Taking Back Our Democracy: Welcome to Leadnow.ca

This post has been published in The Mark News as “The Democracy We Deserve”

As we watch events unfold in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as the media chronicle acts of extraordinary courage in the face of grotesque brutality, I expect many of us —  inspired, hopeful, uncertain — are led to reflect on things here at home.  For me, at least, this has meant a recognition of our own very good fortune accompanied, at the same time, by worry about our increasingly enfeebled democracy and perhaps too some shame that we don’t seem able to muster the will to do anything about it.

A consensus is indeed emerging in much of the developed world that both our democracy and civil society are weaker today than, say, a decade ago.  Politics and public service are no longer honoured vocations – though they must be.  Citizens are less inclined to vote or to join political parties or to pay taxes.  Young people in particular have turned away from our conventional political institutions. Parties are in disarray trying to find ways to reconnect to voters.  The bonds of trust between citizen and government have come undone and the trust between us as citizens seems to be fraying as politics increasingly polarize and divide.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, heading a Conservative-Liberal Coalition, has pronounced his society “broken”:  too many people are excluded entirely from economic opportunity and political participation and a gaping chasm now exists between the government and the people.  Scholars and pundits worry increasingly about the depletion of social capital and the loss of “mutuality”.

While we may quibble about details and degree, thinkers across the political spectrum are writing and talking more and more about the risks of this deterioration and the possible remedies to it.  But while we might find convergence on the diagnosis, there is nothing close to consensus on the causes and remedies.

Some find the source of decay in the expansion of government into every aspect of our lives and the increasing centralization and bureaucratization that make government more and more remote from and inaccessible to us.  Even neoliberalism failed to deliver a smaller more accessible state; protecting the market, it turns out, is pretty expensive and quite intrusive.  So Australian John Keane has pronounced the death of representative democracy and the difficult birth of a new “monitory democracy” whose shape and capacity to deliver results is yet to be determined.

Some find the source in creeping authoritarianism, especially in the context of the “war on terrorism” and the expanding security state seeking to become omniscient and omnipresent.  Have a look at the recent piece by Linda McQuaig here and an older piece by Chris Selley here.

Others see the source in the unconstrained rise of individualism and consumerism, fed particularly by a neoliberal ideology that defines us – and treats us – entirely in terms of our self-interest, and views mutuality and interdependence as constraints to freedom.  In this frame, we become consumers and workers – not citizens.  Whatever one thinks of Cameron’s “Big Society” initiative, his concern that society is broken seems so much healthier than Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement that there is no such thing as society, reflecting the dangerously atomised view of humanity that has prevailed ever since.  So republican theorists such as Michael Sandel now wonder, in the face of the hollowing out of civil society, how we might begin to rebuild a sense of the common good and the civic virtue necessary for its pursuit.

Yet others see the real problem as the intolerable growth of inequality over the last decades that has no equal since the twenties and thirties, before the great depression.  Then, as now, social trust and democracy were undermined as inevitably too was the capacity to develop a shared sense of the public good. So we now have thinkers as diverse as Francis Fukuyama and Bill Moyers worrying about plutocracy, and we are confronted every day by new evidence of how money shapes politics.

My own bias is that all these explanations have merit, that the task of revitalising our democracy is formidable and will involve, at least,  electoral and institutional reform, reinventing and opening up government, putting the brakes on the rise of the security state, and tackling the unsupportable growth in inequality.  But I fear that we are in something of a catch 22.  These changes won’t happen from the inside and it is not clear that we have the civic will or energy to drive them from the outside.

Aaron Wherry is running a terrific series on whether our Parliament matters and what we might do to make it matter more.  The short answer, I would propose,  is that it matters only as much as our Parliamentarians  actually want to achieve anything and only to the extent that they are willing to openly debate the big issues on our behalf.  It is fascinating and sort of horrifying to hear the complaints of some departing members of Parliament about how powerless and alienated they felt, unable to represent their constituents or to  escape the narrow confines of party discipline.  It seems that Parliament cannot find the courage to be relevant on its own.  While political parties may be losing their hold on Canadians, they continue to shape our democratic institutions.  And the gap between the government and the people simply continues to grow.

