With Parliament once again open and a new federal budget in the offing, the political spotlight returns to Ottawa. Yet disillusionment runs deep as much of the credit accruing to the Harper government for the weathering of a global economic crisis and a rapid response to Haiti’s time of need has seemingly been eroded by the proroguing of Parliament – and lingering suspicions about a Prime Minister fixated on control.
Perhaps the PM deserves some credit however for inadvertently renewing interest in our political system (a sequel to last year’s constitutional lesson). Why does a prime minister get to shut down the legislative branch on a whim, for example? And to claim that confidence votes in the House are a source of market uncertainty is to imply that democracy and markets are somehow incompatible, a misguided example of political spin if there ever was one.
Facebook thus lit up in recent weeks with discussion groups devoted to parliamentary theatre and proper and improper notions of democracy. While some of this online activity mobilized a series of cross-country protests in many Canadians cities and towns, the modest numbers probably reassured government handlers that the damage would easily be contained.
Nonetheless, poll numbers now seem increasingly volatile and the online discussions on Facebook and elsewhere are indicative of the widening cleavage between our political institutions – including and most especially political parties – and an increasingly virtual citizenry awaiting a new voice in democratic affairs. While billions are spent on infrastructure in the name of economic recovery, where, then, is the investment in our ailing democracy?
Although at first glance this would hardly seem an agenda to be championed by Mr. Harper and his Cabinet – since the goal of those with power is to keep it – the government of the day should take a second look. While an overnight transformation of parliamentary governance is no doubt to ask a bit much, a more modest and yet laudable aim would be to seek ways to spur local experimentation in new and more online dimensions of democratic infrastructure in communities and cities.
In the early days of the federal government online program, for example, an important initiative was the Smart Communities program led by Industry Canada which funded a competitive process leading to twelve showcase localities to experiment. Even many unfunded proposals went forward in some manner, spurring the sort of grassroots innovation needed.
A particularly important priority going forward should target youth and education, the implication being that a federal-provincial partnership in the democratic realm would be welcome. Rather than the standard rhetoric or more seamless service to a public deemed “customers” with little time or appetite for jurisdictional niceties, it would be refreshing to see governments collaborating in the promotion of a more robust and virtual citizenry. Still, whereas federal and provincial leadership and funding are necessary prerequisites, the ideas and learning should be bottom-up, put forth by students, schools and education boards, municipalities, and the public at large.
Canada has much to learn from Europe in this regard. The Scottish Parliament has supported the creation of a youth parliament and the creation of e-democracy experiments for young people within schools, and the European Union is an aggressive promoter and investor in local initiative. The seeds of change must first be planted locally as has been the case with tentative steps toward internet voting. As the appetite widens for more meaningful democratic reform, both online and offline, our national institutions should be viewed as the endgame rather than a point of departure.
Indeed, a cautionary note from recent history: the Smart Communities initiative dispensed sixty million dollars over three years across twelve communities, a sum that pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions spent on upgrading and showcasing the federal government’s own service apparatus. Millions more have since been spent on television ads lauding the economic recovery effort, as well as the usual messaging by Service Canada and Canada Revenue Agency among others.
Accordingly, municipal and provincial leaders must also do their part in moving beyond the narrow obsession of securing more federal funding for traditional infrastructure. While the recent fixation with shovel ready projects is understandable in light of the recent economic contraction, a widening body of research and knowledge suggests that economic and democratic innovation are increasingly intertwined.
In a digital society that values openness and participation, those jurisdictions – at all levels – most able to leverage the collective intelligence of a fully engaged citizenry shall be those best able to nurture innovation and sustainable prosperity. Federalism affords opportunities for decentralized and shared learning, though at present such opportunities are stunted by a polity shaped by a national-centric television media and overly centralized fiscal capacities. A bottom-up democratic recovery effort is urgently required.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).