Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey. Part IX: Suggestions for a Consensus-Driven Future

The future of Democracy in Canada: A Personal Journey
Suggestions for a Consensus-Driven Future

We’re on a narrow path to fundamental changes to the way in which we live our lives, yet no one is talking about it. Faith is constantly being eroded in our democratic and economic systems, yet the incremental changes to both appear to be taking us in the wrong direction we need to go to face the facts and hard reality of the future. In this circumstance, what can we do to start turning the ship of state around in order to begin acknowledging and addressing where we are headed, and how we can get there in the best shape possible?

Yesterday, I may have left you with the impression that I am not optimistic that we’re going to be find a way to correct our course through the icy seas of the future before ramming into multiple icebergs like a vision-impaired bumper-boat captain. After a lot of critical analysis, I am still very sceptical that we will find the wherewithal within our selves and our institutions to grow up and start talking about the crises, much less actually doing something about it.

What I realized overnight, though, was that’s not a reason to abandon all hope, as much as it would be the easy way out. There is a lot of hard work which we should all be doing, and which we must do, if we’re to have a hope in hell of averting the very worst of the disasters which are upon us. I’m going to offer some suggestions below, and perhaps offer a discussion around how plausible these suggestions might be. Certainly, all of the suggestions are going to require a fundamental re-ordering of our society, and that’s one of the reasons I’m pessimistic that we’ll be able to achieve the needed outcomes. Currently, I don't believe that our democratic system has the flexibility needed to implement these suggestions.

Maybe what we truly need to start thinking about is an alternative to our current democratic system, which has been changing in increments over time anyway. Democracy is not static in Canada, and nor should it be. Let’s not also presuppose that tomorrow’s democracy is going to be the same as today’s. Keep this in mind when reviewing suggestions.

Also keep in mind that these suggestions require urgent implementation, which is going to be controversial in itself. Perhaps the urgency of the needed implementation will lead to the democratic changes necessary for pursuit of these suggestions.

First though, one quick item: please do not construe these suggestions to be in any way endorsed by anybody other than myself (and even then, I'm not certain that I actually endorse them; rather, I think they might be necessary, albeit unpalatable in some cases). Although I belong to the Green Party of Canada, please do not construe these ideas here to be the Green Party’s policy. In fact, in most cases, I think that you will find a careful analysis of what I’m going to suggest as being quite a bit outside of current GPC-approved policy. And I’ll blog about that in a little while.

Here are the suggestions:

Changing Public Opinion through Education.

Seems like this is going to be a generational project, as public education requires time and energy, and is best accomplished through education which begins at home with children and continues through meaningful exposure through our school systems. The good news here is that we have been largely turning out a good number of critical thinkers in the recent decades who understand and acknowledge the perils we face to a greater degree than do most. So, we’ve already got a bit of an advantage here. It’s too bad that many of the youngest in our society are disadvantaged by mounting debts, and disengaged from the political process and our civil society, which often dismissively shuns their involvement. Given our aging demographic, this doesn’t really come as a surprise.

However, given that we don’t have the luxury of time, what other means are at our disposal to start changing public opinion? Clearly, the mainstream media needs to be brought into the equation. Sure, the internet is a great resource which many turn to for their source of information which ultimately shapes opinion, but the mainstream media is, and will remain, the true bastion of public opinion for quite a while, I believe. TV continues to reach Canadians in a compelling way, particularly the older Canadians who must buy-in to the societal transformations we need to undertake.

I’ve been arguing that the media has been doing a bit of a poor job when it comes to discussing the reality of the future which we’re going to live in, and I’ve indicated that there are many reasons for this. I am still not optimistic that the media will start reporting the truth and facts around the on-coming crises, but if we are to truly engage Canadians in discussions about the future, the media has to act in this way. Our mainstream media must begin to bombard our society with messaging about the facts.

And this won’t happen easily, as it requires the media itself to change direction first. Media pundits who deny reality and facts (and these are routine in our major media outlets today) must be called out by others who understand the concept of "truth". Media outlets must dismiss deniers, who are some of their most popular commentators. Media must move from it’s do-nothing bias and start reporting the truth. If balanced stories are to be a goal, those balanced stories must be based on reality, not conjecture or outright lies.

The media must be the impetus for the message, because the lonely voices like mine crying out in our communities, both real and virtual, will continue to be sidelined otherwise.

