Shuffling the team

This past Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper executed a much-anticipated cabinet shuffle. Eight names were dropped from the cabinet table, ten new names were added, and sixteen traded places. Only fourteen ministers remained in the same chairs.

20130715_MDP_01Apart from references to the cabinet table, the most common metaphor used by the media to describe this new slate of ministers was a team.

I have been wondering why I find myself increasingly troubled by this metaphor. What could I, a Mennonite who yearns for a sense of community, have against a collaborative word such as “team”?

I think I am troubled because it is another sign of the extent to which contemporary politics in Canada is being reduced to a competition.

Of course, democracy is by its very nature all about the competition of ideas and, even more basically, a competition between candidates for votes. And, in a democratic system such as our own, it is also about competing political parties with competing platforms. We cannot escape the partisan nature of politics without some troublesome consequences.

But shouldn’t politics also be about more than partisanship? Shouldn’t it also be about much more than party loyalty?

Am I right to be even a little disappointed when Members of Parliament promoted to cabinet are, despite their many other qualifications, described first and foremost as “good team players,” or as people who have demonstrated their ability to “take one for the team”?

Certainly there is no shortage of blame to go around for an overuse of the team metaphor, not to mention the hyper-partisan, adversarial tone of our politics.

After all, the shadow cabinet named by the Leader of the Official Opposition has been referred to as “Team Mulcair.” And all opposition parties clamor to distinguish, and gain attention and support for themselves at the expense of others.

Clearly, media outlets are keen to find, feed, or even create drama and tension in order to attract viewers, readers, and resources. As are an overabundance of pollsters and pundits.

Finally, I think the government is also doing its part to help reduce politics to a fight between competing teams.

For example, this past April, Gordon O’Connor, the (now former) Chief Government Whip argued (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) that backbench MPs should not be able to make statements or ask questions in the House of Commons without the permission of their party. Indeed, he insisted that the Speaker of the House was simply a “referee,” and it was up to the party or “coach” to choose “which player to play at any given time.”

Just yesterday, news broke of a leaked e-mail from the Prime Minister’s Office that contained instructions for departmental staff as they compiled briefing notes for new cabinet ministers. Among other things, these notes were to include a list of “who to engage or avoid: friend and enemy stakeholders.”

2894_20130715_PG_13To be fair, in a statement following the swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall on Monday, the Prime Minister emphasized that “this new Ministry will work hard on behalf of all Canadians.”

However, I suspect that many citizens and organizations who have sought to engage the federal government on policy issues have long felt as though they have been avoided. Many would likely agree that to offer constructive criticism increasingly feels like entering the playing field of a competition.

Even politicians have expressed this sentiment in recent years. Exit interviews with 65 former MPs conducted by Samara (a charitable organization working to improve political participation in Canada) highlighted deep frustration with the way political parties manage themselves. Indeed, the greatest challenges these MPs faced in their careers came from their own—not competing—parties.

I wonder what this means for people of faith who pursue their sense of calling to a leadership position in society by running for elected office.

As I listened this week to cabinet ministers swear to “be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors,” I was reminded of one reason why Mennonites in Canada have historically been reticent to put their name on a ballet: the fear that political involvement would require them to subordinate their allegiance to God to their allegiance to the crown or the state.

If my concern that politics is being reduced to a partisan competition is justified, I wonder if we should be struggling with a different sort of challenge. I wonder if political involvement threatens our allegiance to God not because of the demands of governing, but because of the demands of party politics.

What are the consequences of joining a team?

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

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