Protests across Canada on January 23rd, against the lengthy shut-down of Parliament, are one sign things aren’t going an well.
But that’s no surprise to Canada’s Institute of Wellbeing. The Institute (an independent, non-partisan body) recently released its report on the “Democratic Engagement” Domain, the first report of its kind done in Canada, perhaps in the world. (This one follows reports on “Living Standards,” “Healthy Populations,” and “Community Vitality.”)
The central note in this report is that Canada is facing “a huge democratic deficit, with trust in Canadian government and public institutions on a steep decline.” That’s seen in the fact that fewer people are voting, or are participating in formal political activities. Likewise, about half of Canadians aren’t satisfied with their democracy, while very few believe federal government policies have improved their lives.
This “democratic deficit” didn’t surprise to me, either. During our last federal election, only 3 out of 5 eligible voters cast ballots. Stephen Harper was returned as Prime Minister with the support of merely 23 per cent of Canadian voters. Hardly a ringing endorsement. That number highlighted for me the increasing malaise I’ve seen among among urban and rural citizens — a kind of resigned indifference — a feeling that government doesn’t work for them, or represent their concerns. Their response, to paraphrase Shakespeare: “A plague on all your political parties and governments.”
Lenore Swystun and Kelley Moore of Saskatoon’s Prairie Wild Consulting saw that, and a lot more. Together with Holder and Associates, they developed the report for the Institute. Their work was based on historic studies of Canadian attitudes, plus their own research with Canadians from coast, to coast, to coast, as well as international studies.
They considered not only voter turnout but interest and participation in political activities, as well as representation of woman and minorities in Parliament, and Canada’s commitment to international development. We’re promised to put 0.7% of our GDP into Official Development Assistance; we actually spend about half of that most years, putting us in 16th place among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (Our government is way behind Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, though it is twice as generous as Japan and the U.S.)
That doesn’t fit my perception of Canadians’ overall caring and generosity. Consider how much we’ve raised for relief in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, and you can see how generous Canadians are. I think many see the mis-match between what they do and what our government does. The report reflects that visible mis-match.
How can we build a Moral Economy, which reflects the needs, concerns, and values of Canadians, and to which political parties and governments see they must align themselves?
The time has come for us to see this situation for just how bad it is, and do something about it. "Politics" as a whole has become far too insular and entrenched; I really doubt that the current system in Canada can reform itself. If you've ever compared parties election platforms with the priorities set in party policy conventions, you'll see the gaping canyon that separates the two. There's an appearance of democracy, of consultation; in reality, parties are run from the top down. Same for governments.
The report provides some broad recommendations.
• Create opportunities for meaningful engagement;
• Seed a culture of engagement in government;
• Ensure more accountability and transparency in politics;
• Invest in civic engagement;
• Make voting easier
• Increase diversity in politics;
• Use technology better;
• Invest in civil society; and,
• Engage Canadians about our place in the world.
It also calls for more research, and closer monitoring, which are important.
The problem, of course, is that the current political ethos, our political context, is dead set against all those principles for action. Canada isn't the only nation facing this; most "democracies" in our world are having the same problem.
Perhaps ordinary citizens, of varying ages and backgrounds, using internet connections, will be able to repeat the events of January 23rd, at different times and in different places. Maybe they will become the Democratic Engagement which the report anticipates. Frankly, I don't see an alternative to the "huge democratic deficit" that Canada faces.
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This post is based on my "Moral Economy" op-ed column which appeared in The Western Producer on Thursday, February 4, 2010.