In an age of education and information abundance, the key challenge is not ignorance or political indifference, but rather the widening chasm between the public and politicians.
Canadian democracy is at a crossroads. Perhaps not facing imminent danger of collapse and certainly not attributable to the fact that Stephen Harper now leads a majority government, but the slight uptick in voter turnout during the so-called historic 2011 federal election cannot mask an unmistakable truth. Steeped in history and tradition, our formal parliamentary institutions are adapting badly to today’s world, garnering the admiration, respect and active engagement of fewer and fewer Canadians.
The assertion of democratic malaise is hardly novel, though some have now concluded in light of the spring election that few things matter less to Canadians than democratic reform. For some, a Tory majority and NDP resurgence suggest democratic vibrancy. For others, economic uncertainty and electoral fatigue seemed sufficient to paper over any cracks in the Conservative fortress and voilà — the resurgence of a (hopefully) friendly dictator for four solid years.
What do we know for certain? Consider the following. Early in 2011 a public opinion poll suggested that only 15 percent of the population was actively following federal politics. During March and April — in the midst of two military conflicts and democratic uprisings across the Middle East and several raucous political disputes domestically — more than one in three eligible voters stayed away. The campaign itself was visually notable insofar as crowds often seemed to move from in front of the leaders to behind them (making for better television)!
Just five weeks after their historic victory, 2,000 or so Conservative delegates gathered for the party’s national convention. The combined membership base of all parties represented in the House of Commons is roughly 5 percent of the population (and probably somewhere less). Recently, on these pages, former Liberal insider Scott Reid proposed, not unreasonably, waiving membership fees altogether to breathe new life into his party (still a fairly modest incentive given the $10 annual fee; the NDP already waives any such fee for most new members).
Demographics are all the more distressing. Without Rick Mercer’s prodding (which, it turns out, did little to galvanize turnout), younger voters are now especially prone to turn away from ongoing partisan membership and activity (a well-established trend in recent years dissected in a 2006 IRPP manuscript by William Cross and Lisa Young that underscored a party system in decline).
To turn away from partisanship perhaps but not necessarily politics, in an age where Canadians are more educated than ever before and more constantly informed on issues of the day, the key challenge is not ignorance or political indifference. The critical problem is not politics but rather politicians, and more specifically our notion of what it means to be a politician (and how such notions get reflected in our formally partisan and representational processes).
To put this another way, the great democratic challenge of our times is the widening chasm between the public and politicians — the growing disrespect shown to this latter group and the diminishing pool of citizens ready and willing to serve. The diminished stature of Parliament is emblematic here, and nothing about the 2011 election is likely to reverse this trend that has been widely reported upon and dissected by current and former members, media pundits and academics (see, for example, the September 2010 issue of Policy Options devoted to “Fixing Parliament”).
The problem is not the shortage of ideas but rather the dearth of public confidence that much can be done to make serious use of them. Despite the rhetoric in recent years of citizen engagement, at the highest institutional levels our political processes — as distinguished from policy processes — do little to invite active and thoughtful reflection: rather, they encourage and thrive upon narrowminded partisanship that galvanizes a few while repelling a great many.
The recent election speaks volumes. The Conservatives’ negative branding of Michael Ignatieff certainly merits recognition on strategic grounds. Perhaps the most damaging (from the Liberal point of view) example of this negativity was the constant usage of footage showing Ignatieff blowing kisses to adoring supporters at his leadership coronation. Indeed, the Globe and Mail had earlier run its own editorial cartoon of the new Liberal leader in a royal-esque chariot en route to Parliament Hill acknowledging “democracy” in action to the gathering roadside masses.
The dramatic and unscripted exit from power by former BC premier Gordon Campbell offers similar lessons in the great divide between the governing and governed. Whatever his strengths and weaknesses, an entire decade of political capital was swiftly consumed by the HST debate, not on the merits of the tax itself but rather by its introduction.
In both cases, point made. Some Canadians may have been bothered by Ignatieff’s long absence from Canada but the much larger albatross was being cast, fairly or unfairly, as an elitist out of touch with the average voter. Unrealistic comparisons to a past Liberal icon sealed the deal (and perhaps not unwisely, the younger Trudeau has stayed clear of leadership contests and should no doubt continue to bide his time until there is a solid narrative and image in place to avoid a similar fate).
