27 September 2011 Politics

Interview with Peter Davis

Peter Davis is running as an independent candidate in the October 6 election. He’s no stranger to politics - his mother ran for Ward 6 councillor in the last municipal election.  Don’t let his soft-spoken demeanour fool you, though - he’s got big plans for Kitchener-Waterloo. On a rainy Wednesday afternoon, we met in a cafe in uptown Waterloo to discuss his campaign and his vision for this community.

What follows is an unedited transcript of our conversation.

Sam: So why don’t we just start with introducing what your campaign is all about?

Peter: I’m running a campaign that is designed to try to change the way that people see politics, change the way that people get engaged and involved in politics as well. I have more drive and ambition - I mean, I don’t think I can change a community the size of Kitchener-Waterloo in 30 days, but it’s still an opportunity to talk to people, it’s an opportunity to make positive changes.

I’m most interested in the way that people behave to each other, and the way that we have boundaries between each other.

So you’re trying to break down the barriers between people and their community?

Yeah, and just increase the number of interactions, really. For instance, I’m going door-to-door, I’m knocking on doors, trying to talk to people about politics and society and community. I’m trying to encourage politicians to do the same. To get everybody meeting strangers more often, and struggling against that resistance.

The thing that I’ve noticed through this process is that I become more sensitive to other people by knocking on a thousand doors. At first, when I was running I would see somebody who’s younger, and I’d ask them “Oh, are you planning on voting?” As though they would almost be less likely to do so.

I went to a debate at WCI and every single question was on education. A student is a student and will be interested in student things. But is there not a connecting thread between the student, the immigrant, the elderly person? Every person is human, so is there not a common interest that we can talk about that transcends those issues?

Who is Peter Davis? How did you get into politics and what’s your motivation for doing this?

Well, I’ve always been interested in politics, even as a young kid. I took politics in high school and got a C-minus. I took politics again in high school to try to bring up my mark and got a C-minus. And then I took politics in first-year university and I got another C-minus. So I switched into economics. [Laughs] I got a BA in economics and did very well with the BA. Then I spent a year teaching English in Japan. I then got into a master’s program in Switzerland in International Affairs.

In Switzerland, the tuition was so much lower - even for international students! The first year of the two-year program, I was getting paid $1800 a month to study, and then the second year I had to pay $5000 in tuition for the whole year, as an international student.

Do you see that as an education model that Ontario could learn a lot from?

Sure, I mean, these things grow out of a particular history and culture. So I’m not about to run and change anything, but I definitely see the possibility that you could have a much better system.

You organized some events at the polling booths during the last federal election. Could you speak a little bit about what you did?

I’ve been following movements in cultures, and seeing a big growth in the sort of social movements through free association. So movements that don’t necessarily need any kind of funding or government support to just do something positive. So I wanted to see if I could get people to vote in a more social way. I decided to have a picnic at one of the advanced polling stations to try to get people to come out and share a meal at the same time as casting a ballot. So it was trying to draw a connection between the community meal and community voting.

I went around campus and got a bunch of people to sign up, but only about three people ended up coming to the event. So I’m not quite sure that picnics are the way to revolution.

You talk a lot about the ability of local businesses to make decisions for themselves, to make some sort of voluntary positive change.

On policy I’m really not a typical politician. I’m actually probably really a libertarian. I would love to see a society without government. I think there’s a responsibility of people to help people. But unlike most libertarians, I don’t think we should cut services to the poor and then hope that people cover each others’ backs.

So more of a realist libertarian?

Yeah, we need to solve problems together first, then we won’t need government programs, then we can cut taxes.

A lot of libertarians would say “cut taxes first, and then people will self-organize”.

That’s not very compassionate, I don’t think.

Some people have taken a look at what you’re running on and thy accuse you of not having a “real” or full platform. What do you say to that? Do you think it’s a fair judgment?

I think that traditionally, policy has become the objective of politics. So you elect a politician to pass legislation to force your neighbour to treat you with respect. And now, I think we’re entering into a very different time, where policy is no longer the objective of politics.

