The Prisoners

Jun 01, 2013

Do you see a certain knowing glance around the coffee klatch when the talk turns to Senate reform? Perhaps a raised eyebrow after somebody mentions privatizing the LCBO?

Senate reform and LCBO privatization are back in fashion. We’re shortchanging ourselves on both of them. We are prisoners of our own assumptions.

Listen long enough to the arguments for and against reforms, and a pattern appears. The debates rarely ever extend beyond palpable limits.

People shrug, “There’s nothing to be done about the Senate.” Others retort “Throw the freeloaders out and board it up!”

Some harrumph “Just close the LCBO down, whatever the cost, just close it down”. Sometimes it’s “Leave it be, government control works fine”.

The boundary between acceptable and unthinkable has no visible fence or guard tower. It is patrolled with nuances of words or gazes, or in extreme cases by laughter or exasperation.

Speculate about electing senators, and get mowed down by rolling eyes.

Say “distribute LCBO shares directly to Ontarians”, and others rhapsodize about the impossibilities.

And yet, we catch each other in almost-candid moments. The dissatisfaction with this hollow battle is never far from the surface.

Banalities an instant too short or too long are the language of “The Prisoner”, the mind-bending 1960’s dystopia co-created by the iconic Patrick McGoohan.

The title prisoner lives in a pleasant seaside “Village”, that seems more resort than penitentiary. The inmates are all friendly enough, and have everything they could want, even democracy. Freedom isn’t wanted, at least not openly.

In every conversation, there’s a knowing glance or a double entendre. Some do so to acknowledge their fate. Some tacitly plot to escape. Others pass on the veiled threats of unseen powers.

We have a pleasant democratic village in our country and our province. But most of us are nevertheless prisoners of preconceived notions, forbidding each other from straying too far.

Senate reform focuses on a nominal choice: elect senators in a show of democracy (and embrace further partisanship) or make the Senate disappear completely (and finally let loose the remaining pent-up partisanship of the Commons).

The McGoohans among us give a sneer at the false choice.

With the LCBO, the choices we have include “do nothing” and “fire sale”. Fans of a state-owned liquor retailer (the “Village”-brand store) point to the public profits it generates. It’s nice here, why spoil the fun?

“Why indeed?”, said with a wry smile and dagger eyes.

Oh, not happy? Dwight Duncan, our province’s actual “Number Two” until he was replaced, offered an alterntive: Ontario should look at the capital value of the LCBO as a source of ready budgetary funds. The call for choice in private liquor sales is principled and earnest.

No, no, it’s too easy. Something is missing…

It’s time for the clever prisoner to take a turn.

Clever prisoners conceive novel ploys, that confound the frame of reference.

Perhaps the suffocating partisanship in the Senate could be excised by invoking some sort of intricate constitutional legal fiction forbidding organizational duplicity. “Oh shucks, you gotta leave your party, or resign your seat”.

Perhaps the LCBO could adopt a form of cooperative structure, one that’s disconnected from the corruptions of both the political world and speculative pressures.

Armed with a novel tactic, the clever prisoner goes storming into the halls of power, challenges those wearing better numbers, ups the ante and teases “What do you say to that?”

Politicians and bureaucrats respond with good-humoured talk about how the plan won’t work.

It’s never been tried and therefore couldn’t possibly succeed.

Besides, the clever prisoner hasn’t proved themselves, they wield little power.

As a last resort, clouds of regulation and procedure prove as suffocating as knockout gas sprayed through a keyhole.

Debate over the design of our public institutions is every bit the exploration of freedom that high art like The Prisoner is.

Freedom is not rooted in making choices, but in knowing all options are equally available. That certainty is hard to come by: much of our professional and commercial life is spent misleading others and being mislead.

But it’s why some of us, sometimes, plot for jailbreak with pointed winks and nods. Some of us, sometimes, hint “There are many subversions—for Senate reform, for LCBO restructuring—that wait to be explored. Don’t lose hope. Not just yet.”