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Odds are Michael Harris was a victim of party politics endemic to our system


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Both of the previous provincial elections were the Conservatives’ to lose. And they did just that. The third time might be the charm, or they could be in for a three-peat come June 7.

Just as Democrats in the U.S. picked the one candidate (Hillary Clinton) who could lose to Donald Trump, the Tories may have picked the one candidate (Doug Ford) who could lose to Kathleen Wynne, as universally acknowledged as corrupt and widely reviled as she is.

Ford took advantage of a common tactic in party leadership races, in which each of the hopefuls scrambles to sign up new members – usually members of convenience – to the party in order to line up votes at the leadership convention. In this case, the rushed process was made necessary by the abrupt departure of Patrick Brown, himself the beneficiary of the new-memberships strategy.

The direct cause of Brown’s departure were allegations – increasingly spurious – introduced at the height of the MeToo movement. There is much speculation what happened was an internal putsch, though perhaps with an outcome (Ford) that wasn’t intended.

Interestingly enough,  there may have been something similar at play in the more recent defrocking of Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris. It may be just a coincidence Harris was pushed out after co-chairing the campaign of rival PC leadership candidate Christine Elliott. Or that the allegations followed the failure of Mike Harris Jr., son of the former PC premier, to secure the nomination in the neighbouring Waterloo riding.

Harris (the current MPP) is understandably reluctant to talk in much detail about what happened, preferring to discuss the happier, finer moments of his seven years on the job. But he does note that the 2012 texts with a party intern occurred before he was married, were reciprocal, didn’t involve anyone that worked in his office and did not generate any complaints. The intern made mention of the relationship in another, unrelated context.

One could infer from a well-researched piece in the Record by Greg Mercer that Harris was essentially jobbed by the new party leader due to his support for Elliott.

Political parties are said to keep dossiers on all MPPs, particularly their own. In part, that helps prevent any surprises from surfacing – though they still do – but can also be helpful in maintaining control and compliance. The incident involving Harris was inconsequential … until the emergence of the MeToo movement gave rise to a zero-tolerance environment in which there was no recourse for those accused. The mere accusation is enough to end things.

Harris himself won’t broach these issues. At 38, he still has political aspirations, though he could perhaps do without the politics of the system itself. In looking back at the past seven years, most of his recollections are of his constituency work – the one-on-ones – and representation of local issues at Queen’s Park. Pointing out all the rewards that come from that work, he maintains that he doesn’t want his public service to end at that and as things played out last month.

Some elected officials revel in the backgrounders, the backroom and the backstabbing inherent in politics and the party system specifically, however – playing the game, as it’s known.

Others arrive in office with good intentions but soon find the game trumps all. And the money of large donors precludes doing what’s actually in the public good in favour of undemocratic policies that harm the majority of citizens.

Having served in opposition throughout his tenure at the Ontario legislature, Harris is undoubtedly aware of how frustrating the system is. The reality is that past the municipal level, the party system ensures that things are run by a few pulling the strings of the purported leader – bought and paid for – and a handful of  sycophants. Even when on the government side, the MPPs and MPs are just placeholders, voting as they’re told – the concept of being whipped remarkably apropos. (It’s a reality reflected in Pierre Trudeau’s 1969 musing that MPs were nobodies 100 feet from Parliament Hill.)

The concept of the person you vote for in your ward/riding actually representing your interests is anachronistic. Any elected official trying to do that is quickly shut down by the system.

Likewise, only the most partisan among us would agree we’re well governed: from the autocratic financial mismanagement in Ottawa and the scandal-prone missteps at Queen’s Park right on down through regional and local governments, we’re hardly getting full value, yet along anything resembling true representation.

That’s true not just of the incumbents – though there’s much left to be desired – but a reality of what we’ve allowed our form of democracy to become.

Complaining about government typically trumps discussing the weather as the Great Canadian Pastime. Would those of us with a litany of complaint be prepared, however, to put do something about it? I’m thinking in particular of reforms that would move our democracy closer to the form practiced in ancient Greece, the foundation upon which resides the West’s complex and often dysfunctional (see America, United States of) democratic system.

Instead of elections, we could have a form of direct democracy, in which every citizen entitled to vote would get to have a say in how things are run. Unworkable? Perhaps, especially at the federal and provincial levels, but more probable at the local level – Athens, after all, had upwards of 60,000 eligible participants at one time, far more than in the townships.

Or we could use an allotment system, whereby names are drawn in a lottery system, something akin to jury duty. With a significant number of representatives, numbering dozens or even hundreds, this would be more wieldy than having thousands of people out to vote on policy – online voting of this magnitude is certainly not ready for primetime.

As Michael Harris found out, the current system – the one the aforementioned Trudeau’s son, Justin, vowed to change, then promptly changed his mind – doesn’t work. Often, it’s democratic only in name. Don’t expect things to get better until enough of us force them to, quite likely literally.

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