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Appeared in Sept 2006 issue of The Walrus Magazine

If the British North America Act were being
written today…natural resource ownership
would most likely remain with the federal
government.

– “Policy Options,” October 2005.

It should have been a love fest.

Leading up to the March 30, 2006 Alberta Progressive Conservative Annual General Meeting polls declared Premier Ralph Klein the most popular man in the province, and for good reason. As an expert panel appointed by the former Liberal government, provincial governments, and even the Governor General, all recommended that Alberta share its bountiful riches with the rest of Canada, the tough-talking premier said, essentially, ‘over my dead body.’ It was classic Klein. For years, the premier had been Alberta’s chief defender and his record was impressive. He led the PC Party to four consecutive majority governments, enjoyed over 90 percent approval ratings each time he faced a leadership review, and could boast of a series of accomplishments envied by all other provinces. In 1993, Klein inherited a government bleeding $3.4 billion a year and with an accumulated debt of $23 billion. Thirteen years later, Alberta is Canada’s only debt-free province, the operating surplus for 2006 hovers around $10 billion, and the populist premier can justifiably lay claim to creating “the Alberta Advantage.”
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Originally appeared in March 2006 Walrus Magazine

Under the cover of normalcy, on July 7, 2005, the heart of London was bombed and dozens of people were killed by young Muslim men who had grown up in the same environment as their victims. The process of acculturation – at British schools, and, one presumed, local pubs or Soho restaurants – had failed, and Britons were left to wonder how a cluster of radicals dedicated to terrorism and to distant ideologies could grow out of the soil we all share.

In another sign that all is not well in our diverse cities, four months later the outskirts of Paris erupted in spontaneous violence. On the night of October 27th, French police chased a group of teenagers who had ventured out of their Arab neighbourhood into the leafy suburbs of Livey-Garzan. Two of them were electrocuted while attempting to hide in a power generation facility, and within twenty-four hours this tragic accident turned the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois (and adjacent communities) into a cauldron of violence. In a scene reminiscent of Detroit or Los Angeles during the 1960s race riots, over 9,000 cars and 200 buildings were torched and France has been on edge ever since. An orchestrated attack by a terrorist cabal had besieged London, but in France something equally ominous had occurred: entire neighbourhoods comprised of poor and alienated immigrants protested their sense of isolation through wanton destruction.

Then, six weeks after the French riots, half-way around the world roughly 5,000 white Australians took to the beaches of Cronulla, a suburb of Sydney, to attack people of Middle-Eastern origin locally referred to as “sand niggers.” Organized through text messaging and the Internet, this was a planned assault by aggrieved whites demanding, essentially, a return to Australia’s “whites only” immigration policy. The country had abandoned this openly racist approach to immigration in 1973 and today, together with Canada, Australia has the most aggressive per capita immigration targets in the world. Indeed, prior to last November’s outbreak of sectarian violence it also had a growing international reputation for peaceful integration. The thugs who descended on Cronulla, obviously, did not endorse this national self-image.
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Churches across Canada are flush with born-again converts, and awakening from a long political slumber. Why the Canadian left needs to duft off its Bible.

Lately, the forces of organized Christianity have been throwing their weight around in the political arena. Both Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin have been threatened from the pulpit with eternal damnation for supporting same-sex marriage. Other MPs have suffered more than mere threats,finding themselves cast out of their parishes. In early summer, headlines announced that Christian activists were capturing Conservative party nominations on both coasts and singled out a Presbyterian minister, Tristan Emmanuel, for recommending “Christian, pro-family people” as preferred candidates to his audiences. Emmanuel, the founder of the Equipping Christians for the Public Square Centre in southern Ontario, travels across Canada to spread the message that Jesus commands Christians to be politically engaged. These developments in Christian circles (to say nothing of those within other faiths) have many voters and pundits calling for reinforcements to the “great wall” separating church and state.

Christianity’s new ascendancy is a broad North American phenomenon, and anyone keeping score would have to conclude that, increasingly, the religious are thumping the secularists. In the United States, born-again President George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 — at least in part — by setting out to register four million new evangelical Christian voters. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, derided by mainstream critics as everything from unwatchable to anti-Semitic, pulled in $370 million at the box office, the same total as Spider-Man 2. Author Rick Warren ’s quasi-evangelical The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? has racked up sales of more than 20 million copies worldwide and almost one million in Canada — though it was not even acknowledged on most bestseller lists.

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The recent Liberal and Conservation Party National Conventions left me with a sinking feeling. After days of policy deliberations, I looked at the end product and wondered ….what if the chorus of lamentations (mine appearing among them in this very magazine – “How to Save Democracy”; October, 2004) bemoaning falling voter turn out, cascading political cynicism and mounting examples of civic disengagement, had completely missed the point? What if, these trends were not the product of a slothful, anomic electorate, more interested in the results of The Amazing race than the welfare of their communities and neighbours, but were indeed rational responses to a political process that has run out of ideas? Could it be that voters had been persuaded that politics is uninspiring and irrelevant, because most adult Canadians cannot cite one inspirational or relevant thought or initiative that has emanated from the political process?

The leadership and delegates of both Conventions emerged from their gatherings declaring great successes. Sadly, the measure of success however seemed to be that both parties had averted (predicted) political disaster rather than generated any new policies that might propel us along a path to a better Canada.
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Pierre Trudeau tried to stop a cycle of blackmail, where one province held up the national interest by bargaining solely for its own parish. Paul Martin’s new health accord is an invitation not just for one blackmailer, but for ten.
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DAMN! It’s 7 p.m. and I just remembered this is the last day to pay the fall instalment on my property tax. I settle in my home office, go online and transfer funds from my bank account to the city treasury — problem solved.