Preston Manning recently wrote an insightful piece on the limits of political parties and the importance of an independent civil society. Political parties, Manning says,  too easily become machines designed only for winning, more skilled at identifying and avoiding risk than at developing public policy.  Parties increasingly treat us not as citizens but as consumers.  It’s easier.  Rather than engaging us in honest but risky debates, they market themselves, pandering to our preferences, feeding our prejudices, and smearing their opponents.  Manning argues that grassroots social movements are key to getting unstuck.  They are, he says, an essential element of our “democratic infrastructure” and have been at the heart of most important social and political change here and throughout the world.  He has a point. Big change involves risk and difficult trade offs, exactly what governments prefer to avoid and political parties typically duck.

Put simply, we only get Parliament that matters if citizens force the issue.  Absent an engaged and independent civil society, we get the politics of banality and brutality, pretending that we can balance the books without real sacrifice, that climate change will right itself, that crime policies that have never worked anywhere will make us safer, and that there’s just not much we can do about growing inequality so why talk about it.  And here lies the Catch-22: Citizens become further disenchanted; elections and parties lose their hold.  And we stay stuck, unable even to begin to address the big issues.

Of course,  not all grassroots movements serve to strengthen democracy.  The Tea Party, for example, seems less a movement than a crowd of isolated individuals held together, if at all, by fear and resentment and a sterile notion of freedom that denies their responsibilities to one another.  Such movements inevitably divide the world into villains and victims, those in the light and those in the darkness, and, in so doing,  stifle debate and contrary information and undermine both democracy and civil society.

We in Canada don’t really have any equivalent to the Tea Party, notwithstanding a few pretenders here and there.  Our political culture – its traditions of pragmatism, civility, tolerance, peaceful resolution of conflict, and mutual aid – may inhibit the rise or at least spread of such anti-everything movements.  But here too we see signs of decline in civil society, in voting certainly, but in joining and engaging too.  Our voluntary sector seems weaker than in the past and more dependent on government.  Certainly we have our share of dedicated people joining together for a healthier, more equal and sustainable future but there hasn’t been the take-up we saw in previous decades for such public issues.  Public space has shrunk and many of us seem to have retreated into our private milieux.

So how do we break out?  Surely, sooner or later, we will say “enough”.  Surely, sooner or later, we will stop waiting for inspiration from a new political saviour.  Sooner or later, we will say we cannot simply stand and watch.  We are talking more these days about democracy.  We seem increasingly to understand that however fortunate we may be, we cannot afford to be complacent.  And, most important, some Canadians, often young Canadians, are getting involved, increasingly taking responsibility, not waiting for our political leaders or political parties, both locally and globally, independent of government, to do what they can to make things better.

But if we are to make our democracy stronger, we need new forms of association, new ways to engage citizens in defining the Canada they want and the options for getting there and for making our democracy work.   Any such grassroots initiatives will have to meet particular challenges in Canada: our diversity means we won’t find our answers by trying to impose a singular notion of what it means to be Canadian; our geography requires that we harness new technologies to complement traditional forms of engagement; and what we ask of citizens must recognize that, for many, time is squeezed and opportunities to participate are limited.   And if these new approaches are to elevate our democracy,  they  must lift us beyond our personal preferences, prejudices and resentments and engage us in addressing the real challenges we face together.  And that means that they must be built on a foundation of democratic values and a belief in the possibility of progress.  We will not find our path in nostalgia for the past, complacency about the present or cynicism about the future,

Leadnow.ca is a new initiative in democratic association designed to address precisely these concerns, drawing on the surprising energy of a few committed young Canadians, open to people from every region and sector, and offering a chance to chart the Canada they want, and to act in concert to pursue that agenda. It is creating opportunities across all regions and sectors to debate the moral choices, assess the evidence, and then work together to create change, to get the ideas that matter on the political agenda.  Leadnow.ca continues to see government as a force for good so long as an engaged citizenry pushes it to focus on the needs of Canadians and the future of Canada.

Their message: now is the time for citizens to lead.  Whether or not we find the will to get engaged, we will get the democracy we deserve.

