BY Jim Harding
Our democracy faces serious challenges from the top down and from the bottom up. We have probably never had a federal government as hostile to freedom of information, the rule of law, scientific evidence and parliamentary democracy. The Harper regime has given government a worse name than it had before.
Its original reform rhetoric about transparency and accountability has been exposed by Omnibus bills, the senate scandal, wedge politics, attack ads and ongoing manipulations of the electoral process. This sets a very bad example for other levels of government, where the crisis in democracy also mounts. We can’t afford to see the bar lowered any further; cynicism, voter disengagement and the “tyranny of the minority” will increase unless the broader public insists on higher standards in politics and governance.
We’ll need more candid sharing of our experiences with governance. I’ve been involved with local government since the 1970s, for more than half my life. I’ve been formally involved as an elected urban councilor and presently as a village mayor. But I’ve also had other, equally valuable experiences in voluntary capacities, on local government sub-committees and heading up an inner-city community organization that regularly dealt with local government. I’ve learned a lot from those with much more experience than me, including those I’ve met at SUMA conventions.
From all angles I’ve witnessed a steady deterioration in transparency, accountability and commitment to public service. The language of positive government has steadily eroded since the 1980s, largely due to the rise in “free market” ideology and the expansion of corporate interests. The language of “self interest” and “greed” has skyrocketed. More people have entered politics to weaken the nature of government and, in some cases, to actually undercut the public interest.
This kind of politics has been advanced as though it were the way to “protect the taxpayer”; it is no accident that Prime Minister Harper once headed the Canadian Taxpayer’s Association. But rather than leading to more overall accountability, this ideology has been used to tip the balance in society in favour of large, special economic interests. Increasing inequality, decreasing political participation, and inaction on the impending climate crisis have been major outcomes.
Transparency and accountability clearly are “a must” for enhancing governance, but hypocritical appeals to these notions have been used to weaken democratic institutions. Healthcare, infrastructure renewal, environmental protection and democratic rights are all in some jeopardy. The relationship between government and the electorate has undergone detrimental changes.
BLAMING THE CITIZEN
I’ve heard some elected officials and even some public administrators blame voters for problems that actually reflect deteriorating governance. This can be seen in something as seemingly innocent as saying “if they had concerns why didn’t they come and talk to us.” Of course the relationship between “citizen” and “government” is two-sided, and the citizen must be willing to take some responsibility for engaging decision-makers; passivity is never good for democracy. However, those controlling the decisions and information must be committed to strengthening democratic processes or this won’t happen. Blaming the citizen is like blaming the victim.
The shift to a language that redefines the voter as a “consumer” has not helped. When campaigning gets reduced to advertising to a “voter’s market”, we know that we are getting close to a breaking point. The consumer orientation also reinforces a narcissistic attitude among the electorate that it’s “all about me” and not about the wellbeing of a community and this also contributes to our democratic deficit.
We can probably all find examples in our communities. Our village has not had ongoing annual general meetings where community members can get reliable information about policies and decisions which affect them. Without access to such basic information a vacuum can easily grow. This, in turn, can be filled with half-truths, which can accentuate misinformation and even disinformation. Local grapevines are no replacement for the systematic dissemination of reliable information. We know that grapevines can actually compound misinformation and unnecessarily polarize communities, and that sometimes that is the intended political objective.
It’s challenging for federal and provincial governments to consult with the grass roots, but it is not impossible. Adversarial processes within parliament and legislatures are not the best way for consultation, though these are necessary to hold governments “to account”. To its credit the Sask Party and previous NDP provincial governments have held “bear pit” sessions at annual meetings of SARM and SUMA. Of course this gives the Premier an opportunity to grandstand but delegates from local governments can still raise vital issues. If cabinet members are open-minded they can learn from this and the face-to-face exchange can enhance problem-solving.
There’s no excuse for not having similar processes at a local level. In my area there’s been little direct consultation, except around issues like heritage and community planning, where there are legal requirements to do so. And I don’t think this is atypical. And, realistically speaking, some people in politics don’t really favour face-to-face accountability but would rather hide behind their role and their ability to spin information, than report to an informed electorate.
Annual meetings in smaller communities would be a start. Information about progress on policy objectives should be readily available to voters and taxpayers. Otherwise how are residents to have something to which they can specifically hold elected officials accountable? Without such transparency how can there be informed consent when voting time arrives? How can there be real accountability?
Certainly there’s always a risk that some politicians will try to use public information in the “blame game”, but that’s no excuse for withholding information. Without transparency, it is easier to spread disinformation. Transparency and accountability simply go hand in hand. Without freedom of information some politicians are more likely to spout half-truths or outright untruths, and public cynicism about them “all being the same” will be easily reinforced. Voters need to access the “inner workings” of governance for any level of democracy to work well.
Some politics is based on people relying on special interest networks to help them get elected and re-elected, with little or no interest in being transparent and generally accountable. Name recognition, local status and backing by those holding more of the cards in the local economy can all play a part. Locally elected officials sometimes don’t even attend public meetings about community issues; I’ve even heard one politician say “these aren’t important, all that matters is who gets elected”. This shows some contempt for the electorate and for governing through open communications.
Keeping the electorate in the dark can actually be part of the political game. Some elected officials can hold such rigid views that they don’t want to be engaged with conversations that challenges their beliefs. That is exactly why we need to enhance transparency and accountability so that authoritarian politics becomes less predominant.
It is vital to remember that people don’t run for local office on party slates, though these may influence things behind the scene. There are no government and oppositional roles in local government. The mayor for example has only one vote among many and is obliged to uphold council-majority policy. While individual councilors are always free to criticize and work to change council policy, they can’t pretend that council policy doesn’t exist; that’s the rule of law. Especially at the local level of government there therefore must be a flow of reliable information between decision-makers and the voting public. If the bar is raised it will make local politics more transparent and accountable.
In Part 2, I’ll look at improving communication between voters and decision-makers, enforcement issues, and how parochial peer pressures can work against democratic accountability.