdity. What proponents were essentially asking us voters to do was to select an MLA based solely on his or her purported “non-partisanship.” We wouldn’t be voting for someone based on his or her views on development, conservation, taxes, or spending but rather on some guarantee that they will be “non-partisan.” I, for one, am not about to waste my one small opportunity to influence policy on such an unknown quality.

The ideological spectrum in the Yukon may be narrower than it is elsewhere in Canada due to the fact that we are a major recipient of federal transfers. We are not forced to make the tough ideological decisions that other jurisdictions are forced to make.

But at the end of the day we are still too different to be lumped together under one “big tent.”

Even the biggest of big tents has an occupancy limit and can only stand so much difference without tearing at its seams. While we should always strive to act like adults and put in power those who can behave in a civil manner, accepting some of the nastiness of partisanship is probably the cost of living in a functioning democracy. Problematic alternatives like “non-partisan” parties and consensus government are not the answer.

Kyle Carruthers is a born and raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.