As the summer of 2013 accumulates tragedies and sorrows that affect so many Canadians – from the flooding in Alberta to the rail tragedy in Lac Mégantic – instant accusations and recriminations are unhelpful. The larger question must be how we can prevent future crises, or reduce the impact when they occur. There is no more fundamental requirement of leadership, no more fundamental role of government.
Yet, we are increasingly cynical about politics and politicians.
A recent Ekos Research poll finds that a mere 10 per cent of Canadians trusts politicians. Fewer and fewer people belong to and contribute to political parties and, as a result, political parties represent a smaller and smaller base of interests and voices.
It is not hard to understand the widespread cynicism with our political system, and I share the views of Canadians fed up with self-interested politics fixated on the next election instead of the long-term national interest of Canadians.
But we can – and should – demand better of our politicians and our political system. We can – and should – insist on national government that can be respected and trusted once again to act efficiently, fairly and transparently at all times.
Would the 2013 floods in Alberta have been less devastating if we had acted on the lessons learned from the 2005 flooding? Could the disaster in Lac-Mégantic have been prevented if we had actually spent the full amount authorized for rail safety or had acted on a 2011 audit showing the need to improve oversight of the transportation of dangerous goods? We need to know – not to score political points or even to assign blame but to make things better.
This summer’s tragedies are not political events. They do, however, demonstrate a critical reality: Political and governmental leaders must think and act for the good of Canadians in the long-term.
At the same time we must urgently reverse the declining ability of our public institutions to serve Canadians effectively and fairly. The erosion of the human interaction and direct citizen connection so critical to quality public services is as responsible for the growing lack of confidence and trust the public has in government, as is any political scandal. Whether it is our public schools or our government institutions, we need more-than-ever to empower and support productive, committed public servants working on the front lines with Canadians.
Canadians are wondering what kind of education our kids are getting from overburdened schools. I certainly am reminded of this as I spend part of the summer helping my son, who has failed to pass a required literacy test two times, complete a literacy course on-line with a teacher:student ratio of 49:1. We know all too well that what is needed for a child with learning disabilities is lots of face-to-face teaching in small groups to help them fill in the gaps in understanding grammar, vocabulary and written and verbal skills. Yet many have been slipping between the cracks for years because our public education system is unable to find and fund the human, one-on-one instruction that is so crucial. Indeed, in our age of austerity, the first area to be cut back are the teachers’ assistants who are crucial to the ability of these children to make any progress in their regular classrooms.
Canadians are wondering why, for example, do we not have enough on-the-ground food inspectors and railway inspectors to ensure safer services to Canadians?
Why do we not have enough frontline individuals charged with really helping our un- and under-employed with career and training programs?
Why do we not have more frontline individuals supporting our veterans, focused on ensuring their needs are fully met, rather than nickel-and-diming them?
Why do we not have more frontline individuals in our overseas immigration offices so we can deal expeditiously with security, family and credentials issues and really help ensure the successful integration of new citizens?
From insufficient search and rescue resources to a lack of affordable child care services, from the lack of community programs to keep at-risk kids off the streets to cuts to our national parks, Canadians are seeing our government steadily retreating from its responsibilities.
More and more we are coming to expect less and less of our government, and of each other, just at the time when we should be demanding more.
I am confident that this situation can be reversed. Canadians want to believe a different way is possible. We need straight talk and clear goals. We need governments capable of listening, working collaboratively with other parties, and then taking reasonable, principled actions in support of the country as a whole. And if we can get serious about ensuring the economic fundamentals of our nation and making us more competitive, Canada’s potential as an innovative, prosperous nation with the highest quality public services will be assured.
This is the way to win back the trust and respect of Canadians who have come to believe that politicians all too often serve themselves, rather than the people.