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

— “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.”

Today’s cynical voters actually care more about issues than yesterday’s partisans, so a campaign of ideas for the Liberal leadership could win some back

Scant weeks before Auditor General Sheila Fraser transferred her “outrage” over the sponsorship scandal to the Canadian electorate, private polling suggested that Paul Martin and his Liberal party were headed toward the largest electoral majority on record. Twenty-six months later, his term in government has been relegated to a modest footnote in Canadian history books, Stephen Harper occupies his office in the Langevin block and, as his former followers set out to elect his successor, the very future of the Liberal party has become a question mark.

Without doubt, this massive change in fortune underscores the incendiary impact of the Gomery inquiry. In no small measure it probably also reflects tactical and strategic errors that Mr. Martin’s Liberals made while in government and over the course of two federal campaigns. Much more telling however, Mr. Martin’s descent reflects a political culture where attachment to partisan choice is so tenuous that no political party’s fortunes can be guaranteed beyond the next calendar year.

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.

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.


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.


We live in a time of moral relativism. Every idea, behaviour and habit carries a weight, worthy of equal consideration, and is supposed to be as acceptable as any other. Indeed, many consider this the hallmark of an enlightened, pluralistic, open-minded society.

When you look at our public opinion data however, there is one area where unequivocal judgementalism seems to be not only accepted, but the norm.

Today, regardless of socio-economic status or ideological perspective, the electorate appears to be uniformly disdainful of politicians, governments and state activity.

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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