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Editorial: Playing the long game

Some canola growers are clearly getting frustrated by what they perceive as inaction on the part of the federal government.

As our Allan Dawson reports from the front page of our May 9 issue, some are saying the government of the day hasn’t done enough, or indeed, even anything. Why, they wonder, hasn’t there been a high-level contingent on an airplane? How come it’s taken months to appoint a new ambassador to China? Why don’t they just kick loose the Huawei executive whose arrest seems to have precipitated the whole thing? Or take China to the WTO?

All questions that, in our system of open democracy, are their right to ask. However, the tone has become angry and hectoring and — dare one say it, given that it’s an election year, overly partisan.

There are lots of valid reasons to criticize this, or any, government. Legitimate policy disagreements aren’t a bug of our system, as a computer programmer would say, they’re a feature. It’s literally one of the core concepts of how our system works.

In this case, however, the criticism does seem, on closer evaluation, pretty thin sauce. Take the ‘boots-on-the-ground’ and ‘get-on-an-airplane-now’ school of thought, for example. It makes a catchy headline or sound bite, but exactly what, if anything, that would accomplish remains to be seen.

It’s pretty tough to take a meeting with a party on the other end of the dispute who doesn’t want to schedule it. Is the proposal that our sitting politicians should, ignoring long-standing international protocol, wander from door to door in the Great Hall of the People, demanding audiences?

On the issue of a new ambassador, perhaps the government should move more quickly. But observers say there’s little doubt the diplomatic staff of Global Affairs Canada who are already on the ground in Beijing are fully engaged and giving this matter the attention it deserves. It’s actually at this level that most of these disputes are resolved, so farmers should rest assured things are progressing.

We saw this same dynamic play out during the BSE crisis when ranchers demanded the Canadian government get that U.S. border opened up ‘toot sweet.’ Making that demand probably felt good at the time, when the nation’s ranchers felt powerless, and their economic future was clearly at stake.

But it didn’t mesh with the reality that, short of military force, there’s no way for one country to force another to open its border. The truth of the matter is then provincial agriculture minister Rosann Wowchuk, and her contemporaries of the time, were as powerless as any of us to make that happen.

It would be a critical error to descend too far into partisan politicking over this issue, or to turn our backs on important values like rule of law.

Canada didn’t just arbitrarily detain Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou because we didn’t like the look of her. She was arrested in response to an extradition request by the U.S. government, with which we have an international treaty. She has the right to contest that extradition, and will, if extradited, have a trial.

Contrast that with the arbitrary detention of three Canadians in China and what appears to be retaliatory death sentences for two more.

That sort of kangaroo court justice has no place in a sophisticated democracy and anyone proposing doing away with rule of law for the sake of political expediency injures us all.

Ignored in this whole scenario is whether or not, as the partisanship ratchets up, we’re simply playing into the hands of our adversary.

It’s often said one of the relative strengths of the Chinese system of government, at least in the short term, is that it doesn’t have to pay attention to popularity polls. It does what is necessary and expedient, while the West bogs down with infighting and gridlock, accomplishing nothing in this period of great polarization.

Call it the Kent Brockman school of thought. He’s the animated news anchor of “The Simpsons” fame who, upon observing partisan shenanigans preventing a crisis from being addressed, once famously observed, “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… democracy simply doesn’t work.”

As much as civil disagreement is fundamental to democracy, so is the need — at times — to park the partisanship and consider the national interest, rather than the interests of one’s own particular political tribe.

That’s the Ben Franklin school of thought, as the colonialists bucked the powers of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Canada does, as a nation, need to face up to this challenge, but in a way that doesn’t undermine its principles.

If we don’t collectively remember what we stand for, there’s a real risk we’ll all wake up one morning to discover we stand for nothing.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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