Revitalising Democracy

The following interview was conducted by Scott H. Payne, of the Canadian Council for Democracy.  I have reproduced the interview and Scott’s overly generous introduction here.

Anyone who has paid any attention to the Census debacle has probably heard or read the name Dr. Alex Himelfarb. Dr. Himelfarb has been a stalwart opponent of eliminating the long form nature of the Census or making it voluntary and a defence of former Chief Statistician Munir Sheikh’s actions with regards to the Census that was written by Himelfarb was quoted by Sheikh when he spoke to a Parliamentary committee on the matter.

But aside from the Census brouhaha, Dr. Himelfarb is an academic, former public servant, and commendable Canadian with a long and exemplary background.

Dr. Himelfarb was a Professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick from 1972 to 1981. During this period, he undertook an Executive Interchange with the Department of Justice as Head of the Unified Family Court Project from 1979 to 1981.

In 1981, he joined the Public Service with the Department of the Solicitor General of Canada. He has held a number of positions of increasing responsibility since that time, including Director General, Planning and Systems Group, Planning and Management Branch with the Department of the Solicitor General of Canada; Executive Director of the National Parole Board; Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Social Policy Development with the Privy Council Office; and Associate Secretary of the Treasury Board. While serving as Associate Secretary of the Treasury Board, he also headed the federal Task Force on the Social Union. In June 1999, Dr. Himelfarb became Deputy Minister of Canadian Heritage.

He then served as Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet from May 2002 until March 2006 when he was nominated as Ambassador of Canada to the Italian Republic with concurrent accreditation to the Republic of Albania and the Republic of San Marino, and as High Commissioner for Canada to the Republic of Malt.

Currently Dr. Himelfarb serves as Director of the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs, at York University. Dr. Himelfarb also leads the Centre for Global Challenges which, stressing the interplay of domestic and global issues, brings together decision makers, researchers, practitioners, and students to explore challenges confronting Canada in a changing world.

Last week Dr. Himselfarb wrote a piece for The Mark entitled, Why We Vote Against Our Interests, in which he discussed the need for democratic renewal in Canada. Excited by his analysis, I contacted Dr. Himelfarb to see whether he would be wiling to engage the ideas he expressed in the piece in greater detail. Dr. Himelfarb was kind enough to accept the invitation and the ensuing exchange appears below the fold.

If you are interested in reading more from Dr. Himelfarb — and I can’t recommend doing so enough — you can read his blog at

Scott Payne: Dr. Himelfarb, in your recent essay for The Mark entitled Why We Vote Against Our Interests, you wrote,

There is something unseemly and even dangerous about the assault on evidence and experts especially coming from our political leaders. But it has resonance with many because government seems distant from and irrelevant to our lives, a “foreign thing” where decisions are made about us but without us. The distance between citizen and state must be reduced. Democratic revitalization has to be at the centre of the agenda if we are to restore the balance.

What data, events, dynamics, or experiences have led you to conclude that there is a significant and worrisome chasm between the average Canadians on his/her government?

Dr. Alex Himelfarb: There are many broad indicators of the increasing distance between government and civil society (which are not unique to Canada); most obvious is the worrying decline in the proportion of Canadians who bother to vote, particularly acute among young citizens.  We see this too in the results of various polls on trust in government and anecdotally in the often virulent comments online whenever someone stands up for public service and the state.  But I was thinking more about policies like the firearms registry or the HST which seem to inflame and divide, and, at least for some, make government seem like a foreign and distant thing. Agree or disagree with the decisions, Canadians too often felt excluded from the process or that their concerns were not even understood.

For a while previous governments explored the idea of a new relationship between government and civil society.  A key element was to be a new partnership with the voluntary sector.  Early efforts here created some real optimism and energy for democratic renewal but somehow or other the effort got bogged down, in large part, if I recall correctly, around funding.  As an aside, I believe that decisions some time back to replace core funding by project funding were a mistake and hurt our democracy.  Core funding not only allowed predictability for often small voluntary organizations but also enabled fearless advocacy essential to a vital democracy.  And in the scheme of things it was not very expensive especially given the benefits – most important, giving voice to those too often excluded from the policy process.

Now let me be clear here.  I am not saying that politicians shouldn’t lead and of course leadership means taking us where we would otherwise not have gone.  But I am increasingly convinced that the unilateral imposition of a program or a policy decision is not leadership.  Rather our leaders are going to have to get better at engaging us in the decisions, explaining the rationale, hearing us out, seeking ways to accommodate legitimate concerns and diverse perspectives and circumstances, and preparing the ground for the final decisions.  And even those “final” decisions should be more like the “beta versions” of policies and programs to be adjusted as we learn.

