In 2017 we will slowly adapt to the new normal of an outrageously uninformed American president who uses Twitter as a channel not just for random thoughts, but also for governance. Plans, policies, and positions emerge in chunks of 140 characters, along with instant stream-of-consciousness reactions based on beliefs and feelings unsubstantiated by evidence. As Donald Trump upends the rules-based liberal international order and recklessly ignores the rule of law, it is impossible to predict where we may be a year or even a month from now on the spectrum of “illiberal democracy”.
Trump’s election is simply the most obvious manifestation – hopefully rock-bottom – of the serious deterioration of representative democracy apparent in many of the world’s established democracies over the last three decades, and specifically the alarming weakening of the checks to executive power.
In both the United States and Canada, broad-based political parties have lost their vibrant grassroots community bases, and along with them any meaningful outlet for principled public participation and their mediating brokerage role in building consensus around long-term action. Instead, party leaders and their entourages have centralized power and created top-down organizations that serve primarily as their 24/7 election machines. During elections ordinary citizens are sold on personalities and “good intentions”, not policies and “good governance”, and then are quickly shunted to the sidelines by the governing elite after the vote is over. Donald Trump’s success in winning the Republican nomination is evidence of this: after feeling ignored by their party’s leadership for years, angry Republicans voted for a rogue populist candidate from outside the party structure.
Executive-controlled parties lead to top-heavy governments that are guided by electoral cycles and special interests, not the broader public interest. In the US, for instance, a weakening of the internal rules of Congress designed to encourage collaboration and to give the minority party a fair chance to amend and debate legislation means the legislative branch is an inadequate check on executive action. The judicial branch still presents a reasonably effective, though often only temporary or partial, check as demonstrated in respect of Trump’s executive order imposing an immigration ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. But the office of the White House counsel has expanded over the years to include a group of at least 50 formidable lawyers whose sole job is to find ways to accomplish what the president orders.
The reality is that in most established democracies today, executive rule has never been so strong, while responsive and responsible governance has never been so weak. In Canada, this affects both federal and provincial levels of government. The tragedy is that we have reached this nadir of representative democracy where we are experiencing peak economic insecurity and anxiety. This affects all generations – the 50-year-old factory worker as much as the 30-year-old millennial. The frontiers of biological, physical, and digital systems are expanding at unprecedented speeds. Disruptive technological advances – from artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to self-driving vehicles and 3-D printing – are wreaking havoc on the labour market and our ability to hold down decent jobs at decent incomes.
So just at the point when we need creative and responsive governance to manage multiple challenges, we have leaders reducing complex issues to catchy slogans and tweets. Too many citizens see a frustratingly persistent gap across a wide range of issues between our aspirations and the capacity of any of our governments to respond. At best, we have governments settling for half-measures carefully curated and driven out through fragmented social media channels, all with an eye to the next election. At worst, we have a citizens’ revolt, a Donald Trump is elected who proceeds to press the control-alt-delete buttons, and we are set up for another sterile cycle of cynicism and polarization.
Many Canadians like to think that a Donald Trump could not happen here. Some even feel that we were lucky to have voted in a “good” Trump in 2015 – a Liberal leader who used the same social media tools and celebrity as Trump to successfully persuade enough Canadians to choose his brand of empathy, civility, and modest progressivity over the approach of his dour and depressing predecessor.
This confidence in an attractive leader’s brand is misplaced. A government that is so focused on protecting the personal brand of a charismatic leader will find it difficult to avoid slipping out of touch with ordinary citizens. As Alex Marland, author of Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, writes, “Branding is addictive, it is circular and it is a seemingly unstoppable force. … Branding requires message control and simplicity, and political power centralizes when communications converge.”
Power remains extraordinarily concentrated in the executive branch of the Government of Canada, namely the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The majority Trudeau government is proving itself just as top-heavy as its Harper predecessor, perhaps even more so given its strong focus, indeed dependence, on protecting the Trudeau brand. With executive power even more unchecked in Canada than in the US, we are by no means immune to a revolt by alienated or forgotten voters, with similarly unpredictable results, if disillusionment with the current government builds up.
