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 Liberals had avoided any divisive debate by announcing Canada would not participate in the United States Ballistic Defense System before the Convention. This safely out of the way, the balance of the meeting was reduced to Orwellian Chants of “Promise Made, Promise Kept” shouted first from the podium and then echoed from the floor of the Convention.

The Conservatives seemed even more triumphant having expunged any remnant of “extremism” by not refuting Official bilingualism – a policy that has been the law of the land for over four decades – refusing to legislate anti-abortion measures and otherwise endorsing the preferred policy course their Leadership had set out in the previous months.

Neither Convention produced one policy that was either new or inconsistent with official party policy before their arrival.

Time and time again, delegates either ratified already agreed to measures, or voted down doing anything that deviated from the status quo. The big “news” coming out of the Conventions was for stands that were not taken rather than ones that were. Both illustrated a victory of political pragmatism over principled public policy.

I then began to ask myself how did we get to the point where political parties – the “grand aggregators” of Walter Bagehot’s parliamentary theory and the “crucibles of consensus” Robert Stanfield defended – had devolved from the dynamic entities that spawned innovations like Medicare, deux nations and the Just Society, into stewards of the status quo? The sinking feeling really started when I had to admit that this apparent political inertia could, in part, be the result of chosen profession. Ably assisted by the media, the ubiquitous presence of polling in the political process has significantly altered the public policy landscape – and not for the better.
When George Gallup introduced commercial polling to the world, he heralded his new tool as “the pulse of democracy”. With the ability to statistically predict the public will with his random samples of the population, he held out the possibility that a more meaningful link could be forged between the elected and the governed. The handmaiden of the pollster was to be newspapers. By publishing his findings through the mass media, he would be able to induce governments to be more responsive to the constituents they served, and create a stronger bond among citizens, as they came to understand their common outlook on the world.

Since then, the proliferation of media published polls has produced an effect that George could never have contemplated. Far from fostering a more dynamic interchange between politicians and the electorate, omnipresent poll results have become an integral part of the present day alchemy that dulls our capacity to think critically about current affairs and contributes to the cascading cynicism about public life that corrodes democracy.

Today, polling limits the latitude of legislators to pursue public policy by rendering “politically unacceptable” certain avenues that might be considered, otherwise. Taking a stand on a public issue which squarely flies in the face of popular opinion is not only rare, but when it occurs, it is declared to be “off strategy” and deemed a negative reflection on a politician’s judgment and competence. Ironically, political pronouncements that correspond to the prevailing predilections of a majority of voters are dismissed as “poll driven”, which invariably reinforces the notion that politicians lack a moral compass or principles to guide their decisions.

At the same time, the nearly instantaneous ability to gauge and report the public’s reaction to current events produces a filter that shapes the media’s coverage of the news and crowds out more thorough and nuanced explanations of what is happening in the world. The polling results themselves not only become the headline news but also the explanation as to “why” events or actions are unfolding as they are. In this way, media analysis – as it relates not simply of the substance of a story but also its subtext and motive — is considered unassailable. Contrary thinking is tossed into the dustbin of wrong-headed heresy.

Over time, polling has evolved into nothing less than the authoritative source that defines what is good or bad politics and public policy.

The current (non) debate over health care reform illustrates the effect of polling on public policy innovation.

For over five years, public opinion polls have revealed that Canadians are most concerned about the deteriorating quality of health care. Even more importantly, they also indicate that a publicly funded and universally accessible system is tied directly to the country’s national identity. In sum, polls show that the quality and way health care is delivered has become an entrenched source of national pride and provides a point of differentiation from America, thus giving Canadians a unique sense of themselves.

Because health care is something tantamount to a “sacred trust,” proposing any radical alteration of the system has become taboo. Utterances of a possible “two-tier” system or even the more benign proposal to deliver more services through the private sector are immediately attacked, repudiated or more simply declared “politically suicidal.” Yet those who make these declarations – be they in the press, politics or medical profession – know that medical services such as dentistry, chiropractics and prescription drugs are not paid out of the public purse and already constitute a second tier in the system. If it were not for the intellectual jihad that surrounds this issue, they would also acknowledge private delivery of health care services are the cornerstone of the system they cherish — that their doctors are not civil servants, but private sector small businesspeople contracting to provide health services for their own profit.

The unwillingness to tackle this issue with anything other than proposals for incremental tinkering has led to decision-making paralysis and thus has contributed to the progressive deterioration of Canada’s health care system. Its declining quality then becomes yet more evidence that government is unable to effect meaningful change and ends up generating more cynicism towards politicians and the political system.

The media’s fixation with published polls and the effect they have on their news coverage adds the fuel that drives this cynicism. Make no mistake however, the allegation here is not the standard trope that decries editorial bias or journalistic laziness. Rather, the media –like politicians and the public – have come to rely on polls as their principal source of “news” to such an extent that they have started to structure and limit their analysis of the events they are covering.

