Monday, April 25, 2011

The Curious Case of Canadian Complacency

This time next week, Canadian politics watchers will be sitting through their version of the Oscars or the Super Bowl. Yes, it will be election night and at the end of it we will know who won, by how much, who's in and who's out. We will then inevitably shift the the conversation towards asking "now what?"

With an eye towards the dust settling on #elxn41, I have found myself thinking about the notion of complacency and the impact it is having on our politics. This is not a new thought for me, but I think that events during this campaign and in fact in the months preceding it have given it fresh life in my thinking about the challenges we face in Canada.

Simply put, complacency is challenge number one. If we do not (a) understand it and (b) address it, then we are limiting our ability as a country to address all of the other challenges on the national list. And if we fail to re-set our levels of engagement, we will never truly be able to seize the opportunities in front of us.

The first question I ask myself is "why are we the way we are?" From where does our complacency originate? I have a couple of observations.

First, I believe in Canada we suffer from a form of economic complacency. Geography dealt us a strong hand. We have an abundance of natural wealth - historical wealth (lumber, fish, minerals) and future-oriented wealth (energy, potash). Geography has also graced Canada by virtue of our proximity to the U.S.

This good fortune has pre-disposed the country towards having a resource-based economy. It also contributed to the growth of a branch-plant economy which benefitted from the risks taken by others and by their entrepreneurial mind set.

I don't mean to suggest that we have succeeded or prospered by accident or without effort. Quite the contrary - our history has many stories of enterprise and vision.

However, I do think that as a country we have been content to reap the benefits of our geography when we could have done more to invest in them. We've done well, but we could have done so much better. A Canadian parable of the talents, if you will.

Second, I believe we suffer from political complacency. We believe in government, but don't hold it to account. We know what we want, but assume someone else will figure out how to deliver it. Our lack of understanding about how our system of government works has been laid bare in the past 18 months - sadly, at the very time such understanding is genuinely needed.

Why? I think there are a few reasons.

The dominance of majority governments - particularly through most of the 70s, all of the 80s and and 90s and the first half of the 21st century - has given Canadians the "luxury" of not needing to focus on what happens in Ottawa in the periods between elections. Yes, the noteworthy items (free trade, national unity) drew the requisite attention, but stability and predictability meant we did not need to be as engaged. We did not need to understand the system under which we are governed.

We also have an approach to policy in Canada which, while perhaps appropriate, can also be mind-numbing. The American theorist Charles Lindblom called it the "science of muddling through" and what he meant is that policy is typically made incrementally, in small steps. It is endlessly worked and re-worked.

This has been the Canadian model. Slow, reasoned, cautious? Yes. But engaging? No. This approach can work when one has a sense of destination or a vision. Whatever you want to say about the U.S., there is a strong sense of America.

However, in Canada I think we have incrementalism without the vision; without the sense of purpose. We have failed to tie the various policy streams together under a shared sense of what it means to Canada.

So what do we have?

Prosperity driven by geography, political stability, and an incremental approach to policy that lacks vision and common purpose. Taken together, I believe these characteristics have engendered a complacency mind set in Canada. I think they have shaped our levels of engagement, affected our see on the role of government, and limited our sense of the role we can and should play in our democracy.

Today, one week before an election that will one way or the other shape how we view government, what are we going to do about it? Are we prepared to remain complacent? Or are we ready to step forward and become more active participants in our democracy?

The atrophy of complacency or the momentum that flows from engagement? It is our decision.

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