Grace, goodwill and politics

The sad passing of Jack Layton this summer led to a remarkable outpouring of affection across the political spectrum. Now that Parliament has resumed, many hope this goodwill can be turned into a new approach to politics. Our politicians often don't seem very respectful of one another, and Canadians, including many Christians, often lament how childish they seem to be, especially in Question Period.

Why can't politicians behave? Most of them seem quite reasonable in person. But politics is a bit like church league hockey. Ever see an otherwise easygoing Christian guy become ferociously aggressive on the ice? Like politics, there are competitive pressures that bring out less desirable traits in people.

Opposition is built into our political system. Elections are about winners and losers. Government has most of the power, while the opposition's job is to hold it accountable. Consequently, political debate is mostly negative; when all sides agree, there isn't much need to say anything. In fact, when politicians do behave and work together, we rarely hear about it.

A great deal of parliamentary business, especially in committees, takes place without rancor and bitterness - or media coverage. Don't blame journalists; their job is to deliver what readers and viewers want. People say they want politicians to behave, but it's conflict and attack that sells, and no one wants to look weak or indecisive. Politics is a team sport, and Question Period heckling is a way to support your colleagues and try to throw opponents off their game.

In any event, politics revolves around disagreement. Politicians can't always settle down and agree on the best solution because they represent genuinely different philosophies and community needs. Reasonable people will disagree on the facts, and what seems very clear to one side can be perceived in a very different but equally genuine way by the other (think of climate change, taxes and of course, abortion). The more it seems blindingly obvious what the answer is to each side, the more frustrated and bitter the debate.

Of course there' s room for improvement. Watch the British version of Question Period ("Question Time") and you'll be shocked at how quiet it is. One reason is that the British speaker has more power to discipline members. Ontario MP Michael Chong has pushed to give the Canadian speaker similar powers. But don't be deceived - outside the Commons, British politics is even nastier and vicious than in Canada. Another possibility is electing more women MPs. While some like Sheila Copps excel at parliamentary cat-calling, others say it's a boy's game that they want no part in. Elect a critical mass of women across all parties, many argue, and they will stop the childishness and get down to business. It's possible, but there's no guarantee.

Christians have their own role here. Unfortunately they are as prone as anyone to following these patterns and, like church hockey players, Christians in politics are especially vulnerable to looking hypocritical, saying one thing while acting another. Whether as voters or politicians, the most important thing is to respect the human dignity of everyone in politics. We can genuinely disagree and when necessary hold people to account, while still remaining restrained and respectful.

But this narrow path is simpler to talk about than actually follow. It's easy to be only superficially respectful, like British MPs, and harder as the stakes become more important. As voters, we need to continue supporting all politicians. Pray for them and send positive feedback, not just complaints. Look beyond the conflict-and-scandal coverage. Let the brief moment of grace and goodwill inspired by Jack Layton continue.

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About the author

ChristianWeek Columnist

Jonathan Malloy is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.