Then I decide to watch a first-run movie. I program the converter of my video-on-demand system and, bingo, I’m watching Tom Cruise.

Before going to bed, I test my blood pressure and, according to the results, self-administer a cocktail of vitamins as prescribed by my doctor.

As an individual and consumer, I’ve been empowered by innovation. But as a citizen? Well, sometime within the next five years — I know not when — I will be given an HB pencil and invited to mark an X on a piece of paper in a federal election polling booth. The advances made possible by technology elsewhere are almost completely absent in politics. Computer models that simulate public policy alternatives, electronic town hall meetings linking citizens with their leaders, constituency initiatives where voters develop solutions to their unique community problems, even voting machines connected to a central ballot counter — all are deemed too problematic to institute.
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The system is ailing and the disease is cynicism. Perhaps the time has come for a radical new treatment

Over the course of tracking public opinion for twenty years, the private polls I conducted for my political clients showed that the number of Canadians who held at least a “somewhat” positive view of politicians fell from 60 percent to less than 20 percent. Today, Ipsos-Reid reports that a grand total of 9 percent of Canadians describe politicians as “extremely trustworthy.” How is it that the people we choose to lead us are now routinely considered venal and unworthy of our following? And what does it say about our ability to choose our representatives when these are the dominant characteristics we ascribe to them?

Forget already disgraced figures such as former Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski, or Public Works Minister Alphonso Gagliano. Even the much revered and iconic Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, can’t pass the test we have set for public office-holders. Why, in the fiscal year 2002–2003 (the last full year for which complete information is available), would a government official whose responsibilities are exclusively domestic jet off to Europe on two separate trips? The answer – in both cases to attend meetings directly related to her work – is lost on those determined to reduce a stalwart defender of the public interest to just another free-spending public servant.

But the core problem is that our cynicism cultivates fertile soil for more cynicism, and if we are to save democracy, we must make a concerted effort to reverse this trend, using new methods that, to date, have been unconsidered.

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The trend toward lower voter turnout is like a canary in the mine shaft of Canadian democracy. Over the last 16 years, we have witnessed a 14-per-cent decline in balloting in federal elections. Moreover, the diminishing sense among young people that voting is “essential” suggests that this trend will continue.

To combat increased cynicism about elections, governments and politicians, elected officials are proposing a variety of measures. New Brunswick has launched a commission to investigate replacing their winner-take-all elections with a system of proportional representation. British Columbia has struck a constituent assembly made up of randomly selected citizens to analyze electoral reform, with the promise of a binding referendum on their recommendations in 2005. Dalton McGuinty, the Ontario premier, has established “citizen juries” to deliberate over major policy questions, and Prime Minister Paul Martin has committed to parliamentary reform in an effort to reduce the “democratic deficit.”

These initiatives reflect a growing alarm over voters’ progressive disengagement, but each one addresses an isolated part of the problem, be it the diminished role of backbench MPs, under-representation of smaller parties in legislatures, or the absence of citizen input in government decision-making. That’s because the measures needed to combat the democratic deficit are so varied. Voter turnout could be increased to 100 per cent if we implemented compulsory voting, as is the practice in Australia. The role of elected officials could be enhanced by increasing the power of parliamentary committees and conducting more free votes, as Martin advocates. Citizen input could be expanded through regular referenda, recall and initiative provisions that are common in many U.S. states, such as California.
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Among social commentators, it has become fashionable to declare that “everything changed after Sept. 11.” But looking back over the two decades of our year-end Maclean’s surveys, it is apparent that the Canadian outlook and mindset were undergoing profound changes long before that memorable and terrible day. When we began our annual investigation of public opinion across the nation in 1984, Canadians were coming out of a recession with a renewed sense of confidence. They had weathered the storm of rising unemployment and inflation, and felt they learned some valuable lessons from that experience. Among them was an emerging belief that we could not continue to rely so much on government; doing so would lay ourselves open to the very vulnerabilities we were trying to avoid.

We recognized that the country was facing ongoing problems — economic, social, constitutional — but saw these largely as aberrations that could be resolved with effort. Our optimism was also grounded in realism. We believed that “simply doing the same things, better,” was not the way to go. With the Mulroney Conservatives freshly in power, new ideas, new approaches and new leadership were the order of the day. It was time for a change.
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By now, we’ve been pretty much terrorized by the demographers’ prophesies of the coming apocalypse of an aging society. The health-care system will collapse under the weight of geriatric care. The actuarial basis of the Canada Pension Plan is threatened. Statistics Canada warns of manpower shortages within 15 years, when the tail end of the baby-boom bulge exits the labour force.

All these scenarios are possible, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re probable. Indeed, to accept such straight-line projections as inevitable or the forces of demography as immutable leads to a faulty assessment of the future and blinds us to alternative possibilities that may be more in keeping with the future we want.

Fortunately, history shows that society does not evolve in the linear fashion that demography may suggest. Based on population projections alone, our universities should have been wanting for students since the late 1980s, when the last of the big generation graduated. Instead, post-secondary institutions are bursting at the seams and only high-school grads with top grades are admitted to their school of choice. What happened? The value we, as a society, place on university education increased and participation rates skyrocketed, more than offsetting the declining numbers of eligible, university-aged students.

Even more than hindsight, common sense tells us the unidimensional perspective of demographic analysis alone provides an incomplete, often distorted picture of our future. To leap from predicting an aging population — which is indisputable — to the conclusion that society will be exactly as it is today except with more old people would be simplistic and illogical. Already, the baby boomers have transformed society in ways no demographer could have predicted 40 years ago.
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