Leaders Must Initiate a Public Discussion About the Future

Right now, our governmental Leaders have been completely ducking these discussions. Other leaders, though, are stepping up throughout all sectors of our society, and are trying to engage Canadians. While the media has largely ignored these efforts to plan for our increasingly local futures, the momentum is clearly in place. Our elected Leaders need to play some catch up. Shifting public opinion will be their impetus to do so.

This discussion must begin quickly, and it needs to take place in an unbiased manner, based on fact and not conjecture. Special interests who refuse to admit the reality staring them in the face will need to be sidelined as non-contributors to this discussion, because we just don’t have the time for them. Unfortunately, these people and groups I easily refer to as "special interests" are in reality some of the most powerful business, union and industrial organizations in our country, not to mention our neighbours, friends and family. But if they continue to base their arguments on conjecture and not on facts, they should be considered non-contributors. Their opinions should therefore be afforded much less weight in a rational decision-making process.

Our governments need to lay out a series of facts about our future as a starting point. If you want to engage, you accept the stated reality. This will certainly not be easy, but it will be required given the short time which the public must engage in this conversation.

South of the border, the U.S. has been embroiled in this kind of conversation for time now, as the Obama administration attempts to reform the American Health Care system. Such a public dialogue is a worthy example of the national focus needed to address an issue. Unfortunately, this discussion has all too often been highjacked by special interests and media pundits who continue to deny hard facts and reality, and rely on lies to spread their vested interest and often partisan messages. The conversation may have benefited from a statement of facts at the outset, as a starting point. Although it’s unlikely those facts would not have been contested by a very uncritical media and special interests.

If things are bad here in Canada with regards to the media, they are an absolute mess south of our border.

Which is why...

We Must Not Wait for the United States to Get Its Act Together.

Waiting is, frankly, inexcusable. An abdication of leadership on the part of Canada. Where there is real leadership, others will follow. We must become one of the leaders. This would be a complete turn-about for Canada, one of the world’s worst (if not the worst) environmental laggard on a per person basis (a fact which Canadians need to come to terms with).

It is completely inexcusable to say that we can’t lead, that we can’t formulate our own policies here in Canada. Those who say so seem to have abandoned the notions of both sovereignty and leadership.

Yes, there will be implications for going it alone...but the implications of inaction are too great. We need to move on. Right bloody now.

Sweeping Legislative Changes

The tools for implementation will require sweeping changes to federal and provincial legislation, and that’s not going to happen over night, especially when the public service is going to be focussed on cuts. However, these changes will be needed to force the agenda. Pressure to do so must be unrelenting: from the public, from the business community, from other levels of government, from the media.

There are many impediments to changing our laws, even when there is a laser-beam focus to do so. Some things to consider:

-Abolish the Senate in case they decide to hold legislative changes up (provincial governments don’t have Senates anyway; we won’t have the luxury for this Chamber any, think of the cost savings). If abolishing it won’t work, then suspend it.

-Stop the practice of partisan politics and restore meaningful debate to parliament. A bit of a tall order to say the least, but we can do this if we elect fewer politicians who are in Parliament to play games.

-Adopt a much more representative form of government which is based on proportional representation. This must be a priority, although we often think it will take time. It doesn’t have to. Our elected officials can just do it. And should.

Give Local Governments the Powers They Need

There will need to be greater partnerships with all levels of government. This includes municipal governments, who are going to be tasked with delivering at least part of the mandate. Municipalities will need to receive real powers from senior levels of government, and finally transition from "creatures of the province" to "mature levels of government". Municipal elected officials must assume this responsibility with foresight and in good faith: they must acknowledge that they will be under a greater degree of public scrutiny, which is as it should be, if municipalities are given the power to tax. Power comes with responsibility. Deal with it.

Of course, not all municipalities are sophisticated enough to become those "mature levels of government" overnight. Investments in capacity must be made. Failing that, write them off, and let the province deliver services and make decisions directly. This would appear at first not be a democratic decision, but where elected municipal officials refuse to look after their own interests and those of the voters who elected them, what other choice would there be? I sincerely hope that this would not happen very often, but the reality is, there is likely already a need for this sort of action today.

Our future is going to be increasingly local. Our local institutions are not yet at a level whereby they can deal with the challenges of this shift. We need to beef them up, and it is here, I believe, where the best chances for a flowering of democracy are going to occur.


