Fri 27 Apr 2007
A few years ago, as part of my TV Ontario program, I interviewed Naomi Klein and I asked her how it could be that her contemporaries and generation, who were so obviously connected to the world they lived in, showed no interest – in fact actively eschewed –politics, parties and parliament. Her answer rocked me on my heels. She replied that in her entire adult life, she could not think of one, single initiative that had emanated from government for which she was proud.
My generation associated government with grand initiatives of national enterprise — adopting Medicare, introducing pension and income security reform, repatriating the constitution and enshrining a Charter of Rights and Freedoms or debating the possibilities of guaranteed annual income or using tri-partism to vitalize democracy.
I realized that her generation had no such touchstones and therefore no frame of reference to consider government as our central agent of societal advancement. And they had no such frame of reference not because they were disinterested, anomic slackers, but because there weren’t any.
Right there and then, it dawned on me that public cynicism towards politics and politicians may actually be rational.…that the population has been persuaded that government is bad because for a generation we have been receiving bad government. That by lowering their performance to correspond to the public’s cynical expectations, we have offered ample and concrete evidence that governments are unable (or, as I will argue later, unwilling) to be productive agents of the public good.
Now historians and political scientist can debate forever how this has come about but for suffice it to say that my interest here is more with the implications than the cause of this state of affairs.
Before we get there however, I recognize that even at a Public Policy Forum Dinner there are some who might be asking… “Why should we even care about this?” “Who wants to return to the bad old days of excessive government intervention and decision-making by elite accommodation?” “Are we not better off….more efficacious and self-reliant, less deluded…. by coming to the realization that we had misplaced our faith in governmental authority and instead have turned to a new found reliance on ourselves and other non-governmental agencies?
The disturbing aspect of this thought process, of course, is that it reveals an almost complete disconnect between public opinion and the output of public policy – an electorate who has come to believe that what government does has little bearing on their lives or impact on their community.
It’s disturbing because when we come to view government and government initiatives as irrelevant, we cease to make demands on government to improve our lives and communities. Even worse, we lose the capacity to use ethical considerations to judge the output of government and how we are being governed. From there, it is a small step before we stop even asking what kind of community we want and value. In the end, we run the risk of cascading toward a society of meaninglessness.
The fact is that no matter how some may try to persuade us otherwise, the state has power. The political process maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Parliament can declare that men are women or that dogs can vote. Only through the state do we allocate society’s scarce resources.
To make this case is not a polemic or a wish on my part. This is an inherent part of the bargain we strike when we give up our unbridled, individual freedom in exchange for collective safety, stability and civic society.
When we enter into this agreement, we also give the state the authority to do evil – as well as good. And because this bargain is the essential contract between the governed and those who govern, it means that the state is not an abstraction and can never be irrelevant to its citizens – even if they believe or wish otherwise. For good or ill, the state and government can never be “them”. It is “us”.
American pastor and theologian, Reinhold Niebuhur may have sent out this caution best, when he said…. “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but his inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary”.
Niebuhur’s point, of course, is that the power we grant our elected officials is not only a necessary cornerstone of civil society, it is also clearly far too powerful, important and therefore potentially dangerous, to be left without vigil.
And then there is the alternative.
Would we have farmers decide grain tariffs? Businesses dictate minimum wage laws? Banks set interest rates? Or Greenpeace determine forest policy?
Through politics, these groups can come together and make their voices heard and their positions known. But in the end, it must be government – as the crucible of consensus – who takes these divergent positions and needs, and forges a common cause around the public interest.
So…How this cycle can be broken?
Invariably, breaking this cycle will only begin when those who believe in the political system and who care about the character and quality of those who we choose to govern, stand up and start defending the process.
It requires people like those in this room to become not simply defenders of what, for the public has become an indefensible status quo, but by becoming champions and advocates for reforming the system.
From everything I can discern, Canadians are yearning for an articulation of a new and innovative role for government. This is exactly what the PPF and Ian Green are setting out to define in their (NAME) project.
The population knows the old roles do not meet either their sensibilities or the new realities of the world in which they live. Innovative public policy should follow logically out of this wholesale re-evaluation of government’s purpose in modern day society and may hold the key to revitalizing civic engagement and re-legitimizing government.
Health care has topped the list of Canadian’s concerns for over a decade yet it has become mired in a tar baby of inaction, where most avenues of reform have been roadblocked by a tyranny of political correctness. Decision-making paralysis has lead to further deterioration in the system, thereby providing further evidence that governments are unable to protect this sacred trust. This is nothing short of an abdication of political leadership.
If health care was an isolated exception however, the situation would not be so dire. But the same atrophy applies to a litany of less high profile issues as well.
Monetary and fiscal policy is guided by government-collected financial data, the most fundamental of which is the measure of Gross Domestic Product. Yet in the calculation of GDP, breast cancer and oil spills are credited to the positive side of the ledger while home making or volunteering at your community soup kitchen do not tally in our national accounts. Is this the measure of progress that reflects the values of Canadians and the kind of society we want?