Provincially, the dramatic and unscripted exit from power by former BC premier Gordon Campbell offers similar lessons in the great divide between the governing and governed. Whatever his strengths and weaknesses, an entire decade of political capital was swiftly consumed by the HST debate, not on the merits of the tax itself but rather by its introduction: denied during an election and introduced days after (with a paper trail and common sense dictating that it had been in the works for some time). Prime Minister Trudeau survived a wage and price control flip-flop in a different era; in today’s era Premier Campbell did not survive his.
In electoral terms, by contrast Mr. Harper’s great success in 2011 stemmed mainly from his portrayal as a decent, uninspiring though technically competent leader who simply wanted to get on with the job of economic recovery. Canada’s economic track record relative to so much of the world helped, as did the branding of the Conservative leader as a family man, Tim Hortons frequenter, hockey fan and part-time musician (complete with a bottle of beer).
Those who tuned into the pivotal leaders’ debates — perhaps to give the other guys a chance (all men, the broadcasters decided) — found a composed Stephen Harper seemingly under relentless attack from all sides. Jack Layton managed to come across as likable and clever at times, aiding his ascent. As for Ignatieff, I defer to my mother (no fan of politics), who reported that she tried briefly to watch but quickly tired of the Liberal leader shouting, “You lied, you lied.” And so the channel quickly turned, and just as quickly Liberal fortunes faded…
Such is the power of television imagery, but many inside operatives and pundits have offered more thoughtful takes on partisan tactics. Yet taking a step back with respect to overall electoral governance, three salient points stand out. First, a single televised debate (in each official language) is a very narrow way to pass judgment on prospective leaders of a country. Secondly, political parties are today nothing more than financial and tactical vessels for their leaders (creating a presidential dynamic in a parliamentary system). And thirdly, technological change thus far has merely served to reinforce the competitive and centralized mindset of partisan messaging due to an electoral and political apparatus overly constrained by television broadcasting and traditional media outlets.
The result is that our national politics become ever more visible and ever less respected. I may be wrong, and a well-performing and widely respected Conservative government may spend the next four years replenishing the public’s faith in our representational institutions, but there are good reasons to hold your bet.
At the heart of the matter are complex matters of trust and leadership. While pollsters routinely ask the question in terms of political leaders, this makes little sense: either the incumbent is somewhat trusted or not based on performance to date, whereas other party leaders are largely unknown quantities without experience in power on which to base any judgment.
Harper thus benefited from his government’s handling of the global financial crisis and Canada’s stability and the economic resilience that has ensued. Add the public’s fatigue with minority Parliament — accentuated by televised shenanigans and the ever-present threat of yet another election — and the election was his to lose.
Steeped in history and tradition, our formal parliamentary institutions are adapting badly to today’s world, garnering the admiration, respect and active engagement of fewer and fewer Canadians.
Nonetheless, global surveys on trust (such as those undertaken each year by Edelman Communications) display an erosion of public trust in formal institutions of all types, notably those in the public and private spheres (whereas the nonprofit sector has fared better). Much of this erosion is the most concentrated in the Western world — where the forces of transparency have been harshest — and such findings are not without inconsistencies across countries and cultures.
Perhaps the most constant and relevant lesson from a variety of studies is how trusted leadership is less and less derived from hierarchy and office, and increasingly based upon more direct forms of engagement and on-the-ground experiences. This is not to say that credentials and charisma no longer matter — of course they do, especially in a digital world, but the flip side of such imagery is cynicism on the part of those being led and narcissistic tendencies by those leading. Outside of formal politics, in more and more sectors and fields, an alternative recipe for trust is taking hold: one that is more egalitarian than elitist and more participative than passive.
Such a trend is on display in many sectors and fields, and it enjoins management school teachings about leading an empowered workforce with political science theories espousing more direct citizen involvement. In both cases, governance becomes more consultative and open and also a good deal more complex.
Consider the military. In eras past, soldiers needed only be healthy and loyal (the opening sequence of the film Saving Private Ryan provides painfully vivid confirmation). Today, soldiers are trained to face uncertainty and make critical decisions in frontline situations where there are no pre-existing playbooks. Trust is thus altered and ever more essential. One former Singaporean military commander puts it well: “Trust is a great power leveller and performance multiplier; it melts away hierarchy while preserving the structure of authority and in so doing induces open communication and risk-taking.”
