Monday, October 02, 2006

Canada Day Musing on the Consent To Be Governed

In light of the previous Post on the CPC nomination going to Court, I thought this piece I wrote on Canada Day 2004 for The Policy Channel has some context to bring to the stuff that is still ticking me off about politics.


A few years ago I found myself at a Montreal crosswalk waiting for the light to change. Former Prime Minister Trudeau was beside me. We were headed the same direction, and as a westerner that irony was not lost on me. I opened a conversation on the weather. For the next few blocks we had a most animated, engaging and wide-ranging chat on many matters Canadian. We shared observations, insights, understandings and our different perspective as we ambled down the street and through the topics. Eventually our courses diverted but before we parted he turned to me, and asked "Should I know you?" My reply was with a wry smile: "Yes you should, I am a citizen." With a twinkle in his eye he smiled and said, "Yes, I suppose I should."

On Canada Day this Trudeau moment came back to me, reaffirming my expectations the political system ought to be working for citizens, not the other way around. The politicians should know more about real issues, not through obscure theory or marketing manipulation. Instead voters seem to be mere target markets in a shallow competition between various party/leadership brands. Through voting we actually decide to delegate a significant role over many important parts of our lives. This delegation of authority, through the ballot box, is the basic democratic expression of a citizen's decision to give one's consent to be governed.

The June 28th (2004) minority government election results were very much an expression of the collective mood of Canadians. We sent a clear message to our governors about how we felt about all partisan offerings. Many citizens knew the political system was taking us for granted. In choosing a strong minority government we have effectively reserved, for now, our consent to be governed. We were angry at the Liberals for indifference and arrogance and wanted to punish them. We wanted to cautiously encourage the "New" Conservatives but were not disposed to give them real power until we knew more about them. The NDP were more interesting and engaging this election but were not yet ready for prime time. The Bloc was getting a free ride on anti-Liberal sentiments in Quebec. The Greens were getting serious attention on merit as well as being a safe place to park a protest vote. This election results actually gave the Green Party a seat at the "big kid's political table" and some serious sympathy over their exclusion from the television debates.

The engaged voter was volatile, angry and, in the end, pragmatic. Politicians and parties of all persuasions had long ago lost the citizen's benefit of the doubt. This election accentuated a prevailing, growing and serious skepticism that our governors were no longer acting in the best interest of the citizens. Leaders, parties and politicians, of all stripes, were losing our trust.

The minority government was our collective response to these predominantly pessimistic perceptions. Many of our other institutions have also been testing our patience and breaching our public trust as well. There seems to be a never ending series of scandal involving deceit, manipulation, abuse and blatant lies. Such concerns involve too many of our leaders, our corporations, our churches and even the media. Institutional malfeasance is a growing concern amongst engaged, thinking and voting citizen.

Perhaps this election we were ready to take it out on our politicians and to make them the medium to vent our resentment about such abuses. Who said politics was fair?For many the ballot question was not who to vote for but rather who to vote against. The negative, inappropriately personal snipping and small-minded nasty campaigns of all the leading parties turned us off. The superfluity of polling results, mostly with statistically insignificant distinctions became a dominant but meaningless media story. Other media preoccupations were centered on what party strategy was working, or not, and what "gaffes" were being made.

Traction and momentum are important to campaigns but not to Canadians looking for leadership and a vision for the future. Little of this campaign focused on the big issues facing Canada or Canadians. When it did, it perpetuated negativity and mostly offered fear factor rhetoric. No campaign took, or had the time, to explain their policy ideas or to clarify their platform positions. The consequence was an intentional minority government.

Canadians have spoken clearly about their political expectations. We want more collaboration and cooperation from and amongst our all of our democratic institutions. With this minority we have given all of the parties a provisional chance to work more effectively together to re-earn our trust and respect. We expect them to find creative ways to work out policy differences, to do so more amicably and in a broader public interest. Every party needs to think very carefully before taking any action or inaction that would result in Canadians going back to the polls too soon.

Canadians are clearly not in a mood to be ignored, trifled with or manipulated. Remember, we are expecting you to govern us with a collective wisdom, not with a pooled ignorance.