Clearly some people will never accept the direction. Some will not be open to any accommodation.  Unanimity is almost never in the cards and even consensus may be elusive.  But a serious attempt to engage, inform and listen will improve policy and program design and could reduce the distance between citizen and government.

Sometimes the best of governments will feel compelled to do what they are convinced is in the country’s best interest even if the majority sentiment or a significant minority is in disagreement.  This may be the case in defense of minority rights, for example,  or on tough issues like abortion where consensus is impossible.  These all too rare moments of statesmanship where government takes a political risk for their best understanding of the greater good become part of our political mythology, our political culture.  We now look back with incomprehension that the majority anywhere might have supported slavery or rejected voting rights for women. Some issues require strong and courageous leadership as opposed to the pandering and political opportunism we have come to take for granted. But here, too, or especially here, serious and respectful engagement is crucial.

In the end, of course, we get to vote to express our political choices, “to throw the bums out” or choose a more attractive option, so the evidence that so many Canadians don’t see the point in voting is very troubling.  It’s troubling that this right, so envied where it is not available, is so little regarded by many here.  I suppose that for NDPers in Quebec, Liberals in Alberta, Conservatives in Toronto, voting may seem pointless.  More generally the idea that we are represented at the constituency level and led nationally by candidates and parties preferred by, say, one third of voters is increasingly problematic.  This may have been tolerable when the differences between the two big tent parties were viewed as relatively small, but as politics polarises here as elsewhere, the first past the post system seems even more undemocratic. Electoral reform too could help to close the gap between government and civil society.

SP: When I spoke to David Frum about Canada’s decreasing voter turn out, he offered the following,

Maybe we should interpret a low turnout in the same spirit as the old joke about the child who never spoke until at age 8, he told his mother: “The soup’s cold.” Stunned, she exclaimed, “You can talk! And yet you’ve never spoken until now?” He answered: “Until now, everything’s been fine.”

What would your response to Frum’s suggestion be?

AH: My guess is that if you asked people why they don’t vote – and after all it is an empirical question – you would get a repertoire of reasons including the one proferred by David Frum. But, by and large, I don’t believe that “satisfaction” or “complacency”, depending on your perspective, is the major reason. I dont buy it. Some years back, Elections Canada commissioned such a study, that is, asked people, and, as I recall it, they found that young people, poor people and new citizens were least likely to vote. It’s hard to imagine that these are the most satisfied with the way things are.

My sense, based on what I’ve read and heard, is that there are three categories of reasons for not voting: one, I suspect many don’t vote because they just can’t be bothered, don’t see voting as a priority or duty, and so aren’t prepared to put in the effort to learn the issues, put up with line ups or administrative obstacles or bad weather or even a trip to the polls; two, many people I am sure don’t vote because they believe their vote doesn’t matter, perhaps because the outcome seems certain in their riding or even in their country; and three, my bet is that many don’t vote because they are fed up, don’t like the candidates and parties, aren’t engaged by the issues, or believe that politicians are all pretty much alike and have lost trust in government and wonder about it’s relevance to them.

All of these reasons are worrisome and if this mix of apathy, distrust, futility and cynicism is even partially right it suggests giving political priority to electoral reform and to the reinvigoration of our sense of citizenship and our political and democratic institutions.

SP: From an anecdotal perspective, the complaints that I tend to hear most frequently from my cohort (thirty-somethings) is a mixture of your second and third explanations. One of the more tangible ways of addressing those concerns is, as you’ve noted, to look at some form of electoral reform.

Understanding that you don’t claim to be an expert on democratic revitalization, nor likely electoral reform, do you have a particular formulation of electoral reform that you view as a preferred course towards addressing these concerns. And what would be your reaction towards the suggestion that seemed to gain some traction a couple of years ago around making voting compulsory, as is the case in Australia?

AH: Well, Scott, I am in the midst or reconsidering my views on these issues. For a long time I resisted ideas like proportional representation because I feared that this would contribute to political instability as we have seen in some countries and it would break the relationship between elected officials and citizens and the accountability of those officials to the constituencies they represent in our current system. But here as elsewhere, polarised politics and minority governments are increasingly a fact of life. The current system has done nothing to constrain the regional fragmentation of our politics, and important voices with significant support from Canadians cannot find their way into Parliament. Frankly, any system that made cooperation and alliances routine rather than aberrant would be hugely welcome. And if, as you say, people are increasingly of the view that their vote doesn’t matter, well, I think it’s time for a change. People need to know that their vote counts. I can’t tell you how many young people I have talked to who want a system that doesn’t continually encourage “strategic voting” but rather makes meaningful their votes even for parties which will not likely win.

