How to Save Democracy

The system is ailing and the disease is cynicism. Perhaps the time has come for a radical new treatment
OVER THE course of tracking public opinion for twenty years, the private polls I conducted for my political clients showed that the number of Canadians who held at least a “somewhat” positive view of politicians fell from 60 percent to less than 20 percent. Today, Ipsos-Reid reports that a grand total of 9 percent of Canadians describe politicians as “extremely trustworthy.”

How is it that the people we choose to lead us are now routinely considered venal and unworthy of our following? And what does it say about our ability to choose our representatives when these are the dominant characteristics we ascribe to them?

Forget already disgraced figures such as former Privacy Commissioner George Radwanski, or Public Works Minister Alphonso Gagliano. Even the much revered and iconic Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, can’t pass the test we have set for public office-holders. Why, in the fiscal year 2002–2003 (the last full year for which complete information is available), would a government official whose responsibilities are exclusively domestic jet off to Europe on two separate trips? The answer – in both cases to attend meetings directly related to her work – is lost on those determined to reduce a stalwart defender of the public interest to just another free-spending public servant.

But the core problem is that our cynicism cultivates fertile soil for more cynicism, and if we are to save democracy, we must make a concerted effort to reverse this trend, using new methods that, to date, have been unconsidered.

Our cynicism erodes not only our faith in public figures, it also reduces their latitude to pursue good public policy and instead rewards them for pandering to the path of least public-opinion resistance.

Consider the recent case of Canada’s Health Minister, Pierre Pettigrew. A thoughtful and serious fellow, he had the temerity to suggest that we might consider exploring how the private sector could be more involved in the delivery of health care. This utterance was declared a horrendous political misstep by the press, he was dressed down by his boss, Prime Minister Paul Martin, and the possibility was summarily repudiated.

Put in context, the fact is that Pettigrew’s statement was not mere caprice. He and his department officials – and for that matter, the press, Mr. Martin, and virtually everyone else – know that Canada’s health-care system already employs private delivery of health care and probably needs, and will be relying on, more in the future. In fact, if there wasn’t such intellectual prejudice shrouding the subject, most would recognize that their general practitioners are not civil servants, their offices are not housed in public buildings, and their medical equipment is not government-issued. They are private sector, small-business people delivering publicly funded health care.

But as the electorate become more distrustful of our political leaders, we become less and less likely to extend the benefit of the doubt surrounding their motives. Decision-making paralysis sets in, the health-care system atrophies, and its deterioration becomes the evidence to support the cynical belief that the government and the political system are incapable of producing solutions to societal problems.

Is our cascading cynicism the fault of an uninformed electorate who pass judgment through a veil of unquestioning ignorance? Or is it our leaders who have lost any remaining perspective on civic virtue?

To the extent that there is any debate on this question, the consensus seems to be that if blame is to be ascribed, it should be levelled at our politicians. And through their acquiescence, attacks on one another, and their own efforts to address public accountability, our leaders seem to tacitly agree that the problem rests with them. The notion that repairing democracy is the sole purview of politicians in turn distances the electorate even further from the system that was designed to protect and advance citizens’ needs. In the end, we lose all responsibility for defending and saving democracy.

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