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.

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.

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.

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.

Ask Canadians about their priorities for government spending, and funding for the arts and culture will turn up near the bottom of their hit parade (it routinely wrestles for last place with foreign aid). Anyone intimately involved in the sector, however, knows that the response of the “average” citizen masks deep differences within the population on the deemed importance of public support for the arts and culture. While the wisdom of funding symphonies, book publishers, museums and their ilk may be lost on the masses, legions of cultural bureaucrats, mavens and volunteers seem to spend their days lobbying policy-makers on the need for more funds for the arts. In fact, while it is rarely in the forefront of public debate, there may well be no single issue that divides elites and the general public more than this question.

The arguments in support of cultural funding, however, are many, varied, rarely coherent and most often revolve around questions as to which constituency within the arts and cultural community is in most need of, or would benefit most from, this support. Rarely stated, but always implicit, is the premise that Canadian culture (at least at this point) is not economically or commercially viable. Not even whispered, however, is the underlying belief that the average Canadian is not sufficiently interested in any of these forms of cultural expression to pay — either through taxes or at the box office — for our creator community, cultural industries or the public institutions that exhibit and host cultural events.

No matter how often, and with what force, our public health officials assure us that we should not panic in the face of the SARS outbreak, their message is bound to fall on skeptical ears. That is because the basis for fear has little to do with rationality or reason, and instead appears embedded in deep cultural anxieties that have become a central part of the modern, Western world.

Of all the questions I have posed in polling throughout the years, perhaps my favourite is: “If someone told you something was safe and someone else told you it was unsafe, which one would you believe?” A very small minority (10 per cent) reported they would believe that this (undefined) something was safe, and 22 per cent had the common sense to declare that it would depend on who was doing the telling and what they were talking about. But the vast majority — fully 68 per cent — would accept the message of doom and gloom. That gives us a penetrating insight into the nature of fear and our reaction to the possibilities of exposure to risk.

The accepted wisdom following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was that Canadians would forge a much closer bond with Americans. Out of the twin impulses of empathy and threat, we would see our common interests aligned and our destiny linked within the boundaries of our shared continent.

What a difference a year can make. Our 2002 year-end poll indicates that, far from drawing closer together, Canadians are expressing a growing desire to chart a distinct path, independent of our neighbours to the south. Over the past year, we have seen the number of Canadians who describe the United States as “family” or “best friends” shrink by a third — to only one in five — as the vast majority have come to characterize our relationship as either “friends, but not especially close” or “cordial but distant.”

Similarly, since we last asked this question in 1999, the percentage who believe we are “mainly” or “essentially” different from Americans has grown to a significant majority of 57 per cent.

We also see a solid sentiment that the United States is acting like a bully and a majority who fear that “we are losing our independence to the United States.” In policy terms, these underlying beliefs have created a population that is unconvinced that Iraq warrants attack; that has serious misgivings about supporting our allies in any assault on Saddam Hussein done outside the sanction of the United Nations; and that is unprepared to follow the U.S. lead in rejecting the Kyoto accord.

When Gross Domestic Product goes up, the media and citizenry have been conditioned to shout hosannas. Yet in the backrooms somewhere, decision-makers could be looking at these same robust growth figures with concern, fearing the economy may be overheating and creating the conditions for higher inflation. At some point, if these signals become too alarming, central bankers will raise their interest rates and — presto! — your mortgage payment just went up. In this way, we use indicators of economic growth to generate a series of non-economic policies and outcomes.

Whether this is good economic policy or not has been debated for decades. What is rarely discussed outside academics circles, however, is whether these indicators of progress actually give us the right guidance to create the society we collectively want. The implications go far beyond mere economics or the arcana of economic measurement. Competing views of the world — each justified by how we measure progress — play a part in the real world of public policy and public choice.

When Marx prophesized the withering away of the state, I doubt he could have imagined the vacuum would be filled by the private sector. Yet as governments have recoiled from their traditional activist role, the private sector has assumed ever more responsibility, not only for economic prosperity but also for “the social good.” McDonald’s is now one of the world’s main providers of playground space. Coca-Cola has emerged among the largest benefactors of scholarships for Hispanics in the U.S. Business figures like Anita Roddick have taken on iconic status as a model of modern-day virtue, by merging the interests of her Body Shop chain with the welfare of Indians in the Amazon rain forest.

In fact, over the past two decades, we have witnessed the systematic blurring of the traditional roles of the public and private sectors. Today, governments are primarily consumed with facilitating initiatives needed to spawn more private-sector productivity, competitiveness and expansion. In the process, the public becomes convinced of government’s irrelevance as it seems to be little more than the handmaiden of business.

Any poll I might care to conduct would find that Canadians, virtually to a person, say they want homelessness eradicated, theenvironment protected and disparities between the richest and poorest reduced. How then do we explain the continued presence of the homeless in our midst? Or the systematic degradation of our environment and scarce resources? The stunning accumulation of individual wealth in the face of Third World poverty? Even more curiously, if this is the kind of society the public truly wants, why is there no hue and cry over the persistence and deepening of these problems?

The answer, it appears, lies in a disconnect that has developed between those things we value and the world we are prepared to tolerate. While huge majorities may give these call-for-action responses in polls, they rarely raise these sentiments in public debate or translate them into direct demands for action. Rather, what we find is a public that has come to accept that the homeless are just “there,” that the deterioration of the environment is part of the normal course of events, and the the wealth gap is just, well, something that exists.

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