If indeed we do opt for change as seems increasingly possible in the UK,we ought to explore a number of options including mixed PR and preferential ballots, approaches that maintain but build on the link between candidates and constituencies. Meaningful electoral reform will require the engagement of Canadians not only in the final decision but also in the design of options. I know that some provinces have tried without achieving reform, but times change and the circumstances may be ripe. The process itself would be important, if truly inclusive.

I have written elsewhere that we ask relatively little of our citizens. We have no compulsory service or voting. Apart from paying taxes (and we know how people feel about this), jury duty (which many manage to escape) and filling out the census every five years (and we have seen what happened with the long form), we don’t require much of our citizens. I think governments and our educators ought to be doing a lot more to promote a richer sense of citizenship, an awareness of our rights but also of our responsibilities, not only to ourselves and our families, but to one another, our communities, our country and beyond. The strength of our institutions depends in no small measure on citizens taking responsibility. Our criminal justice system would break down if most of us most of the time didn’t obey the law. Our health system which has served so well for so long needs fundamental reform, but its ability to deliver depends as well on our responsible use. And so it goes for all our systems. I would add that we cannot achieve any of our great objectives if citizens and firms don’t take some responsibility for changing their own behaviour.

Having said all this, I think electoral reform should focus now on making voting more self-evidently meaningful – not compulsory. (Just to be clear, the argument that the long form census must be mandatory is totally different, based on technical or methodological requirements for reliable and credible information.)

SP: I’d like to double back to your comment about the move from core to project funding for voluntary groups and the role that a relationship between those groups and government plays in developing a robust and vital civil society. Do you think it is accurate to suggest that there has been a de-prioritizing of cultivating and encouraging civil society by government in recent years (10-20) and if so, would you be willing to speculate as to some reasons behind it?

AH: Yes, I think that has been the case probably for about three decades, with a couple of exceptional initiatives which I guess prove the rule. I expect that governments have always been irked by NGOs and research outfits that use the funding they receive to criticize or challenge what government is doing. But the money – generally smallish grants – and the annoyance were seen as the price we pay for a healthy democracy. That started to change, I think, when Canadians and their governments got worried that we could not sustain what we had built and we started to cut back. That coincided with changes in our approach to public service in what has been called the New Public Management, when governments sought to be more business-like, bottom line and results focused. In this climate, what could be easier than to cut long-term research and policy and those advocacy organizations that so often pressed government to do more and better in this area or that. So, ongoing core funding was replaced by short-term project funding, not for advocacy of course but for services and products. I believe Canadian democracy lost something in the process.

Managing for results is of course important. This is unassailable. And measuring our performance in terms of what results we get for the dollar spent makes all good sense. But some results are difficult to measure and don’t yield tangible announcements within the 3 year political cycle. In fact, I would say that this is the case for the most important results government might hope to achieve with respect to the environment, social cohesion, human rights and the vitality of our democracy. The combination of the general irritation governments inevitably feel when criticized or pressed, the growing dominance of fiscal policy and the New Public Management goes a long way to explaining the reduced priority we have given to citizen engagement – and there’s no evidence of any imminent reversal or slowing of this trend.

SP: Given both the national and global economic situation in which we currently find ourselves, I agree that that dynamic seems unlikely to change any time soon. Perhaps somewhat ironically, it is now more than ever as the complexity of the issues, challenges, and opportunities that face our countries and our world continue to press against us and in some cases even magnify, that we need vital and vibrant democracies of engaged and passionate citizens.

What then might you suggest that those Canadians for whom the vitality of democracy and the degree of civic engagement exhibited by their fellow citizens is a concern do to try to address those concerns?

AH: That’s just too gloomy, Scott. If you compare the costs of renewing our public institutions to the costs of failing to do so, it’s a no brainer. If you compare the costs of revitalizing our citizenship and our democracy to the costs of new prisons – and I could go on – democratic renewal is a better investment and a bargain to boot.

But beyond this, many Canadians, of all ages, are finding both local and global ways of engaging in public life, volunteering time and money, developing creative local solutions to social problems, taking responsibility. Public enterprise is bigger than government. Citizens need not and increasingly do not wait for government leadership to get engaged. Interestingly, the evidence suggests that those most involved in their communities are also most likely to vote and participate politically more generally. But of course political leadership is crucial. And I hope it’s not too naive to think that the time may be ripe for just such political leadership – on electoral reform, on the value and meaning of citizenship and on the health of our democracy.

The interview was posted in the Commons, Scott’s excellent blog available here

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