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Fair Vote Canada applauds the efforts of MPs and Senators in the Canadian Association of Feminist Parliamentarians (CAFP) who are working to curb abuse and harassment in Parliament and to encourage civil and constructive debate.

Senator Marilou McPhedran is urging her colleagues to ask themselves:

“How do we as individual parliamentarians take on more personal responsibility for the deteriorating environment in which we are working?”

There’s no doubt individual MPs bear the responsibility for their actions. More self-restraint, inside and outside of Parliament, could go a long way towards making the political arena a more tolerable place to work.

If this fact is so obvious that almost any MP could agree to it, and many MPs probably enter Parliament with the best intentions, why are things only getting worse?

In fact, Parliamentarians, like all of us, behave according to incentives. To curb the bad behavior of our MPs we need system change. On this point, the research is clear:

– Proportional representation mitigates issue-based and identity-based polarization.

– In democracies with proportional representation where coalition governments are the norm and often cross the political spectrum, citizens feel more warmly towards parties they didn’t vote for when those parties have been coalition with their preferred party anytime in the past fifteen years – even when those parties are ideologically far apart.

– In New Zealand, which adopted proportional representation in 1996, proportional representation also helped dial down the level of toxic rhetoric in Parliament.

A report on the website in 2017 shows 70 per cent of respondents preferred a system where several parties “have to collectively agree before a decision is made.”

In February, 101 MPs from all parties, including 39 Liberal MPs and 3 Conservatives voted for MP Lisa Marie Barron’s motion for a non-partisan, independent National Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Citizens’ assemblies themselves are one tool for swapping out inflammatory partisan talking points in favour of thoughtful and respectful dialogue. 

It’s time to face the fact that the “deteriorating environment” goes beyond a bunch of individuals with a lack of self-control and a penchant for nastiness.

Our political system creates a zero sum game, where MPs and those working for political parties are rewarded – with amplification on social media and donations – for the very things that are underpinning a toxic environment:

Doubling down on the “us vs them” messages.

Blaming the other party (or leader) for anything and everything.

Appearing to welcome or at least turn a blind eye to a narrative that paints the other party (or leader) as morally bankrupt or even dangerous.

As Marilou McPhedran noted, “tacit allowance” of toxic behavior “makes it extremely difficult to bring about the kind of changes to which we’re committing today”

The connection between the politicians who exacerbate this kind of partisan polarization and abusive, even violent, behaviour is obvious. Just look south of the border. As MP Sherry Romanado described it, “it’s the politics of agitation.”

The need to act is urgent. As columnist Michael Harris recently concluded after MP Pam Damoff’s departure: “If this disenchanted MP has it right, in the caustic politics of polarization, only the fanatically partisan need apply.”

If we don’t fix the system, our choices on the ballot may eventually be limited to those who will only make things worse.


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