17 Responses to “Taking Back Our Democracy: Welcome to Leadnow.ca”
  1. Gary Shaul says:

    Excellent analysis. There also seems to be a growing trend for politicians to refer to citizens strictly as “taxpayers” in public and “voters” in private.

    Leadnow.ca has an ambitious, forward looking vision to engage citizens, with a focus on younger people, in politics.

    “now is the time for citizens to lead.”

    The Catch 22 Harper Conservatives campaign is an attempt to do just that in the next election. While the problems described above are not exclusively the fault of the Conservatives, they are taking Canada in directions that are antithetical to the values of most. Defeating the Conservatives is just the beginning. Catch 22 is an independent, grassroots group with members across the country spanning all political parties and none. Our main area of focus is on exposing Harper’s abuse of democratic principles and practices for partisan gain.

    We have targeted a number of electoral ridings in which we think Conservatives can be either defeated or blocked. We hope to also educate voters about how the current voting system needs reform in order to become voter-centric instead of party-centric. Our hope is that strategic voting campaigns, like our own, will become unnecessary in the future with the introduction of a modern, proportional voting system.

    But until then, we’re stuck with the cards that the parties have dealt us – first past the post. We intend to help defeat Conservatives, one riding at a time – despite the opposition parties by communicating directly with voters about the stakes in the next election and the importance of their informed participation.

  2. Hello Alex,

    Your analysis would benefit from more emphasis on: the problem of corporations in Government. All the reforms in the world will have little effect if we don’t get back to a separation of powers between the state and corporations.

    From your time in Government I think you will know, Alex, that there is far too much “government in the corporate interest”. I call it corporatocracy. It started back in the early 80’s with Michael WIlson (Finance Minsiter under Mulroney) and his promotion of public-private-partnerships. The mantra has continued through Liberal and Conservative Governments since then.

    The “partnerships” undermine democracy. Corporations go unregulated and the public interest is subverted. Government funding criteria now includes that projects will have “the potential for commercilaization” and “partnered” funding.

    The public interest does not have “the potential for commercialization”.

    The revolving door between business and government spins freely.

    Not-to-be tolerated conflicts of interest are covered by “memorandums of understanding” between the Govt and the employee. Witness the CFIA (Ag Canada) with its scientists, full-time Govt employees who do paid work for CropLife Canada (lobbyists for the biotech corps) . Government employees on the payroll of the corporations they are supposed to be regulating. They receive a lot of money from the Corporations.

    I don’t wish to cast stones, but it needs to be on the table: this was on-going while you were Clerk of the PCO. Lots of public money was funneled to Monsanto for example. The public will related to genetically-modified organisms was never debated nor were efforts to stop them honoured; the benefits were solely for the biotech corporatiuons.

    Then there were the Lodkheed Martin contracts (Canadian census, etc.).

    Yes, the system is badly broken.

    I hope this new initiative of LEAD NOW will bring about change. It is good that it starts with VALUES (corporate or utilitarian versus humanitarian).

    But there will be no reform until we get the corporations out of Government and back to being regulated. Fortunately, there is a large movement in the U.S. (and in Canada) to change the legislation that defines the corporations.

    We also must mandate an end to indicators such as GDP that are a sad and inadequate measure of waste created, but paraded as a measure of “progress”. Also in the corporate interest.

    I am encouraged by the young people. If I may be quite frank: because of your time in the very influential PCO that has over-seen the transformation from democracy to corporatocracy (Harper is continuing what was established before he took over the reins), I am worried about your participation in this re-generation process. Sorry to say. But call a spade a spade. /Sandra

  3. Michael Bednarski says:

    Thank for writing such a wonderful piece.

    I hesitate to call Canada “a democracy.” In terms of voting, I feel disenfranchised. I feel that my vote does not count no matter which party or candidate I may support. When all the votes are tabulated, we can end up with a false majority government with increasingly autocratic leaders. Why should I feel engaged with Parliament and our so-called government representatives when they are not able to engage a dialogue with me unless they get permission from their autocratic leader. Autocracy, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, and régime: these are words that I did not hear in general conversation years ago about Canadian politics. These terms did not originate with our current prime minister. However, Stephen Harper has made Canadians feel more comfortable using these words when describing our political system and prime minister.