We revel in our multicultural heritage – and rightly so. But anyone who rides the Toronto subways knows that our immigration is qualitatively and quantitatively different today than 40 years when multiculturalism policy was first frame. Today, the percent of foreign born is the highest it has been in almost 80 years and for the first time in our history Canada has become a destination of predominantly, visible minority immigrants. This massive alteration in our patterns of immigration has warranted nary a word of discussion in terms of its implications for multicultural policy. Where once we worried that Ukrainians may lose the richness of their heritage – and in doing so, deprive all of us of that richness—if they were not encouraged to display decorative Easter eggs or tour the Schumka dancers throughout the land, does anyone honestly believe the same challenges will face Jamaicans or Sri Lankans? Far from fearing their loss of identity, new Canadians of visible minority origin might require measures to assist them in integrating more fully into the host culture.
Immigration is not the only policy where the passage of time has rendered past policy approaches obsolete.
When the Fathers of Confederation framed the British North American Act, 80% of Canada was rural. Today, 80% of Canadians live in urban centers, 50% reside in our 8 largest cities and over 70% of all of the nation’s new immigrants settle in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Yet our 140 year constitution orphans cities and reduces them to nothing more than “creatures of the provinces”, without any revenue base, save property taxes, to meet the rapacious demands to repair crumbling infrastructure, house the homeless, run mass transit and provide the social services that make cities livable. The notion that 5 cents a litre gasoline tax will solve this fiscal imbalance would be laughable if the plight of our cities were not so palpable and tragic.
While we bridle at the cliché of Canadians as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”, there is no question that the historic basis of our prosperity has been predicated on a blessing of natural resources. Yet even grade school children are taught that these are “non-renewable”, soon-to-be-exhausted, and therefore finite in their blessings. Given these two inescapable facts, you do not have to be a Cartesian philosopher to figure out that to be prosperous in the future, sooner or later we will have to break our of the straight jacket of our fossil fuel economy. The lonely wind turbine on the lakeshore of Toronto stands testament to our timorous attempts to address this dreaded prospect. Yet with energy consumption scheduled to outstrip available North American supply by 2020, those same grade school children must be puzzled by the entire lack of urgency surrounding this issue and ask why alternative energy is still considered “alternative” and not mainstay.
Step outside of our borders and the absence of innovative thinking in our foreign policy is just as evident.
It has been over half a century since Lester Pearson won the Noble Peace Prize and enshrined the notion of Canada as a Middle Power. Anyone who happened to note that the Cold War was over may ask… “who it is we want to be in the middle of”? With one hegemonic power in the world today, the idea of an “honest broker” is moribund (imagine Canada mediating differences between the United States on one hand and virtually every other country in the world on the other). By clinging to this outdated ideal, the moral authority Canada was able to accumulate in the past has diminished and we relegate ourselves to a reactive, minor player on the world stage.
The entire discussion invariably forces us back to our starting point – namely, the citizen’s growing detachment from politics, politicians and governments. We can have a vigorous debate around new and innovative approaches to public policy but who is going to conduct it? Where are our future leaders to come from, when those who value their accomplishments and character most are the least likely to allow their reputations to be sacrificed on the alter of public cynicism? Much like substantive policy questions, we need to address – and to bring out into the open – the malaise that has infected our political process and contaminated our faith in government.
In this vein, it is also time to turn our attention to some creative thinking and bold initiatives to restructure the political system itself.
We know from experience what hasn’t worked.
Public-relations campaigns have been launched to encourage young people to vote. Limits and constraints that narrow their discretionary latitude have been heaped upon our leaders. Exhortations for a better calibre of individual to heed the call of public life are heard around boardroom tables throughout the land.
Far from reversing or diminishing our cynicism, however, these efforts have had no virtually effect and, in some instances, have actually served to exacerbate and reinforce our mistrust.
What hasn’t been tried, but is now being suggested with greater frequency, is a structural change in our political and electoral system. Advocates of proportional representation, for example, claim it would more accurately mirror popular support. While I doubt a debate around electoral reform can’t hurt, I doubt that Isrealis or Italians, who have adopted this system feel any better about their governments than those nations who haven’t.
Similarly, some argue that more free votes and a greater role for individual Members of Parliament would give local representatives more authority and the license to reflect their own views, thereby giving them a more distinctive profile and accountability with their constituents. The problem is that, as long as we want to maintain a form of responsible, parliamentary government, MPs cannot vote consistently against Cabinet, and Cabinet members certainly cannot vote against their colleagues.
Rather than these timourous, piecemeal attempts at reforming a small part of the system, it is probably time for a wholesale re-evaluation. This could start by using two yardsticks against which all proposals could be measured. Do they: give citizens and their leaders a more intimate understanding of one another by bringing the two into closer proximity; and do they offer real evidence that citizens’ efforts to affect the system can actually bear fruit?
