Couchiching: Fun to Say and Fun to Visit
Attended my first Couchiching Conference this past weekend and got a glimpse of what political debate could look like if we could only squeeze out some of the more pathological aspects of partisanship and ideological conflict that have become business as usual in Ottawa. The crowd of about 250 people was diverse, students and professors, politicians, political staffers and public servants, representatives of think tanks and voluntary organizations, unpaid workers and private sector leaders – engaged Canadians. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty gave a well-received speech on Friday morning. Margaret MacMillan, the respected and eloquent historian, launched the proceedings expressing concern about the fraying of our social programs and warning against the dangers of certainty and those who claim to own it. Paul Martin and Michael Wilson were there as contributors and participants. Sylvia Ostry was there to receive a much merited award and add some policy spice as well, taking direct aim at the government’s decision to kill the long form census.
Participants had lots of opportunity to mingle in a beautiful natural setting and appropriately modest facilities. This place is clearly about the ideas, about civil discourse. Discounts are offered for those who might not be able to afford the fees so the mix of participants by age and background is pretty good, obviously important for grounded policy discussion. I had a chance to talk to young students and older academics. I also had a chance to talk to Paul Martin and Michael Wilson and listen while they talked to one another. I chatted with a farmer and a dentist and a self-described homemaker and I was on a panel with Conservative political strategist, Tom Flanagan and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ senior economist Armine Yalnizyan. How cool is that.
As one would expect, disagreements were sometimes sharp but at no time did I hear the kind of name calling and empty sloganeering that so dominate the comments sections of most on-line media and have come to define parliamentary debate. Instead of labeling one another inanely as “statists” or “anti-statists” or “socialists” or what have you, people looked for common ground where possible, asked how evidence might help resolve differences, and clarified the moral choices where differences were irreconcilable. Reason. Rationality. Respectful dialogue. Evidence. Contrast that with Dan Gardner’s hilarious take on what has become of Ottawa.
This year, the Conference theme was the economic meltdown and whether we are at a “watershed moment” or have already wasted the opportunity crises create for fundamental reform. Running through the informal chats was a powerful sub-theme of what the census controversy tells us about where we are and where we may be heading. This issue may seem too technical or remote from our everyday lives to rouse the majority of us who have tuned politics out this summer, but it has created a new and rich discussion about the role of the state, the limits of ideology and the importance of knowledge among people who have rarely agreed or even talked much in the past. The census discussion inevitably bled into a larger discussion and concern about the health of our politics and of our public institutions and how we might find a better path, one that rejects complacency, despair, and the mindless government bashing that seems to be all too easy – and destructive – these days. How, in other words, do we restore a sense of the possibility of progress?
And of course there was our panel where we discussed the role of the state and where the three of us – Tom, Armine and I – disagreed pretty fundamentally about pretty fundamental things, but civilly, never disagreeing for the sake of it, and happy to find (rare) moments of common ground.
So later today and tomorrow, I will set out what I learned at Couchiching about the role of the state, the meanings and implications of the census fracas and what all this says about our public and political institutions.