As this column goes to print (literally or online as the case may be), most readers are hopefully captivated by the Olympic spirit, as Canada showcases Vancouver and Whistler, not to mention our talented athletes, to the world. Some may also be breathing a sigh of relief that Parliament has been abandoned – or rather prorogued for the first and second months of the new year – thereby sparing the world the embarrassing spectacle of daily Question Period.
Or perhaps most Canadians simply did not notice Parliament’s absence. After all, the public service continues to function and the Prime Minister and (some of) his Cabinet remain visible. The media universe is consumed with important global events ranging from the good (i.e., the Olympics) to the less so (the ongoing battle with terrorism, the resulting loss of life, and the precarious balance between personal freedom and collective security). Who has time for politics?
But to frame the question in this manner is to miss the point. The problem is not politics per se, but rather the Westminster brand of partisan bickering that has come to define the political theatre known as the House of Commons. In the face of tough scrutiny over important issues such as the treatment of Afghan detainees (that in turn carries repercussions for our own brave personnel stationed there), the governance of the RCMP, and the dispersing of stimulus funds (to name but a few), Prime Minister Harper opted simply to bring down the curtain. Show over – at least for now, and ideally for the Conservatives, until a wave of nationalistic pride stemming from Olympic success sweeps the nation.
In terms of crass political calculus, the strategy is probably not bad, but the reasons stem less from government’s ability to hide – almost impossible in today’s digital universe – and more from the public’s growing disdain or indifference, both detrimental to democracy, for what transpires on Parliament Hill.
At least without the media focal point of the House of Commons, government spinsters stand a better chance of shaping the message, all while the opposition is relegated to the sidelines (and beyond while the Olympics take centre stage).
Still, reporters continue to probe, bloggers do their part to expose secrets and shape opinions, and an increasingly connected citizenry remains well informed and thus reasonably able to pronounce on who is best able to govern when the next election rolls around. So what’s the problem?
There are two actually: the first is how our present institutional regime enables those in power to marginalize what little review and oversight exists; and the second, more fundamental, is the loss of conversation and structured debate that informs and ultimately determines key public policy decisions surrounding and shaping our future.
The first requires little elaboration beyond the well documented culture of secrecy and communication that pervades the political apparatus and the central agencies enjoining it and the public service. The latest exposure of this inwardness is a thoughtful piece by Gil Shochat in the current issue of The Walrus Magazine entitled “The Dark Country.”
One notable aspect of this piece is the particularly acute weakness of the Westminster model relative to the U.S. presidential system where at the very least the president and his cabinet face a legislative branch with formal oversight powers beyond their direct purview. A case in point: President Obama promised health care reform, but only Congress could deliver the specifics however imperfect they may be.
The result is that along with widespread public debate, elected officials actually played an important role in the legislative process, and though it may not always have been pretty and free of partisan divides, a conversation on the future of health nonetheless ensued. On climate change, more bipartisan coalitions will determine U.S. policy – and the results matter greatly to Canadians since our government has effectively outsourced our thinking on this topic to the Americans.
Therein lies the second and more fundamental weakness plaguing democratic governance as dictated by the Westminster parliamentary model: namely the absence of a forum and set of mechanisms to house and nurture forward-looking conversation. Much like twitter, partisan bickering in the House of Commons is centred on the present. While not unimportant in keeping the government in check (when Parliament is sitting), it cannot suffice.
A few well-intended MP’s have indeed pointed to new media tools such Blackberries as the culprits, proposing their banishment from parliamentary proceedings in order to limit the loss of civility that living – and tweeting – in the present can bring. Yet attempting to thwart the tide of technology will do little to salvage the credibility and workability of outdated institutions. More profound renewal is required.
What is striking about the e-government landscape in Canada is the near total focus on the service delivery and customer mentality – at the expense of a more engaged citizenry. By engaged, the litmus test goes beyond being well informed and able to vent on matters of the day, thereby entrenching one’s views and making compromise more elusive.
New conversational mechanisms must be forged to better link and funnel digital debate into a structured political discourse. Customers focus on their needs and wants today whereas citizens deliberate on the possibilities of tomorrow. In the latter realm, Canada’s digital performance continues to wane.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).