By: Alex MacDonald
Senior Editor | Economics and Policy
Between the recent Conservative leadership debate, the Ontario Liberal leadership contest, and the 2019 general election, the deafening roar of political platitudes and the absence of true statecraft has certainly not gone unnoticed. Indeed, this appetite for antagonistic narcissism comes at the expense of reason, sound governance, and social progress, and has a drastic disenfranchising effect on the Canadian people. Although political mudslinging of this sort isn’t new to the scene, with the shrinking number of moderate voices at the table, the stakes have never been higher. Without reform to the public service, Parliament, and the electorate, extremism and anarchy will be the only vehicles left for change, and our democratic society will become a symbol of the past.
According to the Library of Parliament, almost 50% of Canadian youth doubt that voting every four years can truly influence the decision-making process, and consequently, stay away from the polls. Further, voter turnout for young Canadians lagged behind average voter turnout by 20%, with youth participation fluctuating between 37% and 44% since 2004. Canadians, especially Canadian youth, are developing severe voter apathy because of the shock tactics, insincere platitudes, and political gaffes that parties employ to cut through the noise of a 24-hour news cycle.
Recently, Conservative leadership candidate Derek Sloan was given his fifteen minutes of fame when he called for the dismissal of Canada’s leader in the fight against the global pandemic, Dr. Theresa Tam, after accusing her of being an agent of the Chinese government. As if that was not ridiculous enough, Sloan went on to accuse the Prime Minister of, “effectively putting child abuse into law” by passing an act that criminalizes aspects of conversion therapy.
If you didn’t catch the glaring irony of those statements, I encourage you to take a closer look, it’s well worth a laugh. Unfortunately, Mr. Sloan is not the only politician who displays a shocking level of ignorance.
Our very own Prime Minister has spent the last four years limping from scandal to scandal, hoping to maintain enough political goodwill to keep the confidence of Parliament. From abandoning electoral reform halfway into his term, to sarcastically dismissing Indigenous protesters at a Liberal party fundraiser, and pushing out members of his cabinet who took a stand against moral corruption at the highest levels, his bumbling disrespect for his own platform has demonstrated the issue at hand. By focusing almost exclusively on garnering attention, and opposing the opposition for its own sake, Trudeau treats fulfilling his mandate as a secondary line item on the government agenda.
A system that replaces progress with haphazardly constructed lies intended to enrage segments of the population against another will accomplish nothing but flaming the fires of extremism. When elected officials are consumed with inflicting retribution and public humiliation on their opponents, then statecraft will be reduced to the ashes of a once idealized form of government, democracy.
In a recent speech, Michael Gove, Minister of the Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom, addresses the lack of statecraft in modern politics and the resulting disenfranchising effect it has on people, pushing them to the brink of extremism. He advocates for radical reform to government and the public service, which I believe is half of the solution.
The full solution that restores reason, and creates an inviting atmosphere to achieve real progress, I believe, comes in two parts; Goveian reform to government, and efforts to drive political engagement.
In terms of the Canadian government, they must be gracious to a fault. The electoral system in Canada should send shockwaves of humility down the spine of every Prime Minister. After all, although they may win, the illusive prize of majority public support remains safely at arm’s length. To their parliamentary playmates across the aisle, the opposition must fulfill their responsibility by holding the government to account, while avoiding sophomoric soundbites intended to embarrass, distract, and debase. Although this would require massive governmental reform in ways suggested by Mr. Gove, a sampling of items that may reflect the kind of cultural change that is required, looks like the following:
- Decentralization of Government: Remove bureaucratic barriers to participative democracy by implementing government policy at local levels, and create local implementation teams with various community members to drive diversity in public policy. Increase the frequency of public-private partnerships on project-based government work, and implement these projects with the local engagement teams to create more thoughtful and effective policy decisions reflective of nuanced community needs. Further, having MPs participate in local implementation of government policy, rather than one ministerial figurehead would drive community building in a more sincere way.
- Parliamentary Reform: The government should include opposition staff when drafting legislation before it is introduced to the floor. Although they may not agree on anything, forcing the conversation to commence at an earlier stage will bring new perspectives to light before the combative environment of open debate. This work in committee should be done behind closed doors and without the imposition of parliamentary rules of order, and should include only MPs and a small contingent of staff to promote a collaborative working environment. Without cameras to facilitate grandstanding and amplify emotions, compromise may be seen as progress, rather than weakness.
Finally, for progressive policies to be effective, the electorate must be more considerate, reasonable, thoughtful, and intelligently engaged. If ignorance is bliss, then bliss has no place in a democracy. To stave off ignorance, the electorate must be adequately educated in the fundamentals and necessity of government.
- Primary and Secondary Education: We must start by strengthening our primary and secondary school civics classes, rather than leave them to be the misunderstood and ineffective joke that they are. Students should prepare and discuss issues with candidates, attend debates, ask pertinent questions, and engage in mock debate themselves. They should be encouraged to submit suggestions on draft legislation, and interact with MPs and members of their policy staff who are responsible for converting ideas into reality. The focus should be on experiential learning to understand what role MPs actually serve.
- Post-Secondary Education: Engagement on the local policy implementation teams mentioned previously, work experience in areas where students enjoy subject-matter expertise, and formal education in the role and responsibility of government should be mandatory. After years of engagement with the public sector and with a deep knowledge of its purpose, civic engagement will become a natural instinct and not simply a chore.
By educating citizens and making meaningful dialogue the core tenant of civic engagement, voters will be inoculated against shock and awe communication that carries little meaning, few actions, and even less progress. In the end, those with a predisposition to outrage often find a pretext. To this affliction, education and empathetic understanding is certainly the remedy.
They key to a reasonable collaborative democracy free from the dangers of extremism, is empathy. We must stop looking at those with opposing viewpoints and experiences as enemies, demons, and idiots, but as partners in building a better Canada. The price that this bears will test the conviction of free human beings to their ideals, and will surely exhaust the rarest of human resources: empathy, humility, and cooperation.