Christopher Wilson & Assoc.

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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Yes, Partisanship isn’t the problem

In a recent op-ed published in the Ottawa Citizen, Anne Cools, the longest-serving member of the Canadian Senate, made an impassioned plea for greater independence among members of both the House of Commons and the Senate. In her opinion, the problem with the Senate isn't partisanship and patronage, but "the excess of power and arbitrariness, and the consequent subjugation of members in both houses to the leaders and now their staffs. This is not partisanship. This is the wilful erosion and stifling of members’ individuality and intellectual activity."

Further she observes that "in recent decades, successive governments have robbed Canadians of the vocabulary of Parliament. Canadians now have few tools to judge the copious communication messages served up hourly by the spin doctors and message makers who strive to convince Canadians of what they want them to think, mainly that something which is not, is, and that something which is, is not. Wilful destabilization of both houses, and strategies that weaken or destroy the Senate, are toxic to politics and to the common good."

From her historical perspective it's easy to see we've lost something of our democracy in recent decades. The erosion of the role of MPs; the absence of intellectual debate based on merit; a ceremonial Parliament; the consolidation of power in a small cadre within the PMO; the vilification of the Senate and judiciary; the relinquishing of the notion that Government governs for all Canadians, all regions, all economic interests, and all reasonable perspectives -- all of this suggests an undermining of our original democracy. 

However, I would also suggest that these are not only the failings of parties, leaders and their unelected staffs. These instruments of governance have largely passed their best before date. With an eye to future, we do not have the structures or mechanisms to align our governance with the evolving culture and needs of our citizenry. We have a government struggling with an unprecedented amount of information, change and complexity requiring the knowledge, experience, resources and power that single governments do not hold or control. This is what underpins the behaviour of those who "strive to convince Canadians of what they want them to think, mainly that something which is not, is, and that something which is, is not." They must paint a fraudulent picture of control when none is possible.

But we also have an increasingly influential Internet generation, the digital natives, who are constantly in conversation; who work peer to peer; who only understand hierarchies if they are bottom up; who recognize leadership when it serves not commands; who are fundamentally self organizing; where resources are attracted not allocated; where power is shared not hoarded; where is mediocrity is relentlessly exposed; where competitors frequently join together; where ownership is shared and where solutions are co-designed.

Their world demands a fundamentally different style of governance than the one constructed in 1867. It demands collective learning, innovation, collaboration, openness, inclusion and the leveraging of the shared passions of the entire citizenry -- not just the deceptive marketing of pseudo leaders pretending to have all the answers. It requires authentic engagement -- certainly not the tighter controls that are currently in fashion. In the Internet dominated world, the State does not know best.

Saying this does not mean the old structures of MPs, caucuses, Parliament, Senate, bureaucracy, and the judiciary need be set aside, but they must be reinvigorated. They must be re-envisioned in light of the need to maximize innovation by intentionally trying to draw from every corner of the populace. They must be constantly transforming while recognizing the agency role played by each actor in government with respect to the citizenry. They, the citizens, are the owners of governance not the politicians or the bureaucrats. Current trends make a mockery of this relationship. Current trends reflect not a government-citizen relationship but a government-subject relationship. 

One of the most profound things I've ever heard coming from any government came in a Speech from the Throne back in the late 90s during the Chretien era. It announced as part of the Government's Connecting Canadians agenda that the role of government was to "represent the future to the present". Current Government practice, and even for that matter Sen. Cools comments above, is representing the past to the present. And in so doing, not only does government continue to bleed away its stock of public legitimacy, but it also presents a profound opportunity cost in terms forgone innovation and social well-being.
So for me the bigger question is when will we get a government that is sufficiently future oriented to give up its attachment to past practices when they are so obviously out of sync with both the future and the present?