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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Future of Canadian Politics

Inspired by the recent Speech from the Throne and writing in Macleans on 15 October 2013, Aaron Wherry presents a possibility for the next two years of governing before the elections in 2015. He entitles it, “The 41st Parliament and the future of Canadian politics”. Rightly so, he asks what kind of country do we want, how do we want our politics to play into that, and what should the Government do over the next two years of its mandate?

He begins by presenting a long laundry list of issues that are not being addressed by the speech from the Throne. … But he fails to ask why? Why does the Government not address them? They are after all no secret.

Some of What Was Left Out of Throne Speech

In contrast, there are all the issues presented by the Government in the Throne Speech – prohibiting extra charges on paper bills; cracking down on “predatory payday lenders”; reducing ATM fees; reducing credit card fees; unbundling of cable television channels; reducing roaming charges for cell phones; an airline passenger bill of rights; prohibiting differential prices between the U.S. and Canada. This contrast exposes the Government’s agenda as trivial.

It is not much of a stretch to suggest that these ‘pressing concerns’ in the Throne Speech were chosen as a focus for the Government largely because it actually has some control over implementing them. The Throne Speech is illuminating therefore from the perspective of what the federal government sees as a doable challenge, even more so than presenting ‘feel good’ messages to the ‘middle class’ in preparation for the next election.

Yet if this reflects what the Government sees as doable, then the Throne Speech is indeed quite sad. It depicts a government that has been so thoroughly emasculated that it can not focus on any issues of consequence to Canadians.

What the Throne Speech reveals is a timid government, one that won’t take on tough issues because there is no promise of an easy return. These tough issues are the ‘wicked problems’ where the required solutions usually involve many steps, lots of players, reconciling multiple perspectives, more and different resources, and various sources of power and authority. The Government is sidestepping these complex concerns because they are too unpredictable, with all sorts of undesirable political risks

Besides which, collaboration is viewed as being too hard and the results difficult to appropriate to one party. Why would any leader want to become engaged with people whom he/she could not tell what to do? Yet these concerns remain areas that the public is keenly interested in -- concerns like health care, poverty reduction, and the inequitable lives of aboriginals. Not only is collaboration undesirable for the Government, but the public understands that collaboration is not a a forte for the Government and they have little confidence that it can work collaboratively. In a recent article in Policy Options, pollster Nick Nanos[1] presents survey results that conclude that the public has almost no confidence (9%) in the Government if they have to collaborate with others. Canadians do not believe our leaders can achieve results that matter, if they have to work with others.

Having exposed the inherent weakness of the Government, Wherry takes issue with those that claim that it is the state of our politics that’s to blame for the corrupted, dirty and tawdry game of democracy that has disabled our Government from attending to important issues for Canadians. Quite in contrast he says “it is politics that makes and sustains us.” Quoting from Bernard Crick, Querry writes, “Politics arises from accepting the fact of the simultaneous existence of different groups, hence different interests and different traditions, within a territorial unit under a common rule … politics represents at least some tolerance of differing truths, some recognition that government is possible, indeed best conducted, amid the open canvassing of rival interests.” One could indeed substitute the word ‘community’ for ‘politics’ and the above statement would be even more salient. Querry though is most emphatic. “It is not democracy that separates us from tyranny. It is politics.” 

It is communities that bring together differences to maximize social welfare by being able to do more together than we can separately. The whole of human history is, in essence, the story of how we build bigger, more diversified, complex and innovative communities. Yet in bringing all these differences together, we also create entropy and plant the seeds of social conflict. Mitigating those conflicts is a role which we have traditionally allocated to government, and politics has been the means by which governments do so. Politics is about how power is exercised to affect coordination in a community whether it be through overt control or subtle influence or anything in between. Politics occurs in both democracies and tyrannies but also in monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, timocracies, meritocracies, technocracies and kleptocracies. Unfortunately, Wherry errs when he suggests politics separates the two because what actually separates democracy from tyranny is ownership. One is shared ownership and the other is centralized. In a democracy, where ownership of the community is shared, politics is not about control but about co-governance via a conversation among owners. 

This leads us to the problem with our democracy. It is not, as Wherry suggests, the absence of the right leader, but the very notion of leadership itself. We have today's leaders operating in a governmental system that rests comfortably in the shadow of monarchs and tyrants; leaders who are incapable of fostering those shared conversations alluded to by Crick that occur within communities comprised of different perspectives, knowledge, experiences, resources and values; and leaders who are thoroughly unwilling to embrace a relationship of co-governance with their citizen owners. We have leaders who are wannabe tyrants. In Canada we live in the "friendly dictatorship" as Jeffrey Simpson once called it.

It is not through the politics of elite accommodation that we will answer those questions about our governance, resources, wealth and welfare. It is through the shared conversations of empowered owners – all 34 million of them -- who can contribute their own knowledge, resources and power to affect complex socio-economic problems. The very problems the current (and previous) federal government have been so eager to avoid.

Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek once identified that the character of socio-economic problems “is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use, never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”[2] This presents the fundamental rationale for human communities – the bringing together of all that distributed knowledge to produce more than the sum of the individual parts. Thus the problems of society are not simply allocation problems that leaders may be good at. They are instead problems of “how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.”

We have problems, sure. As a community of owners working together their solutions are not out of reach. However, as a community of followers they will not be solved for us by single individuals with limited knowledge, resources or power -- no matter how well they may sell themselves as white knights. Those ‘leaders’ are, after all, only human. Consequently, finding practical ways of bringing every owner into the conversation is the real challenge of our modern democracy. The usual deflection of this issue by claiming chaos would ensue, or that the public is too stupid or uninformed, or that no one would be accountable are simply the age-old claims of tyrants. If we truly want a democracy and believe that each of us is an owner, then we need to figure out how to include everyone in the conversation. Everything else is somewhere between fantasy and fraud.

[1] NANOS, Nik. “Canadians Rate Highly the Issues Close to their Day-to-Day Lives,” Policy Options, August. 2012.

[2] HAYEK, Friedrich A."The Use of Knowledge in Society", American Economic Review. Vol. 35, No. 4. Sep., 1945: 519-30


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