Here is a big one: the discussion must be as much about what we can do as what we can’t. There will be conclusions made that there are clearly certain actions which just can’t be taken. For example, we may have to financially abandon really unsustainable communities which no longer make economic sense, and which will be a burden on our finances. Ouch. What a terrible concept. Yet it needs to be happen, in the name of fiscal responsibility, which must be an underlying part of any plan to fight climate change.

Where current investments don’t make sense, they must be halted. If that means writing off segments of our society, including some communities and some businesses (I’m thinking the Quebec asbestos industry here, as well as the East Coast Seal Hunt), so be it. We just can’t simply continue on with a business-as-usual approach, waiting for obsolescence to happen incrementally. It will be time for tough choices. But we really don’t have any choice but to make them.

What I’m not talking about, and let me be clear about this, is writing off people, leaving them to their own devices, cutting them out of our civil society. No, that’s not what I mean at all, and I feel the need to explain the difference here. By way of example, look at the closing of outport communities in Newfoundland after that province joined confederation. Relocation efforts were undertaken. Yes, there were initial costs, but as a result there were long-term savings. Similar activities may need to occur in unsustainable parts of our nation in the near future. But that does not mean that we leave anyone behind.

Writing off segments of our society will not be popular. However, I really do think the time has come for this form of economic triage. I have already suggested that we ignore those who offer opinions based not on facts, but on lies and conjecture. This is no different.

Where would that leave democracy? While it has always been the case that our democratic tradition has sought to be inclusive, the reality is we have always failed to represent the interests of many within our society, and here I suggest that the poorest amongst us have constantly been unrepresented. In the future, without the luxury of time, we will need to disengage the foolish and the liars. It won’t be a question of IQ. But disengagement is a dangerous process. Simply, though, we won’t have any choice. Non-fact-based arguments and policy direction can not be tolerated by the rest of us. We truly need to sideline people who will not engage rationally in a discussion about our future, or else we risk the whole endeavour.

And where might that lead our democracy? I acknowledge that we’re talking about some potentially scary terrain here. Which is why we need to do these things very carefully, or else we risk becoming an eco-friendly China. That’s not the model we need to strive for. Balance will be necessary.


I’ll say it again: All of this must occur within the context of a sense of impending urgency. Some have suggested something akin to a "wartime mobilization"; I’d like to see a little more thought than that go into it, but really I’m still talking about significant action being discussed over a very short period of time (say 6 months) and then action being implemented quickly. If we’ve learned one thing from the Stimulus spending, it’s that it’s not always as quick to make decisions or implement them as we might like it to be, however, it can still be done.

Yes, acting quickly might open up the government to accusations of boondoggles. That would be an unfortunate outcome, but our governments don’t have the best track record when it comes to spending money quickly and not trying to hide some of it themselves, even when they do so in plain sight (think about those big cardboard cheques with the Conservative Party logo on them). But the fact is, we don’t have much in the way of luxury to choose the timing here. Action is required now. Build in a meaningful oversight process, that’s the answer, as the U.S. and Australia have done with their stimulus spending processes.

Take Personal Responsibility

You must take personal responsibility as a member of your family, your community, your province and nation. You must educate yourself to the point where you have a decent understanding of the challenges we are faced with. You must act in concert with the emergent consensus. You must acknowledge that the consequences of inaction are too great to consider.

In short, you must change, because you are not sustainable.

And so must I, because I am not sustainable.

Only together can we do this. It’s going to be hard work, but really, we don’t have any choice. Change is upon is. If we want to shape that change nominally to our advantage, we must do so in concert, with our heads held high and eyes wide open. Otherwise, we will only be able to react.

One way or another, Canadian democracy will have changed in the coming decades. While I hope that we become a better prepared, more civil society, even with my own suggestions we are sowing the seeds of mean-ness (think: Write-off). Many will take exception to that suggestion in particular, and I welcome dissent. Hell, I don’t like the idea any better than you do, but I don’t think we actually have a choice.

I’m nearing the end of this personal journey now. I’m not sure that I like where this is all going, but at least I am better prepared for it now, after examining it all. I will have no choice but to accept it anwyay, unless I can convince you that we need to engage one another in conversation and take needed action. Even then, things will move beyond us all in truly unexpected ways. Still, though, we must try to move into the future of our making, and do so in a way where as many of the best and sensible elements of our present are carried forward.

(Concluded in Part 10...)

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