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Confronting Canada's "Democratic Deficit" 
Sean Moore
The Hill Times, June 10/2002

Among the trials and tribulations of being an Ottawa lobbyist these days -
and, let it be said, the agonies are many of late- is the inevitability of
being asked several times a day for one’s take on what is often termed
simply as the “Chretien-Martin thingy.” Clients, colleagues, relatives, cab drivers, barbers and eager students all seem consumed - at least on a superficial basis - by the mystery of it all. Replacing, at least temporarily, the usual interrogatories such as “How about those Leafs?” or “Any plans for the summer?” the question seems to represent less an interest in the dynamics of what led to the denouement of June 2 and more a curious searching along the lines of  “where is all this going to end?” Who knows!?

“Trench warfare in the Liberal Party,” is a pretty safe bet. But that
prognostication just seems to bum people out. The specter of ever more news accounts of coast-to-coast local brawls over party membership and
constituency executive intrigues is a guaranteed eye-glazer.

Being, for the most part, a sunny optimist, my favourite answer is: “We may
be in for a protracted debate about some central ideas about government.”
The standard response I get back is: “That would  be nice - for a change.”

Now, the sage and serious in Ottawa - those who have long experience in the struggle for the hearts and minds of party members and delegates - often hold the view that leadership contests are all about organization and
alliances. Talk of  “policy” is for sissies, except to the extent that everyone wants journalists to write about how substantive and vision-bearing
their candidate is, how their take on Canada and the world is so captivating
and exciting.

Acolytes of Paul Martin are preparing us for the advent of a series of
speeches over the next few months in which the putative prime minister will
set out his thoughts on a number of the pressing issues of our time. The
incumbent prime minister is similarly expected to launch a torrent of
propositions. (Where this leaves the likes of John Manley, Allan Rock and
other would-be contenders is anybody’s guess. Their “ideas” about the future may just be doomed to get subsumed into those of their boss.)

So, as a service to the brain trust of one or another of the contenders for
our political allegiance, allow me to throw one out.

Called to your attention is an interesting paper released recently by the
Canadian Policy Research Network, entitled Mapping the Links: Citizen
Involvement in Policy Processes. 
(Available at cprn.org)

“Whoa,” say the campaign strategists. “That’s way too wonkish for us.” Well, not so fast fellas.

Authored by Carleton University public administration professor Susan
Phillips and political scientist Michael Orsini of York University’s Glendon
College, this is an interesting take on much of what ails government and politics today, not just in Ottawa but, as well, in provincial capitals and city halls across the land. It’s about the disconnect between the governed and the governors.

Among their observations are the following:

  • MPs (and MLAs) collect useful knowledge, but have little influence on

  • Parliamentary committees are adversarial, lack resources, rely mainly on expert opinion and have little impact

  • Political parties are exclusionary and limit political discourse

  • The public service relies too much on one-way communication

  • Civil society organizations often have limited resources to participate
    fully and many are limited in their advocacy activities by government

Professors Phillips and Orsini offer an impressive analysis of what they,
and others, have come to term Canada’s “democratic deficit.” Their
assessment of what’s happened to government, politics and the policy process over the last ten years is, to this reader, an excellent tour through the  fads and fantasies, trends, forces, failed experiments and noble efforts
which have marked the evolution of how we are governed.

Gleaning from all of this material something which can be used in crafting a
marketable vision for Canada’s future will be an interesting challenge for
campaign policy advisors and speech writers but it’s one which should at
least be attempted.

And here’s an interesting place to start: Phillips and Orsini, in explaining
what they observe as a renewed interest in citizen involvement in policy and
government, see certain fundamental changes in the nature of governing and in civil society. Among them is what they and other observers have viewed as the shift from a top-down model of government to horizontal governance which is the process of governing by public policy networks including public, private and voluntary sector actors. “Whereas a traditional top-down approach emphasizes control and uniformity, horizontal governance recognizes that governments alone may not have the capacity, knowledge or legitimacy to solve complex public policy problems in a diverse society. Therefore it emphasizes collaboration and co-ordination.”

There’s a theme in there somewhere which I predict will turn up one way or
another in someone’s campaign-style speech in the months ahead.

Sean Moore is the public policy advisor with the law firm Gowling Lafleur
Henderson LLP.  He can be reached at  sean.moore@gowlings.com.   

Previous columns can be viewed at www.seanmoore.ca

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