The MPs elected under the Trudeau banner in 2015 know all too well that they owe their positions and power to the fluke of our first-past-the-post electoral system that delivered a surprise majority government despite the support of only the minority (40%) of the mere 60% of the population who turned out to vote. Within the PMO-dominated House of Commons, we already see widespread sycophancy, together with the same recitation of mindless PMO-drafted talking points that characterized the Harper era. This deplorable development is perhaps most obvious in the conduct of both the former and current ministers of Democratic Institutions and in respect of the cash-for-access controversy.
The gratuitously abrupt cancellation of the electoral reform initiative through a simple rewrite of the mandate letter to a new minister of Democratic Institutions has demonstrated just how top-down the Trudeau government is. And the prime minister’s outrageous claim that the cancellation was somehow our fault as citizens for not coming up with a sufficient consensus to replace the existing first-past-the-post/winner-takes-all system was utterly baseless.
Trudeau says he could not support proportional representation (PR), the system that would best ensure the popular vote is accurately reflected in the House of Commons. He claims PR would allow extremists to hold the balance of power in Ottawa. This is simply fear-mongering, unworthy of a prime minister. As for his suggestion that proportional representation would undermine the brokerage role of mass political parties, that argument could not even be valid for his own party since the Liberal Party is no longer a grassroots brokerage party of diverse ideas – it is just an election machine run by the leader and his entourage.
The electoral reform charade has made it regrettably clear that there is no real commitment to building the “fair and open” government Trudeau promised would engage with Canadians. Even if electoral reform were not a top-of-mind concern for many Canadians, the government’s brusque about-face is a breach of a solemn commitment to voters. It serves to underline what is already increasingly clear: that the copious government surveys and online opportunities to ‘participate’ – whether in respect of electoral reform or any other topic – do not equal actual citizen engagement in directing and shaping governance, and are more focused on gathering data about voters and manipulating the message from the leader.
In 2015, Canadians voted for significant change. We were not just settling for switching leaders and their entourages, and for “sunny ways”. We expect serious reforms to our representative institutions and the role and conduct of government, in order to ensure responsive and responsible governance in between elections. We expect an ambitious long-term agenda aimed at relieving the stress of precarious work, strengthening social security, and building a vibrant economy for all Canadians, not just for the lucky few.
For the moment, most Canadians are still relieved to have escaped the Harper era. The Trudeau government initiatives to accept Syrian refugees, expand immigration, build more infrastructure, focus on Indigenous people, and take climate change seriously, are regarded favourably and broadly supported. But much, much more remains to be done, and despite the urgency, it is not all about dealing with Donald Trump.
Of course we expect our government to stand up to the reckless Trump regime, whenever appropriate. Canada must firmly maintain its open immigration and refugee policies and resist any bullying America First tactics in trade negotiations. We must be assertive on the global stage, working vigorously with our allies to bolster, morally and financially, all the multilateral international organizations and conventions so critical to international security and trade, that will likely be ignored by the US for the duration of the Trump presidency.
But our responses to Trump must be pursued at the same time as an ambitious domestic agenda and securing measurable improvements for struggling Canadians. If we fail, it will not take long for public confidence in the Trudeau government to evaporate, whatever the state of Canada-US relations.
Most Canadians, especially millennials, understand the need for government to help in building our social economy. In our intensely networked 21st-century world, we have unlimited information about the challenges we face, from unemployment and poverty to climate change, financial crises to pandemics, cyber-crime to terrorism. But we are frustrated. We do not have governments and politicians capable of undertaking the much-needed long-term collective action. Our governance structure is far too top-down. Our federal system discourages collaboration and harmonization across jurisdictions. Politicians at all levels are much too focused on the election cycle and short-term re-election plans. We cannot seem to translate citizens’ political energy at the grassroots level – even in large-scale protests such as Occupy Wall Street or Idle No More – into effective political power and change.
It is all too easy for Canadians to give up on politicians and the political process, when we hear careless comments by our securely entitled finance minister lecturing us to just get used to job churn and precarious work. Neither are we inspired by the endlessly repetitive political rhetoric about a hand-up for the middle class. Public resentment too easily ripples out from the secure salaries and gold-plated benefits and expense accounts of politicians to the out-of-control CEO and directors’ pay in the private sector. Ordinary citizens just see more evidence that our decaying representative democracy is no longer a leveling system in which non-elites have a real say in building a society that assures equal access to opportunities.
