Social networks’ participatory power and our unfettered access to data is transforming politics – and democracy itself. Political influence is shifting away from brokers and elites, and back to the people. Which is, generally, a good thing.
However, instant communication and unfiltered flows of information are at best a mixed blessing. The result – an unprecedented delegitimization of public institutions and professions, especially government and politicians – is particularly troubling. Nowhere is this more obvious than the current attitudes respecting Stephen Harper and his government. The latest Senate scandals, which may simply be the tip of an iceberg, have contributed to polling results that find fewer than one in ten Canadians trust politicians.
From the empowerment of the masses emerges a troubling paradox: We have more information and data than ever about the critical challenges we face – whether environmental, economic, social, or geopolitical. Yet at the same time, we have less confidence than ever in our politicians’ ability to deliver steady, trustworthy and visionary leadership to confront such challenges. This disconnect creates less collective ability to build the consensus and unity of purpose needed to support urgent long-term action on behalf of all Canadians. Because whether we like it or not, individuals acting alone or in disconnected groups cannot build the kind of vibrant, prosperous Canada to which we all aspire.
In my recent detour though partisan politics, I had the opportunity to talk to Canadians and explore our democratic crisis, measuring its impact on ordinary citizens. How do we repair the broken trust between the people and our elected representatives? Canadians, I learned, are deeply cynical about the capacity of politicians to set aside short-term self-interest and act in the long-term national interest. We want more principle and purpose in politics, and less pandering and partisanship; more Elizabeth Mays and Brent Rathbergers, and less empty rhetoric and platitudes. Canadians want nothing less than a dramatic and comprehensive reset of national politics – transformative change, not tinkering – and a coherent plan of action with long-term goals and concrete measurable steps to achieve them.
Canadians understand more clearly than our leaders the crisis we face. For most of us, the Canadian dream of equal access to opportunity is a mirage. We see only two groups. There are those at the top benefiting from advantages in background, wealth, valuable connections and access to higher education that lead to higher wages. And then there is a steadily increasing pool of relatively disadvantaged persons who are all too likely to be trapped at the lower-end of the low-wage economy – the fast-food workers and retail employees of our rapidly expanding part-time, under-employed service sector. Over time, this social polarization is a recipe for disaster. The only question that needs answering is how – not whether – we will take concrete collective action to change the diminishing prospects for an increasing number of Canadians.
InIt is time to throw out the old political playbook. There is no point in trying to beat Mr. Harper at the outdated game of slice-and-dice politics he has painstakingly perfected by appealing to us only as self-interested consumers, rather than citizens – the tactical ‘gifts’ to select groups, whether regional, ethno-cultural, or social. Nor can we depend on scandals alone to defeat the Conservative government.
Only delivered, concrete, transformative change will restore Canadians’ faith that our national government can once again be a creative and unifying force in our nation, building a more balanced and sustainable economy that fairly benefits all Canadians. A centerpiece of such transformative change should be a firm commitment to deliver greater coordination and collaboration across different levels of government – federal, provincial, municipal and Aboriginal – ensuring coherent action to strengthen our economic fundamentals, eliminating wasteful redundancy and absurd delays. Most Canadians see our governments working constantly at cross-purposes: municipal mayors fighting with provincial premiers over infrastructure funding; workers finding that their training credentials or experience from one province are not recognized in other provinces; or health care services more and more a patchwork across the country.
As the one government elected by, and answering to, all Canadians, the national government should play the central role in encouraging the intergovernmental collaboration needed by Canadians. This should not result in federal micromanagement and top-down dictates. Quite the reverse. It should present a clear vision and principles that bring citizens and their governments together to pursue joint priorities in the national interest.
Implementing the institutional change to create the capacity for collaborative intergovernmental action is not difficult. Australia’s Council of Australian Governments works reasonably well; and a similar Council of Canadian Governments would be an effective supplement to Canada’s optional First Ministers’ Conferences – which are currently held only on the whim of the prime minister. The Council might also replace the provinces-only Council of the Federation, which seems to have become nothing but an institutional vehicle through which to complain about the federal government.
Identifying the specific measurable goals to be pursued collectively by all levels of government is no less straightforward, and would constitute a refreshing mandate to take to the people in the next general election. Examples of collective goals could include: enough teachers’ assistants in every school, lower drug prices, an Infrastructure Financing Authority, comprehensive apprenticeship and training structures integrated with an overhaul of Employment Insurance, and complete portability of all credentials and certifications together with the elimination of inter-provincial barriers to economic activity. At the same time, we need to overhaul the exemption-riddled tax system and restructure our needlessly convoluted system of federal-provincial fiscal transfers, including equalization, so that we really do ensure that Canadians have access to comparable public services no matter where we live.
Obtaining a clear mandate for the next federal government to make intergovernmental collaboration an explicit national priority and to promote practical, measurable goals to guide the coordinated action by all levels of government, would go far to reset national politics. For once, Canadians would be voting for positive, transformative change and be sending a clear message to our elected representatives at all levels that principle, purpose and reasonable compromise must prevail at all times.