    Does it matter if I vote in the next federal election? Perhaps yes; perhaps no. I probably will not be voting as my vote will likely be wasted. I view Canadian elections as being not fair. Therefore, they are not democratic in my opinion. It does matter if I do not vote because in the long run, I will likely be disengaged from political and civil society. Will I care if Canadian soldiers come home from Afghanistan dead or wounded? Probably not. They will be fighting on behalf of Canada’s autocracy. Will I care if the prime minister makes a plea for citizens’ help in a time of need such as a natural or “man”-made disaster? I doubt it. A decline in democracy and a rise in autocracy will lead to both political and civic disengagement.

    We definitely do need a commitment from Canadian citizens to engage in an exercise in building democracy. Perhaps we can create our own democratic charter movement and create a declaration of democracy. What would it mean to have democracy in Canada? How do we get there?

  4. Andrew Udell says:


    A pretty good summary, but for an unessecary (and partisan) backhand at Tea Party.

    People advocating their own aspirations appear to be unpalatable to you – but only because it appears you disagree with their views. Democracy can be inelegant.

    In totality, the lack of courage and character of MP’s – and the complete insertion of the Party as the mechanism for power – is the reason for our maliase.

    One day, this nation will mature. Sadly, I don’t expect it in my lifetime.

  5. Jim says:

    Well said Alex. It feels like the time is right for this kind of grassroots initiative. It’s one thing when people get fed up, it’s another thing when people who care get fed up and decide it’s up to them/us to do something about it. I’m curious to see how Leadnow will take shape.

  6. Thank you Alex, very interesting discovery.

    True, there is a sharp decline in civil society but I remain more concerned about a “selected decline in civil society”. High dependence on government funding has allowed various governments (federal and provincial) to shape and influence to a certain extent the “growth” or “decline” of certain sectors of civil society. Nowadays, environmental groups, refugee protection groups, minority representation, etc are much weaker than they once were and business forums, religious groups, Western Canada civil institutions, etc are much stronger and influential. Without saying whether this is good or bad, I remain concerned that we seem to quietly accept that fact perhaps until we start believing that the current equilibrium of power in civil society is normal, has always been like this and reflects the preoccupations of all Canadians. Leadnow may offer an alternative using the communication possibilities at our disposal now. We recently witnessed what such technologies could do in North Africa and the Middle East and it gave us an “avant-goût” of their potential. To be watched closely.

  7. Dave says:

    I enjoyed the thought provoking article and also the comments which were well articulated.

    I’d have to agree with Sandra about the necessity of understanding the role of the corporations in our current mess, and think the term ‘corporatocracy’ is accurate.

    With this view then, I’d like to find out more about a movement you describe: “But there will be no reform until we get the corporations out of Government and back to being regulated. Fortunately, there is a large movement in the U.S. (and in Canada) to change the legislation that defines the corporations.”

    I haven’t found anything online yet. Can you lead me in the right direction?


  8. Megan Slobodin says:

    This resonated strongly with me, and articulated some of the sadness I feel when I view the Canadian political landscape. You have described so aptly the malaise that affects the grassroots of our society, as though our attention have been drawn elsewhere into superficial distractions while fundamental changes in our society have been shifting outside our periphery. We need to nurture and promote small “p” political activism and citizen engagement, particularly among our young adult children who simply cannot let themselves become as complacent with materialism as their parents became if they are to reshape and redefine our society. Thank you for this.

  9. André says:

    Bonjour Alex, here is another interesting tool. Vote Compass is an online tool that helps voters to make a quick assessment outlining how one’s individual opinions on policy compare with each of the election platforms. You will probably find it too simplistic, but its main purpose is to help improving electoral literacy. This instrument was used in 30 different countries. It was adapted by a group scholars in the field of electoral politics to be used in the upcoming Canadian federal election. Professors André Blais (Université de Montréal), Elisabeth Gidengil (McGill University), Richard Johnston (University of British Columbia) and Neil Nevitte (University of Toronto) have oversaw the design of the tool… http://federal.votecompass.ca/

    Really interesting blog by the way. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


  10. Patrick says:

    Is it possible forLlead Now to collect donations to assemble a reward for any information leading to the arrest of the person behind Pierre Poutine?

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