Friday, November 12, 2010

The Election Around the Corner (or, how policy discussion is stifled in Canada)

We live in interesting times. Politicians, policy-makers and the public are being confronted with a veritable wealth of issues which warrant debate, dialogue and decisions. How we consider issues related to the economy, health, the environment, security and democracy will have more than an impact on the Canada of today; it will help shape the Canada of tomorrow.

So why aren't we having this dialogue in any meaningful way?

I blame an odd, made-in-Ottawa creation. A creature that is difficult to pin down, almost impossible to see, but incredibly influential. It's called "the election around the corner" and's killing the public policy discourse in this country.

Readers of this blog (yes, I still cling to the hope that we have actual readers) will recall that the absence of debate in Canada is a sore point with me. Too often, we see debate taking a backseat to the drive to create a wedge.

In the case of the government, this has meant using issues to ignite the base, support fund-raising and paint the opposition into corners. In the case of the opposition, it has meant looking for opportunities to embarrass the government or score quick political points without actually taking the time and effort to define themselves as a real alternative.

Why? Because everyone is fixated on the polls and the fact that the types of issues which we should be working together to address are not the types of issues that can be dealt with easily or quickly.

Put another way, long-term issues require thoughtful consideration, engagement and ultimately hard decisions - decisions which will inevitably anger as many people as they please. In other words, they are fraught with risk for the politician who knows that he or she may be knocking on doors in 6-8 weeks asking for a vote.

The focus on the election around the corner has resulted in more and more emphasis being placed on issues management and communications. Policy development, by comparison, has taken a backseat unless it can be demonstrated that it will either put the opposition in an awkward position (if you are government), or if it will be seen to be contrary to the latest controversial position taken by the government (if you are in opposition).

So instead of substantive debate we get, "Did you know that the Liberal-NDP-Separatist coalition favours putting people in jail if they don't fill out a census form?" Or, "Did you know that a Cabinet Minister may quit and work at a law firm - does that sound right to you?" Climate change versus Jaffer-Guergis; health care versus renovations on the Hill; the economy of the 21st century versus the gun registry. Sadly, were the winners ever in doubt?

Now some people will say, "Welcome to politics. What did you expect?" I appreciate this view, but only to a point. There are far too many important issues at play these days for us to simply accept that this is what politics should be about. This is where the electorate comes into play.

An engaged and informed citizenry is fundamental to an effective and functioning democracy. If we want to change the tone on the Hill or shift the focus towards those issues which truly will shape the Canada of tomorrow, we need to be engaged and we need to set a different level of expectation for our politicians. Are we prepared to do this? I hope so.

Interestingly, the polls have not moved in any meaningful way since 2006. Think about that for a moment. In five years public opinion has not shifted significantly in one direction or another. The focus on the election around the corner has more or less...kept everyone where they are. Perhaps there's a message in there...

This public policy message was brought to you by A Guy Watching Politics. On a Friday night. Sad, I know.

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