The Descent Of National Politics Into Irrelevance And Insignificance: Can It Be Reversed? – Part 1 (June 2009)

As yet another game of chicken over the federal election is played out, it is sobering to remember the huge numbers of Canadians who have dropped out of national politics. In 2008 almost half (42%) of all voters did not bother to vote.


Because voters do not trust politicians. Our national government is not transparent and accountable. We do not receive full and complete information on everything from the terrible state of the Chalk River isotope facilities, to the potentially dangerous side effects of drugs or chemicals, to the actual state of public finances. Politics and politicians seem to be all about partisan advantage and self-interest, not the public good and the national interest.

Because our national government lacks any coherence and national purpose. We do not feel that we are part of a collective effort to address the effects of severe recession or climate change. Canada’s global influence is waning even as more and more decisions in global forums have a direct impact on our daily lives.

Because too much of vital government business is out-sourced to overpaid consultants who are driven by personal profit, not public service. The public service itself is demoralized and unrepresentative of the diversity in Canadian society today.

Because our vote does not change anything. Election campaigns have become uninspiring and excruciatingly boring – with election platforms seemingly written by and for accountants, with no vision. Whatever the platform, the elected government governs only to maintain power, avoiding substantive intelligent debate, and muzzling its Members of Parliament. Other MP’s, unable or unwilling to play any sort of constructive role, are reduced to waiting for the chance to snap at an unlucky minister or call for a resignation.

Because Question Period is an embarrassment – the political counterpart to brawling in hockey.

Is there any escape from this depressing descent of our national politics into irrelevance and insignificance?

The short answer is yes. But we require bold and visionary national leadership to rally anxious and disillusioned Canadians, and remind us that we are stronger when we act together. We need leadership whose dedication to public service and the national interest is unquestioned, and who can inspire the same dedication in others. We need leadership to restore coherent national government at home and a clear Canadian voice on the world stage. Above all, we need leadership that looks beyond the horizon, and while charting an innovative course for the future, has the courage to recognize past mistakes and take corrective action.

Canada is a unique and fascinating 21st-century country. Canadians are increasingly global citizens – exploring the world, working in global communities, and establishing global networks that are enormously valuable economically, socially and politically. Studies reveal that three-quarters of Canadians have traveled outside the country, and one-half follows international events closely and is closely connected with one or more foreign countries.

Canadians are building a unique multi-ethnic liberal democracy that can be an inspiration to a world increasingly troubled by religious and sectarian friction. Our growing diversity of human talent is a great source of strength but also a great responsibility. If we can succeed in forging a shared national purpose among people who have never shared anything before, we will be capable of great social and economic advances at home and significant international influence opening up avenues for effective global cooperation.

This is where bold and visionary national leadership comes in. We like to believe Canada represents the best of universal values – justice, equality, diversity, the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms, non-discrimination, and the chance to live together in peace and humanity. We have extraordinary freedom to choose to associate with different religious, political, linguistic, and cultural communities and assume different collective identities.

But we need constant reminding that regardless of our collective identities, at all times we are individual Canadians – men and women, young and old – building an inclusive society where we are all responsible for each other, where preserving the dignity of our neighbour preserves the dignity of us all, and where our national purpose must be to improve the quality of life and build a better world for our children and grand-children. Too often our collective identities become barriers and an excuse for indifference and insensitivity among Canadians. Sadly, in this critical journey, our national leadership has been remarkably deficient.

How can we say we are building an inclusive society if we are still unable to eliminate third world conditions facing aboriginal Canadians? If we claim to be just, fair, compassionate, generous, why do the moral, political and legal issues presented by our indigenous population receive so little attention? Why are we still unable to provide aboriginal Canadians with the same quality of life and opportunities that we like to think that we offer to new Canadians? If we are and had been all the things we claim to be, places like Kashechewan and Davis Inlet would not exist. First citizens deserve once and for all to be in the first rank of national challenges to be resolved. Only when we finally face up to what has been done to aboriginal Canadians will we be able to recognize our own past religious intolerance, racism, sexual discrimination, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, endemic abuse of privilege by authority at all levels, double standards and hypocrisy. Only when we fully acknowledge our responsibility for the harm that aboriginal Canadians still suffer, and take effective action, will we finally have the tools to address our other challenges to building an inclusive society.

How can we say we are building a society with equality of opportunity when the evidence now shows that the latest wave of immigrants, while perhaps better educated than their predecessors, face more difficulties with respect to employment, reuniting their families, proper housing and health services? The huge mismatch between the skills of new Canadians and what they are actually employed to do here is jaw dropping. Too many newcomers have now become a source of low-paid labour, instead of the much-needed source of upgraded skills in the manufacturing, professional and knowledge sectors. No less than 41% of immigrants with university degrees are now in chronic low-income categories, compared to only 13% in 1993, before the immigration laws were changed to encourage more educated immigrants to come to Canada. Especially among second generation visible minority immigrants, there is a real sense of exclusion as the disaffected are left to lash out against a society that fails to give them equal opportunity in practice. They are less likely to vote, and more likely to express lower levels of a sense of belonging and general satisfaction with life than their parents’ generation.

Now the economic crisis has revealed that our ability to maintain an open, progressive, compassionate society – through environmentally sound development, excellent health care and public education, and an adequate safety net – is seriously compromised. Too many Canadians lack the necessary education for the jobs of today and in the future. Too many Canadians go to bed hungry with inadequate shelter. Even our signature national programs – Employment Insurance, Medicare, Canada Pension Plan, Equalization – can no longer be said to be truly national programs serving all Canadians effectively and equitably. We are unable to assure clean air and water, clean energy. We do not even have an economic union that permits all Canadians to train, work and do business anywhere in the country.

In order to grasp the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, it is critical to have national leadership that will boldly place the well-being and potential of aboriginal Canadians at the centre of national affairs, initiate an innovative program to guarantee the fundamentals of Canadian citizenship, fulfill our collective responsibility to assist disadvantaged Canadians, and provide a respected voice in global affairs.

Unfortunately our current prime minister is not only incapable of providing this leadership but he is pushing the decline in national leadership to a critical level. Although open about his ideological preference for unwinding the federal government, his hyper-partisan pursuit of the goal of maintaining power at all costs frequently results in setting provinces against provinces, and Canadians against Canadians. Even the stimulus spending – from bailouts to tiny band aids on big gaps in our social security net – is unprincipled, inefficient and divisive. We know all too well that, once the recession is over, there will be an unprecedented and equally unprincipled, inefficient and divisive contraction in public investment, while the national deficit is offloaded on the backs of the provinces and municipalities.

Replacing Mr. Harper is a necessary but not sufficient condition for restoring both moral authority to national politics, and a critical sense of solidarity among Canadians, as Canadians. Bold and visionary new leadership is essential to realizing our great potential in a world without borders.

Subsequent blogs will outline proposals for reviving both public confidence in Parliament and the capacity of our national government to initiate and implement a creative innovative agenda. Part Two will discuss parliamentary committees and the public service.