Neil Postman documented how, because of the pervasiveness of television, public discourse was being undermined by our preoccupation with the sensational over the meaningful. In his forward to Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), he reiterated Huxley’s fear “that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance (and)… we would become a trivial culture”. Nearly twenty years later, it is not just show business but the filter of public opinion that now defines the news and reduces our full understanding of current events.

For example, if you missed the Leaders debates during the last federal election and tuned in the next day to see what transpired, you probably heard very little of what actually took place during the two hour exchange. More likely, you heard commentary on “who won.” Maybe you saw a clip — repeated throughout the day on all the broadcast and cable networks — of a “knock-out punch” or the defining moment of the event. While you were watching the same newscast there probably also was a dearth of detail about what the candidates are actually saying or doing that day. Rather, the news focus was on how their actions were geared to take advantage or alternatively, to reduce the damaging effects of the debate the night before. The certainty of the reporting would have been provided by public opinion polls that substantiate the point of view being offered. Without supporting poll results, the commentary would be relegated to “opinion” and not considered fair comment within the normal standards of news reporting.

In the end, this process leaves us armed with information and deprived of wisdom.

The ultimate perversion of this quagmire, of course, is that far from thanking its political leaders for following the lead of public opinion, voters typically reject the very policy pronouncements they have been telling the pollsters they desire. This is because the electorate typically can find consensus around problems but rarely around solutions. The end result is public policy paralysis.

Yet one of the most profound features of the Canadian mindset today is a realization that the problems we face as a nation are new, complex and multi-layered. Old solutions are rejected and is the evidence of the political system’s failure to be productive.

More pointedly, there is a widespread sense that government inertia reflects a failure to recognize a radically altered world and a wrong-headed persistence in trying to solve new problems with already discredited solutions.

The list of examples to support this thesis is long and depressing, and starts with the very role of government itself.

By the mid-1980s, the social welfare state of the 50s and 60s had begun to show cracks. Government deficits ballooned while individual progress stalled. Investigative journalism exposed the human failings and effective shortcomings of elected leaders. The outgrowth was an increasingly well educated electorate who came to believe that private need was more pressing than the public good, and that individuals – and not government – were best suited to advance their interests. Government responded to these lower and more cynical expectations with privatization, program cuts and retrenchment. So successful was this approach that Jean Chretien was able to engineer three majority election victories and two-thirds of Canadian voters could not cite one accomplishment to serve as the basis for that reward.

Since 2000, market forces no longer look quite so triumphant. Corporate scandal, anemic stock markets, an unraveling social safety net and global terrorism have caused voters to reconsider the credo that “the government that governs best, governs least”. This conclusion notwithstanding, polls detect little appetite for a return to the bad old days when government served as not only the arbitrator but, if need be, the provider of the public good. But at the same time, the notion that government is irrelevant or has no role has been equally discredited in this uncertain environment. Canadians are unsure what role they now desire for government but have discounted both the ham handed interventionist tendencies of the 60s and 70s and the invisible hand of the 1990s. How has government responded to this new development? There is no question that we have witnessed more activism from the Martin government in the last year but this has been of the variety of “doing more – or more precisely, spending more — of exactly what government had been doing before”.

From everything I can discern, Canadians are yearning for an articulation of a new and innovative role for government. They know 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 tops the lists of Canadian’s concerns but has become mired in a tar baby of inaction, where most avenues of reform have been roadblocked by a tryanny of political correctness.
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 in the 1990s Canada welcomed almost three times more immigrants to our shores than we averaged in the two proceeding decades. Moreover, where as recently as 30 years ago, over 80% of these new arrivals came from European origins, now fewer than 20% depart from this historic destination, and instead come from Asia, West Indies and so-called Other (essentially third world, developing) countries. The difference, of course, is for the first time in our history Canada has become a destination of 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 Shri 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 X largest cities and over 70% of all of the nation’s new immigrants settle in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Landmark research, such as that conducted by Michael Porter as well as Ontario’s Task Force on Competitiveness and Prosperity, has demonstrated that the engine of economic growth is fueled by “regional clusters”, sprocketing out of an urban core. Yet our 138 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 almost half a century since Lester Pearson won the Noble Peace Prize and enshrined the notion of Canada as a Middle Power. Anyone who happen 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. Canada’s (stalled) initiative to provide AIDs drugs to Africa and Paul Martin’s crusade to establish the L20 as a forum for global governance provides a hint of what role we might play in the future but for the time being, this picture is more fragmented than complete.

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.

Considering the public good – and not the politically acceptable — might be a good place to start.

Article originally appeared in June 2005 Walrus Magazine