I am reading Bob Rae’s fine book on Exporting Democracy and am experiencing profound feelings of alienation or maybe just superficial feelings of confusion. In either case, this is not a review of the book except to say that it is thoughtful and nuanced, and particularly welcome at this time when we ought to be reaffirming that the world matters to Canada and figuring out how we can matter to the world. It is definitely worth reading – but frankly it got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about exporting democracy, and why the idea has lost its lustre. Certainly, the disastrous attempts to force democracy on others haven’t helped. Nor has the conflation of democracy and neoliberal economic policy. But I wonder too whether part of the problem is our inability to fix democracy here at home. In any case, a commitment to exporting democracy deserves at least an equal commitment to revitalising our own.
These weeks, as we learn only after the fact of what went into the decision on the United Arab Emirates, as we are told about our future in Afghanistan without Parliamentary debate, as we watch the Senate defeat in a surprise vote a bill on environmental accountability – these weeks remind us pretty forcibly that our own democratic institutions are out of whack, that pathological partisanship and political gaming, no doubt always part of the show, have become the show. When is the last time that our federal Parliament had a real debate, say about whether our deteriorating environment or a few hundred refugees pose the greater security threat, or how we ensure universal access to quality health care with our aging population, or how to reform the tax system so that it promotes both efficiency and equity and is intergenerationally fair? You pick the issue.
The system didn’t just suddenly break in these last few weeks or even years. We are witnessing the consequences of decades of neglect. Let me say at the outset that the view from inside government can get pretty blinkered regardless of who is in charge. In the rarefied capital air, when public officials are trying to speed up the slow machine, to get things done, to avoid gridlock, it becomes awfully easy to see democratic debate as costly and dangerous. In the age of deference, not so very long ago, politicians and public servants were largely entrusted not only to pursue but to define the public good with occasional elections as the major report card on performance. Much public good was indeed achieved. Canada has done pretty well. From inside the bubble (having lived inside) it became amazingly easy to justify opaqueness and spin for the larger good. But we have learned that, in such a bubble, political interests too often trump the public good, majority interests trump minority concerns and, inevitably, government drifts further and further away from the citizens who own it. I think back on many decisions where I was a player that would have been made better by engaging Canadians through Parliamentary debate or directly through meaningful consultations. In other cases, the decisions would likely not have changed but our democracy would have benefited from greater transparency and more open discussion. Sometimes governments must choose unpopular paths – to protect minorities or the interests of future generations – but here too our democracy and political culture would benefit from greater transparency and open debate.
We talk about the “democratic deficit”. We talk about institutional reform. We talk about a new openness. But nothing much happens. We are stuck. How often past mistakes of one Party are used to justify more of the same by another. And instead of institutional reform, we get more bureaucracy, layers of added controls and oversight that increase the distance between Canadians and their government. No wonder we are seeing political disenchantment, disengagement and, it seems, a growing anger. We are at an impasse.
The age of deference is well past and that is completely for the good but its counterpoint of distrust and cynicism cannot be the answer. Just as surely as deference breeds arrogance, cynicism breeds collective paralysis. This serves only those who prefer paralysis to collective action or those who despite occasional pretense to populism have contempt for the democratic process. The new populism we see developing to the South is profoundly undemocratic. Giving up on the possibility of collective progress leads not to democracy making but to institution busting, not to open knowledge sharing and public education, essential to democracy, but to the denigration of knowledge and expertise and surrender to slogans and spin, and, despite the rhetoric, not to greater personal freedom, except for the already rich and powerful.
Excluding us from the big debates is no longer on. It won’t work and it shouldn’t. Making citizen engagement work means profound change in how we make public decisions. It is not about telling us what we want to hear. Pretending that democracy is no more than polling majority sentiment and pandering to it is not the antidote to arrogance. Glorifying our instincts, passions and preferences is just plain dangerous. Addressing the democratic deficit will require an investment in open information and public education and the willingness to live with sometimes messy and uncertain process. The flip side of enhancing democracy is enhancing citizenship; a healthy democracy depends on active citizenship through which we go beyond our personal preferences and biases and engage in shaping our collective response to the challenges before us.
This is partly about electoral reform, as hard as that has proved, and partly about institutional reform and we have seen some of the first modest stirrings across partisan lines. It is partly about new tools, new technologies that create new possibilities for engagement, open government and networks of state and non-state actors. It is also about greater civic and social equality without which democracy cannot flourish. And it is about leadership across all sectors. If we are looking for the next big national project, why not revitalising our democracy. What could be more important – and more difficult? Export democracy? Maybe. Renew our own democracy? For sure.