If resentment reaches a tipping point, if inequality between the wealthy and the rest of us appears to be growing, if prosperity and progress always seem to happen to other people, if enough Canadians continue living precariously close to the edge, the conditions are ripe for a citizens’ revolt that could erode the foundations of our much-admired pluralist society.
We need an urgent rebalancing of executive and citizen power so a less top-heavy government can genuinely respond to citizens’ concerns and help us pursue an innovative ambitious agenda through greater collaboration and compromise.
We also need the federal government to firmly take the lead in co-ordinating governance so all levels of government work together collectively – despite varied election cycles – to create national frameworks that support coherent actions and regulations in the many areas that cross jurisdictions and deeply affect our daily lives. In the past, whenever Canadians have accomplished great projects – such as medicare and public pensions – it took national leadership and constructive collaboration across jurisdictions and levels of governments. This does not mean imposing blueprints or micromanaging matters better left to other levels of government. It is about articulating a clear vision and principles that bring citizens and governments together in the national interest.
Ultimately the questions in the federal election of 2019 will be the following: Will most Canadians honestly be able to say that our concerns about precarious work and raising families in secure and healthy communities are being effectively addressed in fiscally and environmentally sustainable ways? Will we honestly be able to say that the government’s actions, not just the rhetoric, reflect citizens’ concerns? That we have responsive and responsible governance?
The Trudeau government may yet recover the high ground and prove itself worthy of citizens’ confidence. But if the answers to these questions are negative, it is entirely plausible that yet another destructive cycle of cynicism and polarization will begin. If the government settles for only a short-term agenda of half-measures that can be easily erased by the next government, and fails to address the serious imbalance of executive and citizen power and the need for long-term structural changes, we could soon face our own citizens’ revolt, with unexpected and unpleasant results, especially if disillusioned millennials just check out and do not vote.
This paper includes the following five parts:
1. Closing the Gap between Rhetoric and Action: I discuss four federal-specific areas where initiatives must not be left to languish: comprehensive tax reform to ensure we are raising enough revenues to fund our public responsibilities fairly and efficiently, support for Indigenous people, immigration and refugee settlement, and support for veterans.
2. Harmonizing Legislation and Action across Jurisdictions: I address five more areas that are critical to improving our economic and social security, but in desperate need of vigorous federal leadership to bring about much more systematically harmonized intergovernmental action: income security and a basic income guarantee, eliminating interprovincial barriers to employment and carrying on business, health care, climate change, and training and support for workers.
3. Serious Reform to Representative Institutions and Practices: I discuss the urgent reforms that are needed to strengthen our representative democracy and rebalance executive and citizen power. This means changes to parliamentary procedures and rules to curb the power of the PMO and enhance the freedom of MPs, and new framework legislation dealing with ethics, privacy, and freedom of information to ensure real openness and transparency in governance. It means bringing the candidate selection process, currently controlled by the political parties, under the control of Elections Canada. All the foregoing can and should be accomplished in this mandate by this Parliament. But little progress, if any, seems likely. Similarly, the Trudeau government has abandoned any thought of progress toward a new electoral system, and is frightened of constitutional changes to abolish or reform the Senate – seemingly because these initiatives might require broad public discussion and consultative referenda. Yet both electoral reform (specifically, a form of proportional representation) and Senate reform remain critical to strengthening our representative institutions and practices.
4. Expanding Direct Citizen Participation: I discuss how to adapt our representative institutions and practices to the era of extreme social networking, and to enhance direct citizen participation, including the important use of consultative referenda. Both the 1992 Charlottetown and 2016 Brexit referenda provide useful lessons.
5. Modernizing Arrangements for Intergovernmental Collaboration: I discuss the critical importance of modernizing our outdated arrangements for intergovernmental relations, and creating two new administrative structures to ensure constructive collaboration among all levels of government, as well as maximum accountability and efficiency of our collective public expenditures: a Council of Canadian Governments and a Commission on Fiscal Transfers. These structures are required to deliver the harmonized intergovernmental action citizens require in so many areas such as those discussed in “Harmonizing Legislation and Action across Jurisdictions”, and to move us beyond the often haphazard results of executive-focused ad hoc first ministers’ conferences.