Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Breaking off the engagement?

The results of #elxn41 and the relative political stability that will result for at least the next four years have started me thinking about what this means for our political engagement. Are we in danger of taking a step backwards; of slipping into old habits?

During the campaign I posted this piece describing what I called "The Curious Case of Canadian Complacency":


After discussing what I saw as some of the root causes of our complacency, I concluded with the following:

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.

Fast forward to today and we are in a post-elxn world with a government that not only has a strong majority in both the House and Senate, but which is also well-positioned for political dominance for a decade. My worry is that this stability will lull Canadians back into their political comfort zone - complacency.

More to point, we risk falling further back into this mode at the very time the opposite is required.

Any reader of this blog will be familiar with my concerns about the degree to which we are not engaged on the issues facing Canada - both the challenges and the opportunities. Even when we are engaged, it is often on the sensational (political scandal) or it is fleeting (the long-form census, the contempt issue).

The question I am asking is whether the "strong, stable majority" provided to Mr. Harper and the Conservatives was, in part, Canadians' way of saying "enough already - just get on with it." Put another way, did we vote for stability at the expense of engagement?

While I am concerned we may have voted this way, I nevertheless believe that the decisions that the government is going to be forced to make - on the economy, health care, the environment, security, innovation and education are of the type that Canadians may find difficult to ignore. But to truly get us engaged, we may need more:

1. We need credible policy alternatives. There are any number of ways we can address the challenges and opportunities before us. Canadians need to be better exposed to the credible options available to their government, and not just the preferred. Engagement requires choice.

2. We need credible government alternatives. The ineffectiveness of the Liberals and concerns about the NDP have made the Conservatives a default for many Canadians. In addition to needing to be exposed to different policy options, we need to have more confidence that there is more than one party which can govern the country. This does not exist today. Again, engagement requires choice.

3. We need information and transparency - they are vital to debate and dialogue. As noted in my recent post on the deficit and cost-cutting, the government wants to cut spending and has set a target, but has not been clear about on what basis cuts will be considered. Not knowing the criteria makes it difficult to become engaged on the objective. This is just one example of a lack of transparency in our government. We have an information-deficit in government that is just as in need of addressing as our fiscal deficit.


Will the combined effect of political stability and a naturally complacent citizenry result in a further dis-engagement from our politics? I hope not.

Interestingly, I read today that Iceland is crowd-sourcing its constitution via social media - throwing it open to citizens for their views on how a country ravaged by the financial crisis wants to be governed in the future. While one might expect a lot of extreme views, the sense thus far has been that some very reasoned and informed ideas have been offered up. That's engagement.

Will our governments ever be so bold? Will we ever be ready to jump at the chance?

What do you think?

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