Don’t worry, Irving. You won’t get cooties.

“[Nine prizes have just been] awarded including yearly payments of $61,425 until the age of 75, office staffs, free postage, free haircuts, free massages, travel allowances, subsidized lunches and tax exemptions,” the New York Times reported in February, 1984.

“These are not the payoffs in a Canadian lottery; they are the benefits that go with appointments to the Senate,” the Times continued, noting that the upper house of Parliament is seen as “a dumping ground”.

Back then, the Canadian Senate was the butt of jokes. Twenty-eight years to the week after a Times correspondent filed that report, the Senate has demonstrated that it hasn’t changed much after all these years.

As Thursday’s Globe and Mail reported:

House of sober second thought, or first-grade birthday party?

In Ottawa, the Senate witnessed a showdown over seating arrangements earlier this week.

The newly elected chair of the Senate banking committee, a Conservative, didn’t want the vice-chair, a Liberal, sitting next to him.

However, when Tory Irving Gerstein asked Celine Hervieux-Payette to step away from the head table, she refused.

So Mr. Gerstein, who became committee chair this week, called a vote to kick Ms. Payette out of her chair.

With a Conservative majority on the committee, the motion passed Wednesday and the game of partisan musical chairs ended with Ms. Payette being forced to grab a seat farther away.

Why Gerstein didn’t want to sit next to Payette remains a mystery. Was she a little too fond of eating garlic at lunch? Were their knees touching under the table? We might never know.

But this business of politicians from different parties refusing to even sit together does no service to the nation that the politicians claim to be at the service of.

Excessive segregation along party lines can strengthen what is known as confirmation bias, the already powerful instinct among human beings to expend more energy seeking out information that confirms existing views than seeking out information that challenges those views.

It’s a bias we tend to have naturally as humans, and is possibly even beneficial in some ways as we tend to bond most readily to those we have something in common with.

But when the feedback loop gets too powerful, the results can be destructive.

“A political process in which like-minded people talk primarily to one another poses a great danger for the future of a democracy,” U.S. legal scholar Cass Sunstein wrote in his 2001 book, Echo Chambers.

“This kind of process can lead to unwarranted extremism. When various groups move in opposite directions to extreme positions, confusion, confrontation, accusation, and sometimes even violence may be the ultimate result.”

That scenario is playing itself out in full, grotesque glory in the United States. The growth of the ideology industry south of the border — encompassing cable TV networks, talk radio, magazines, web sites and think-tanks — allows both the left and the right to submerge themselves all day in a world that treats unflinching certainty as a virtue, and doubt or any attempt to humanize the opposition as treachery.

The result is a political system where modern-day reality is terrifyingly close to what was considered satire 25 years ago, as fans of The New Statesman, a clever late-’80s British comedy about a hyper-ambitious Thatcherite politician, might attest.

The ideology industry faces (thankfully) poorer prospects here in the smaller Canadian market, where only about one-in-fifty Canadians is a political party member — and most of them are thought to be over the age of 60, with not a single child or grandchild showing any interest in following in their footsteps.

Some of the harmful effects that Sunstein observed might start to be felt here in Canada, however, if MPs and senators from different parties can’t even be bothered to be civil to each other.

It won’t help the parties’ sell their fading charms, it won’t boost weak public confidence in Parliament, and it won’t help the nation unless the irresponsibilities of the parliamentarians are held in check by a brassy civil service and judiciary.

That might eventually be welcomed by the public if Parliament comes to be seen as too much of a bad joke.

Perhaps it might help if senators and MPs, aside from cabinet ministers and party leaders, were seated in constituency order, as Swedish MPs are seated, rather than by party.

At the very least, MPs and senators, if you’re serious about running the country and doing a good job of it, do as a moderately memorable ’80s antiperspirant ad recommended: get a little closer — don’t be shy.  (But, for crying out loud, stay away from the Brut 33!)


About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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