Politics is now almost about circumventing policy and finding ways that we can change society without actually changing any legislation. I see the successful movements of the future being volunteer-based, charity-based, these kinds of things I have a lot of hope for.

I think that we always underestimate what we are able to achieve ourselves. Imagining an all-powerful government to solve our problems, I think that’s unrealistic. that’s imaginary. Especially in a society where half the voters are conservative and we’re going to keep electing governments that aren’t going to be solving these problems.

You have to make the people more compassionate if you want a more compassionate government. It’s not about protesting, it’s not about lobbying, because we have a government that reflects the people. That’s the beauty of democracy, which makes social change sometimes more difficult, but in other ways, much more possible.

Do you think that people have become less compassionate over history?

I think that before the industrial revolution, say 200 years ago, people lived in communities. They had an historical connection to communities. Then with the industrial revolution, they moved out of their communities, they moved in search of jobs and prosperity and personal ambition. And desperation, too, because these were extremely tough economic times.

But then they lost the ancestral connection to community. they lost the value of community-specific knowledge from ten generations passed down. And we developed an entirely new education system based on this. And it’s an education system that teaches people knowledge, but not ethics. Not how to relate to each other.

I think there’s a lot of arrogance that’s built into our economic system that encourages us to look down on the past. To look down on the poor. To look down on developing countries. To say, “Look at what we have, look at all of our cars, look at the wonders of our society,” when really, we’re no happier. And if you start to look at other countries, other people, and you start to look at what they have that we don’t, look at their festivals! Look at how they celebrate together! Look at how their community comes together and how they support each other! Maybe they eat less than us, but we’re fat!

Just a few months ago, when the conflict in Libya was beginning, I found an article in the New York Times about Libyan refugees that were pouring across the border into Tunisia. Thousands, tens of thousands, even. But there are no refugee camps. Where do the refugees go? They are taken into the homes of the Tunisians. It’s possible. In Waterloo, could we support twenty thousand refugees? We have trouble supporting a hundred, two hundred. I’m not sure of the exact number, there are a lot of refugees in Waterloo actually that we don’t see.

So is this a case where institutionalisation, making refugee camps, would actually be making the problem worse?

I don’t want to say that, because just to take away the refugee camps and tell them to depend on the hospitality of others? No. I think that if a community wanted to get rid of refugee camps, they could welcome them into their homes. In Arabic cultures, there’s that concept of hospitality that says “If we have bread, we can eat it together. And if we don’t, we can be hungry together.” That’s such a strong idea for community, but try applying that here, and it’s a lot more difficult.

How have you been reaching out to the student population, given the large part it plays in society here?

Well, I’ve been involved in two election before this. Both times, trying to organize a student vote campaign. In the federal election I organized the picnic, and I was involved with vote mobs and LeadNow - different organizations trying to mobilize students. And, it was just really frustrating. If you look at the turnout, I don’t think the turnout at the federal election was that much different, despite all this Rick Mercer stuff and despite all the excitement about how students are “becoming” more engaged.

So in this election, I decided to try something a little different. I’m volunteering at Supportive Housing of Waterloo, and the policy of SHOW is “Housing first”. Right? So you don’t ask people to make changes to their lifestyle before you give them a house. You’re not telling them you can’t drink and live here. You’re not telling them you can’t do narcotics and live here. There are some rules that you have to abide by, but basically we’ll accept you as you are and support you in any changes that you wish to make.

So I thought about applying that concept to students. I think that students are under a lot of pressure to constantly be having fun, and going out and partying, and that is probably, for some students, 90 per cent of their mentality. Ten per cent is like, “Okay, I’ve got to do the work to get this grade,” but the majority of students are really focused on enjoying themselves. So I decided that I would campaign at night, wandering around parties and bars, and finding students who are having a good time. I talk to them about voting, talk to them about a balance in their lives between dissipation, having fun, and doing something for a greater cause, a greater good.

