This is part one of a three-part series that discusses Canadian citizens’ dissatisfaction with politics as usual. Part one will explore how we must refocus efforts to address the disillusionment and disengagement of citizens.
Although it is too early to determine what impact, if any, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement and its various offshoots will have on politics as usual in Canada or elsewhere, one thing is now clear: We are reaching a crisis point in governance and representative democracy in Canada. Predictably, abysmal voter participation in recent elections has been met by the usual angst over public apathy. However, OWS and other vigorous civil-society groups would seem to demonstrate that citizen disengagement from our formal political processes is not the result of a lack of interest in constructive public action on critical issues, but is, rather, a reflection of our alienation from an increasingly dysfunctional ingrown political system. Citizens are disengaged not from society, but from political institutions that produce neither inspiring leadership nor effective governance suitable for our time.
Almost 150 years ago, the Fathers of Confederation improbably, courageously, and creatively came together to create a federal system of governance that would guarantee a Canada distinctive in North America. Now, in the more complex, interconnected world of the 21st century, our population has grown to be one of the most dynamic and diverse in human history, outward-looking and globally connected, but no less committed to strengthening Canada’s distinctiveness — this time in the world, not just North America. Yet governance in Canada remains stubbornly mired in old structures and debates, frequently drifting without clear purpose, and remarkably inaccessible and out of touch with its citizens.
Instead of government “by, for, and of the people,” conducted in open, accountable, and legislative forums, we increasingly have government by executive decree that seems to focus on serving narrow partisan interests rather than the principled public interest. In Canada, this trend is magnified by the dysfunction in the sharing of power among all levels of government — national, provincial, municipal, and Aboriginal — which stymies any serious progress on critical issues. As I have described before, billions of dollars pour into the black hole of intergovernmental relations every year with virtually no public scrutiny or legislative accountability — and no real sense that progress is being made in areas of public concern such as the environment, infrastructure, jobs and investment, health care, and pensions.
Governance in the 21st century — in our age of instant communications and social media — is in need of complete transformation. The trend toward executive rule has irrevocably undermined basic liberal democratic values of the rule of law, equal respect for all citizens, and the accountability and transparency of government. All this is compounded by citizens’ inability to clearly identify the responsibilities of different levels of government for public action or inaction.
The federal government, in particular, provides no leadership to encourage the collaboration of provincial, territorial, municipal, and Aboriginal governments to ensure that they can deliver acceptable levels of public services to Canadians. Instead, too many initiatives at the national level, from tax measures and debt reduction to criminal law, are undertaken with little consideration of their broader impact. A case in point is the two per cent cut off the GST (love it or hate it), which had a huge impact on government budgets and, by extension, services to the general public during the worst recession in modern memory. (Coincidentally, the $12 billion in federal funding lost every year as a result of the GST cut is equal to the cost, estimated by the National Council of Welfare in 2007, of lifting every Canadian out of poverty.)
It should not be at all surprising that citizens no longer believe the political system can deliver honest, effective government or govern in the long-term public interest. Just ask the unemployed and underemployed, who desperately need co-ordinated measures from all levels of government, including innovative policies to expand credit to businesses so as to create jobs, restructured Employment Insurance, and improved training opportunities at community colleges to prepare workers for the skilled jobs (like technical engineering services) that are available. Ask the Nortel pensioners who not only discovered that their pensions were catastrophically underfunded, but also that pension insurance from province to province was inadequate or non-existent, and federal bankruptcy law terribly outdated. Ask the parents of children with autism, who are unable to demand greater comparability in relevant health services across Canada. Ask low-income families and individuals living on the margin who find that small increases in precarious employment income can trigger devastating reductions in essential housing or other benefits.
In seeking more effective ways to express their concerns and dissatisfaction, citizens have also given up on political parties, which are now considered, like the governments they underpin, to be ineffectual and out of touch, with agendas dictated by party machines rather than the public interest. New public spaces are therefore emerging for more-fulfilling citizen participation. Civil society groups are now much more effective than our traditional political parties in shaping the public debate – whether local, national, or transnational. Occupy Wall Street (and its offshoots) is simply a more diffusely organized example of a new channel for citizen angst and frustration with the political system.
If we hope to address this dysfunction and disengagement, we must begin by creating a new public space in which government executives can find solutions, ways to compromise, and common ground. In a federal system like Canada’s, it is crucial that all levels of government recognize their collective responsibility to Canadian citizens and the national interest, and that they get out of their jurisdictional silos and collaborate with other governments on urgent collective goals that will determine our quality of life in the years ahead. For most ordinary citizens just struggling to get by, the complexity of intergovernmental relations and shared responsibilities is overwhelming. How can citizens have any real impact on public policy if it is unclear what the responsibilities of each level of government are, and if it is so easy for one level to simply pass the blame for any inadequacy to another?
In part two of this series, I will offer a detailed proposal of how we might reform inter-governmental relations in a way that makes our government understandable and accountable to the most pressing concerns of its citizens.