In a world of search engines, social media and open communities devising “apps” for ubiquitous and mobile Internet devices, companies and governments are striving to leverage the collective potential of what many term Management 2.0 (even if such participative theories are not so new, they are receiving a huge boost in credibility and relevance in today’s digitally and socially networked society).
The mobility era is said to be shattering the logic of bureaucratic control (and similarly raises important and difficult questions for representational authority politically). As Don Tapscott, Clay Shirky and others point out, plummeting costs of organizing collectively coupled with plentiful information and tools for collaborating produce conditions that are ripe for networks. Management theorist Gary Hamel is thus blunt: in such a world the ability to follow orders counts for little.
The implications for government are widespread and profound — with the prototypical public servant of the bureaucratic era depicted as anonymous, and deferential and loyal to chain of command. The new public servant is now expected to be something altogether different. What, then, of the new politician?
Despite our widening affinity for leadership and governance models that are more openly collaborative and participative with stakeholders and subordinates alike, what we have failed to do is to apply this shift in expectations and conduct to the political realm. Instead, far too often, our tendency is to look for leaders who conform to historical standards of greatness rather than those more relevant for contemporary contexts and challenges.
This perils of this disconnect became evident as I read a thoughtful contribution in this magazine by Robin Sears on the relative performance of provincial premiers and the failure of contemporaries to live up to the stature of past leaders: the “giants,” as he terms of it, of Canadian Confederation. Having myself grown up with a fair bit of distant and deferential admiration for the likes of Peter Lougheed, William Davis, David Peterson and Robert Bourassa, I empathize with such comparisons.
Yet my assessment is that it is not that today’s politicians are a lesser breed, but rather that our collective capacities for knowing, understanding and deciding are fundamentally altering: our expectations are out of line, the schism widened by politicians still aspiring for greatness (leveraging television to inform Canadians what it is they really want!). A politician should be one of us (as many are and aspire to be within their constituencies). We, in turn, should be called upon, at any appropriate moment, to become a politician — recognition of a duty to become engaged.
Fairly or unfairly, politicians are viewed by most — especially the young — as a self-interested profession of choice (and often a dubious one at that). Hyper-competitive electoral campaigns fixated on leaders and their promises occasionally spark enthusiasm, but more widespread is distance and disdain. In between elections, it is television and its thirst for imagery and sound bites that accentuate this divide.
Traditional media, which refers (imperfectly) to professional intermediaries employed directly or indirectly by broadcasting and newspaper conglomerates, public and private, is a powerful vice. Reporters are themselves not the problem: a free media will do what a free media does and that is altogether to the good. The problem is that such intermediaries reinforce the legitimacy gap by interpreting in place of — rather than with the public — a problem amplified by the simplicity and instantaneous nature of television that reduces many otherwise thoughtful elected officials to one-line speaking points and predictable, aggressive partisan banter.
Many politicians are well aware of their own diminishment. As recent studies by the Canadian organization Samara illustrate, their frustration with partisan control is widespread and profound. Though reasonable to ask if politicians are themselves doing enough to reform from within, the more ominous reality is that as fewer and fewer Canadians are prepared to sacrifice their time and talents for such a reductionist system, the quality of those doing so can only lessen much as disgruntlement both within elected chambers and across the citizenry can only mount.
So what’s to be done? There are no quick fixes of course, as democracy itself must always be contested and this is especially true of its conduct. Here the election of a Conservative majority may nevertheless create an opportunity of sorts. While democratic reform may be off the government agenda (Senate tweaking notwithstanding), the relative political calm of majority rule can enable more oxygen for wider debates surrounding longer-term institutional renewal. The record number of new MPs in the House can also assist here (though their concentration within the NDP ranks creates a Reform-like dilemma — play by existing rules or aspire to change).
To return to the central premise of this article — bridging the divide between politicians and the public — two broad directions merit, in my estimation, thoughtful reflection and pursuit: first, a strengthened democratic culture of duty and responsibility; and second, the shifting of our political processes from the television era to that of the Internet.