In fact, everything I know about public opinion and the working of governments tells me that if we truly want to create a more cohesive and workable democracy, then we must make both structural and systemic changes aimed at elites, as well as cultural changes aimed at the masses.
At the mass or cultural level, the main problem is that our very distance and detachment from our leaders, and from one another, allow us to form and hold views that do not require scrutiny or evaluation. Look at the cultural shift in America than was produced by the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education. That decision, more than all the sermonizing from American liberals about the corrosive effects of racism on American life, or the activism of civil-rights leaders, forced blacks and whites to integrate. It was a change in experience, not beliefs or values, that changed the culture.
The most fundamental step in altering behaviour may be the introduction of compulsory voting. Turnout has fallen steadily since 1988 and is especially low among newly eligible voters, fewer than 30 percent of whom voted in 2006. Making voting compulsory – as is the case in Australia or Greece – forces every citizen into at least some engagement with the system.
Creating community, creed, and a common sense of destiny also requires citizen contact. There was a reason the ancient Greeks built theatres or early architects made the town square the centre-piece of their city plans. By strengthening the avenues of cultural distribution, public spaces can be combined with art and ideas to advance citizen interaction and build a stronger sense of civic virtue. Public sponsorship of festivals, reading series, debates, and town-hall meetings can all be used to inveigle individuals out of their rec rooms and into the streets, where citizens will gain a greater feeling of “ownership” of their community and its problems.
Technology can be another powerful tool. Surely if Wikipedia can develop an encyclopedia in 5 years that is 50% larger, and 98% as accurate as the one it took Oxford 107 years to create, we can do more than invite our citizens to use an HB pencil to mark an “X” on a piece of paper one every 4 years as their principal means of participating in the political process. Using Web.2 networking software to simulate public-policy alternatives, individuals could develop a citizen-based defense budget or old age-pension plan. Such “e-democracy” initiatives could facilitate an immediate feedback loop between elected representatives and their constituents on current issues of the day. Not only would this give citizens more input into government decision-making, but there is every reason to believe that if we can use technology to learn more about the consequences of our beliefs, over time we will come to make better decisions.
Even with compulsory participation, cultural democracy, and technological innovation, however, real change won’t happen unless citizens also come to believe that their elected representatives are not only responsive, but are empowered to act on the demands of those they represent.
Today, when most voters view their elected representatives as their inferiors, and virtually all have become conversant with current events through the explosion of broadcast and digital media, it is probably prudent to rethink the old Burkian-delegate model of elected representation and replace it with a more integrated and less distant “partnership” between leaders and voters. Entertaining ideas like recall, referendum, and initiative measures by which voters could have the ability to replace their representatives between elections, cast judgment on laws, and submit their own legislation may harness the citizen’s own sense of (non-political) powerfulness and give our representatives the tools to actually make changes in their constituents’ lives.
At the same time, by giving MPs more control over, and a direct say in, local government services, we could revitalize old-school “retail politics.” It is not mere coincidence that voter turnout in the 2006 federal election was 85 percent in the tiny province of Prince Edward Island, or that more than 90 percent of voters in Cape Breton Island knew the name of their local MP. Not only are politicians familiar faces and considered “neighbours”, but citizens also have a material understanding of the consequences of their political choices in smaller communities in this part of Canada.
Why not grant elected representatives real power to intervene on behalf of, and to deliver services directly to, their constituents?
In effect, this would amount to making each local Member of Parliament the chief operating officer of the government in his or her community. Government and Cabinet would still make policy, but it would be administered locally and overseen by elected constituency politicians. In short, the goal here would be to focus less on the inward influence of representatives in Parliament and more on the outward influence they wield with voters in their ridings.
Concepts such as putting politicians and voters in closer and more constant contact with one another, granting voters greater and more direct access to the political system, and giving representatives access to government resources to be deployed against local needs are neither innovative nor new. Citizen contact and debate was the cornerstone of Athenian democracy. Empowering voters was essential to such populist movements as the Grange and the United Farmers of Alberta. Another powerful example is Tammany Hall, which was fuelled by local networks of bossism and patronage.
For some, revisiting these ideas may smack of sentimental nostalgia or even taking up the cudgel of a now disgraced past. But the fact is, compared to today, many aspects of democracy were healthier in an earlier time. Past civilizations and societies atrophied, not because these concepts were faulty, but because they were applied to an uneducated, ill-informed, and acquiescent population. Because we have progressed – because we now have a citizenry that has the tools and wherewithal to chart a new collective destiny – we also now have it in our grasp to use the best of the old and the new to save democracy.
Robert Dahl gave us one of our most classic definitions of politics – the process of determining “who gets what, when and how”. But for those of us who have toiled in the trenches of politics, it is also much more than that. Politics is not merely a zero sum game where my benefit becomes your liability. Politics – by its nature – is the vehicle we use to uplift and advance whole communities and societies towards a better end.