And it comes to the idea that it’s not a big commitment to vote. It’s a very small sacrifice, it’s one hour. It’s like going to church once. It’s a very small commitment. But after you do it once, you reflect on it. So even if you vote with no knowledge of any candidates, and you just toss out a ballot, then after the fact maybe you’ll reflect on it and I think that you’re likely to vote in the next election, and maybe even learn something about the candidates. And then later on down the road, maybe you’re thinking “Maybe I can get involved”.

So what’s been the response generally from people when you walk up to them outside a bar on King Street on a Friday night?

I was expecting to get hit [laughs]. I was expecting that students would have no time for me. But I was totally surprised when it went in the opposite direction. They were excited to talk to me, they were really happy that I’m talking to them. And over time, I realize that I was never involved in politics when I was in university. I was never involved in anything to do with the province or the federal government. I spent three years out of the country. But if somebody had talked to me in first year, and said “Guys, come on, vote for me”, then I probably would have said “Well, sure, I’ll try it.” And now I’m that guy.

Do you think being an independent candidate makes you more approachable than if you were representing one of the other big parties?

I think that there are barriers to participation in politics for a lot of students. I think that knowledge is a really big barrier. When you’re a student, you’re sort of quite young, and you imagine that everybody knows what’s going on in the world. And then you hear this policy stuff, like “What’s your stance on education, what’s your stance on hospitals?” And nobody really knows what is the best mix of these programs. We want some of this, some of this, and some of that, right? That’s the mix, and it’s chaotic. It’s different, if you go to France, if you go to Switzerland, if you go to Germany, it’s different in every country. There’s no right answer for foreign policy. I think the idea that you have to have knowledge about all these policy areas, that’s a myth. And I think that’s preventing a lot of students. So running as an independent candidate helps, but I think that running as a candidate without trying to tell people to support such-and-such a cause, I think that helps as well, not trying to ram policy down people’s throats.

I noticed in the debate on Monday, there were some questions where you just said “that’s not an area where I have a lot of knowledge and I’ll just decline to comment”. Was that part of a strategy, to show your honesty?

To be honest, in the debates I get fatigued. Because, I mean, you try standing in front of 200 people, having compassion for these people, and they’re asking you questions about HST over and over again, and I mean, I’m not going to say that the HST is good or bad. But I am going to say that the HST is not a strong enough reason for me to give up a month of my time to help you. That’s not my objective, that’s not why I’m here. And to say that over and over again, I don’t like to anger people. I don’t like to piss people off by telling them that the thing they care about isn’t important to me, but it’s not the most important thing to me. I think we could all work towards something bigger than cutting the HST!

Voter apathy is a chronic problem for students. If you had 30 seconds to get someone’s attention and convince them to vote, what would you say?

I would ask them to think realistically about the sacrifice that it is. So first of all, start thinking: how many years of your life are you going to live? Probably about 80 years. 12 months in a year. About 30 days in a month. 24 hours in a day. So how many hours in a life? You’ve got a heck of a lot of hours. And, yes, it’s good to have fun. I go out and I have fun myself. But to vote, it’s one of those hours. Do you have that much control over yourself that you can take an hour out of your day to do something? And if it’s something that you’ve never done before, I think that’s a choice. That’s an exercise of freedom, and that’s saying something about your life and the fact that you have control over yourself.

I mean, going out and having fun is good, and you can do that a lot. And if you think about how many hours you do that for, I don’t want to say it’s a waste of time, but I think that you could spare one hour.

What do you offer that the other parties don’t, and why did you choose to run as an independent?

I think that I’m talking about something that is very different from what the other parties are talking about. The other parties are trying to use politics and policy to get votes. I’m trying to talk about the real things, the process, the canvassing, the volunteering, these kinds of things to get votes. And to some that may seem more cynical, but to me that’s more honest.

It’s about building an organization of people that support each other to make positive social change. There’s no detail more necessary than that. I think that the more that you talk about party policy, the more you take away from your own individual power to make change.

And if you’re going to talk about policy, I think you should talk about policy outside of an election. There’s the whole process of creating policy that goes on inside the party structure. So if policy is important to you, I think you should join a party, and then you should develop the policies democratically within the party.

To find out more about Peter Davis, check out his website. And don’t forget to vote!

Sam Nabi

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