Unfortunately, there is a potential contradiction between them since much about the Internet is competitive and commercial. Even governments increasingly refer to the public as ”˜customers’ with rights and service and benefit guarantees and little demanded in return beyond the basics of paying taxes (even here there is reason to worry as the Canada Revenue Agency is said to be finding and addressing higher discrepancy rates for online returns over paper-based filings!).
Yet there remains a strong collective attachment to Canadian values and institutions of various sorts and it is upon this foundation that a basis for wider democratic literary and more meaningful political engagement must be built. There is more at play here than choice or volunteerism: there must also be a sense of obligation. Though by no means the ideal or only example worthy of consideration, roughly one-third of all OECD countries have some form of mandatory voting.
What, then, of the possibility of mandatory political service — via citizens’ panels and other such mechanisms? Claims of the public being ill-informed or under-qualified to serve simply do not hold water: in our justice system, allowing for some discretionary selection, we routinely recruit citizens to decide the fate of various parties in the most complex of criminal matters. The essence of the matter is finding ways to refute the deepening cynicism of the public toward politicians by fusing these roles through new hybrids of representational authority and public participation.
In the absence of such an emphasis on duty, in an increasingly online universe one can expect democracy to simply be a choice among many and one that will not fare well. This may matter less to those who view elections purely through the prism of product offerings and vitriolic exchange, but it will do little to sustain and strengthen democratic conversations. Legislatures were created, after all, precisely to foster and channel deliberation into collective decisions and actions.
Today such deliberations have transcended these chambers in ways both positive and threatening: new mechanisms must be found to temper what Mark Kingwell terms “the shout doctrine” (which the Internet does well to amplify). Such engagement must also begin earlier on. More than lowering the voting age, itself a long overdue idea, we must explore ways to infuse primary and secondary education with a stronger dose of civic duty and direct political activity. In recent years the emphasis placed on communitarian pursuits and the volunteer sector has overshadowed formalized politics. With regard to the closely related role and usage of new technologies, a groundswell of ideas is emerging through movements such as Change Camps (www.changecamp.ca) and a myriad of municipal innovations both offline and online to involve the public in new ways. The grassroots election of Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and his importation of such ideas into office (e.g., participatory budgeting techniques via online crowdsourcing) personify this movement, and it is no doubt locally where the greatest potential lies to enjoin the public and the politician
Sadly, however, community initiative is all too often overshadowed by the televised theatre of federal politics (also further eroding the local foundations of Parliament). A recent contribution by Robin Sears to this discussion (Policy Options, September 2010) includes many useful ideas on how to virtually extend the reach and presence of Parliament beyond the confines of downtown Ottawa. As Sears points out, given the hundreds of millions being spent on physical restoration, the time to act is now. Without question, in comparison to billions spent on online service channels and the communications, digital investments thus far made in the legislature have been modest, to put it kindly.
A partial virtualization of Parliament is all to the good — insofar as it weakens the shackles of national media and party headquarters. It is nonetheless also imperative to take great care to balance and align any federal effort with fledging movements for democratic renewal locally. Here the federated architectures of a more digital world do not sit easily with political federalism and the Constitution (exclusionary of a municipal presence). Therefore, the reformation of Canadian democracy cannot be devised and led federally. A truly national effort is required: one that is holistic and inclusive of actors and ideas both from within existing democratic architectures and outside of them as well.
Parties federally and provincially must also be encouraged to experiment with today’s digital universe in ways that seek genuine involvement in both partisan governance and policy matters rather than simply leveraging websites as fundraising tools and a platform for communications. Nearly half the population of the country is on Facebook. Yet, as Yaroslav Baran reports in his recent Policy Options contribution in June 2011, during the recent election social media networks proved little more than a channel for constant chatter and instantaneous spin: riveting for journalists and operatives, ignored by most everyone else. Today’s increasingly informed and connected youth want and expect deeper engagement — or they will simply continue to turn away.
A final word on a floundering partybased system. Removing public funding for parties creates a limited window of opportunity for modest re-investment into a meaningful and independent venue tasked with openly and collaboratively crafting ideas and solutions for longer term democratic renewal: a political foundation for the country as a whole. The over-arching objective should be a revitalized democratic culture that once again values politics as both a higher calling and a responsibility to be actively shared and nourished by as many citizens as possible. The status quo is untenable and politicians and the public both deserve better.