Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wanted: An Engaged Voter

Parliament is about to begin its winter break, and with that politics watchers out there will be treated to the usual year-end articles, podcasts and news features on "the year that was." As to be expected, these features will focus on the politicians.

Who had a good year, and who has disappointed. Who's up-and-coming Cabinet material, and who is destined for the backbench. We'll reflect on the main issues and the players in Ottawa, in the provinces and in major municipalities.

I would like to propose we add a group to this annual list - the public.

Someone commented to me recently that "democracy isn't a spectator sport. If it's not working then everyone's not working." I could not agree more. I have written on this blog on more than one occasion about the importance of an engaged citizenry; about the need for a public that needs to play a more active and informed role in its democracy.

If the informed chatter is to be believed, we should expect an election in 2011, be it in the spring or the fall. With that in mind, it's an opportune time to consider the voter and ask ourselves what kind of year they - no, we - had. Were we engaged, informed and active participants in our democracy? If we really are heading into an election year, let's consider the voter's state of "preparedness."

My take is that the reviews would be mixed.

Let's first consider how the year started - prorogation. I think on this front, we were all surprised about the degree to which people were engaged. It was quite interesting to see the reaction of many Canadians to the decision to prorogue for no apparent reason other than to avoid some tricky issues in the House. On our engagement meter, prorogation scores high.

I would also score potash as having generated a high degree of engagement, and not just in Saskatchewan. While I would have liked to have seen the public more aware of the pros AND the cons about allowing the sale (the debate became more of a nationalist one, versus the economic merits, implications for trade and market access, etc.), I still think the fact that this issue became a national one reflects well on the public and the media.

The municipal elections offer a mixed bag in terms of engagement. We had some very interesting results (Calgary), potentially significant results (Toronto), curious results (London) and not surprising results (Ottawa, at least in terms of the race for Mayor). Levels of engagement on the issues varied greatly, but what struck me was the strong interest in change. In many cases it truly was an "out with the old" mentality - something which could have implications for establishment politicians at the provincial and the federal level.

Beyond these areas, I see a public that can be prone to slumber only to be momentarily woken by an issue. The census is an example where we became engaged - but less on the substance, and more on the impression the decision left in terms of the government and what we thought of their, for want of a better word, behaviour. The G20 spending is another example - we were upset, nothing more. To me that's not really engagement.

I then add the relative lack of engagement on issues like Afghanistan, the environment and the economy. Here I see us failing to hold all elected officials to account for what are truly defining issues for the Canada of today and tomorrow. These are the types of issues around which the next election should be fought. I would also add to this list accountability. It was an issue in 2006, and should be again in 2011.

Whether this proves to be the case will depend on us. Hopefully we're up for it.


1 comment:

  1. I have never been a pusher of "accountability".... or "engagement" nor did I worry about the status of politics ("getting worse"/"drama"/partisan stuff)....

    Honestly as a political science academic I too have become bored. Mainly because of the lack of action on the part of the government and the policy world stuck in a vacuum of the "election around the corner"..... The fear of the electorate and constantly catoring to the polls.... I suppose that a government is supposed to listen to the demands of the people. However, they need to filter the demands with what is actually in the benefit for the long term of the people.

    I guess I just wish that the conservative govt could just be conservative and impliment some conservative legislation.


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