The Un-Funny Business Of Canadian Politics: When Comedians Become The Voice Of Reason (October 2010)

Our nation’s politicians are truly failing when comedians become the only reliable voice of reason.

In an environment where only either Rick Mercer or Glen Beck (depending on your perspective) can make sense of public affairs, where comedian Jon Stewart has to sponsor a Rally to Restore Sanity, where Justin Bieber is recruited to urge people to vote, the situation is critical. When China is considered a model of good governance with a winning strategy for producing long-term employment opportunities and a sustainable economy, the situation is critical. When your Facebook community provides more meaningful opportunities to control your destiny than your political community, the situation is critical.

Canadian politics are in disarray. The growing lack of mutual respect for different views among our elected representatives undermines the citizen solidarity upon which our democracy depends and sharpens resentment and frustration among Canadians.

Too many individuals and families are living so close to the financial edge that their ability to withstand an unexpected event – from a sudden illness to loss of employment – becomes gravely compromised. Most Canadians wake up each morning and just try to get by. They work longer hours, struggle to meet the needs of kids and elderly parents, try to reduce the household debt, and take small steps to protect the environment.

Yet when we have the time to pause and look at the bigger picture, we see little or no long-term planning – and even less clarity or direction – about providing the essentials of our common national citizenship that require collective action: clean air and water, safe food, good public education, health care, pensions, transportation and communications infrastructure, and the social safety net.

Instead, petty partisan politics make legislating the smallest adjustments to national programs or initiatives (whether it’s banning a toxic substance or changing EI or veterans’ pensions) a Herculean task. Citizens’ concerns surrounding the impact of energy developments on health and the environment are ignored or dismissed, with politicians and bureaucrats alike acting incapable of engaging citizens in a civil discussion to find acceptable, scientifically-sound solutions.

So, alienated, we disengage. We become disillusioned about any possibility of good governance or of building accountability, responsiveness, and a long-term horizon into any program or initiative.

Politicians have to understand that this crisis of confidence in our political system is not a temporary push-back or right wing phenomenon that will easily dissipate. It is not the product of a financial meltdown, or even of the recent years of paralyzed minority government. The crisis is the cumulative result of many years of disappointing government and missed opportunities.

Canadians have lost confidence in the fundamentals of our democratic system and our ability to ensure honest and efficient government. We are frustrated with endless reports of wasted money and ineffective programs. We resent years of governments focused on creating short-term opportunities for consumption rather than long-term opportunities for education and employment, leaving us spectacularly unprepared for an age of restraint and environmental devastation.

Restoring citizens’ confidence in our political system must be the primary – if not sole – focus of any responsible political party in the next general election. Rebuilding a responsive, accountable public space that invites citizens into the discussion and decision-making process regarding the major issues of the day must replace the usual “tax and spend” fixation that turns election platforms into excruciating accounting lectures.

Political parties must convince Canadians that they have a genuine plan for the future. This should include a transformation of the old ways of thinking that have too often produced dishonest and inefficient government. If our government wants to move forwards, it must be able to interact creatively with civil society.

We must design new public spaces where citizens can work together to find solutions, compromises, and common ground. This should include building powerful grassroots, citizen-based structures – not around political party agendas, but around the issues and concerns that must engage us most. In doing so, we should make careful and constructive use of all the extraordinary tools available in this age of the internet and social media.

We need to rethink how government should work with the social sector to overcome the inertia of a bureaucratic, rule-bound public sector. We should open up public services to new providers like charities, social enterprises, and private companies with the goal of increased social innovation, diversity, and responsiveness to public need.

One model of this kind of forward thinking is Barack Obama’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. Through the Social Innovation Fund, this department is creating new partnerships among government, private capital, social entrepreneurs, and the public.

Another model, the British “Social Impact Bond,” facilitates considerable up-front funding to non-profit organizations to create successful models for helping the young or the elderly. This Dragon’s Den approach secures long-term funds for promising ideas, with public investment tied to positive social, environmental, or economic benefits.

We must provide for more effective opportunities to hold the government to account, including daily press briefings outside the prime minister’s office to facilitate greater media scrutiny. Government must not be allowed to simply abolish an ombudsman when it dislikes the advice provided, as in the recent cases of the parliamentary budget officer and science advisor. Furthermore, new arms-length structures are required to deal with serious long-term challenges such as the future of our national health care system, the inequitable and inefficient system of equalization and transfers to the provinces, and amendments to the Criminal Code.

Despite the urgency of this crisis of public confidence, we must take the time to find the right solutions. The first step is the simplest: at the next general election, voters should select the representative or political party that most inspires trust, exhibits good judgment and sufficient humility, engages in civil discourse, respects different views, does not make extravagant promises, and is committed to rebuilding an open, participatory public sphere.