The Democratic Deficit in Canada
Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control [Brand] (Alex Marland)
Brand won the Donner Prize of $50,000 from a very distinguished jury. Brand is many books in one. First and foremost, it is a manual of government public relations for the digital age. Second, it is a history of the development and use of that manual by the Government of Canada, overwhelmingly the Stephen Harper regime, with some short excursions into the behavior of the Justin Trudeau. Third, it is an interpretation of causation in history, more specifically, that the characteristics of the digital age determined a specific outcome, radically changing the Canadian political culture. Fourth, and certainly not final, for that is my main interest, it is a portrait of Marland’s interpretation of Canadian political culture set against his enunciation of the norms of western democracy. Measured against those norms, the book is a depiction of the Canadian democratic deficit.
By far the largest part of the book is about the first and second topics. However, I start with the last item, the conception of democracy itself and a democratic culture, a topic about which the author gives very short shrift (46-53), surprising in a book that uses democratic norms to assess and evaluate the communications culture of a specific democracy, that of Canada. However, this may not be so surprising since the book is only about a specific aspect of democracy, the efforts of politicians, political parties and governments to reach an audience of voters made up of disparate parts.
Those parts consist of the following: partisans; deliberators; single issue voters and hands on voters, the latter singularly and largely ignored in the digital age and ignored in this book as well, though they constitute as much as 15% of the electorate but are not reached by marketing, but by establishing a direct connection between the candidate and the voter. Hands on voters do not vote based either on ideas or ideology, at one end of the spectrum, or the power of advertising persuasion on the other.
Marland deals with partisans only in generic terms, sometimes regarding each voter as a tabula rasa whose loyalty and support, commitment and trust must be won and solidified through messaging. At other times, he seems to regard their dispositions and commitments as being bred in the bone. He does not sub-divide Conservative partisans into free-enterprise voters versus community conservatives, two groups which populate and divide the Conservative Party of Canada, or into self-interested voters who determine which party matches their specific individual needs and interests, a group divided between the Liberals and the New Democratic Party in Canada and representing the largest bulk of voters. Deliberative voters swing between and among parties and are usually branded as independents. The Green Party had been a single-issue party appealing to voters conscious that climate change is the most important topic on any political agenda, but, more recently, making a strenuous effort to broaden its appeal. There are other voters concerned with a wide range of other specific issues – abortion, LGBT rights, etc.
These connections are usually established by symbols and brands, in this case, the party names: Conservative, Liberal, Green and New Democratic. As parties, they are concerned with access to and performance by voters during elections (turnout and voting) and maintaining trust and, therefore, loyalty during the interval between elections. As an analyst, Marland is concerned with the values that ought to govern the relations between parties and government and their supporters – access to their representatives and transparency about what they do. Given his focus, Marland does not really discuss constitutions and laws, legislation and governance, except one key condition of representation and governance – communications – a necessary ingredient by means of which a democratic government, as distinct from other forms (tyrannies), earns and maintains its support, authority and legitimacy.
The means to do so rather than the definition of the common good preoccupies him, though one good is presumed – an informed electorate. What effect do government structures and practices, particularly current forms of communication, have on the relationship between citizens and their government? For Marland, the idea of a member of parliament simply representing the interests of his constituents is an allusion to a nostalgic past that may never even have existed. MPs have become “vital regional sales reps” in a system run by means of unrelenting centralized media management.
Party whips ensure members toe the line whatever their constituent concerns, speakers are given time limits, and the role of question period has become less relevant. MPs have less rather than greater access to data and documents. The power of committees has been reduced as partisanship became the order of the day; representatives are portrayed as no more than lemmings unable to speak freely to their constituents or the media. The role of the legislature is reduced as the status of the executive, especially the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO), has been enhanced so that there are fewer sitting days and prime ministers and their cabinet members feel less obligated to face their peers in the House. The use of blogs and tweets by party members is highly controlled, a charge for which Marland provides little evidence. Communication strategies “embolden” tribalism rather than representative responsible government. As a result, trust in government in general has waned.
In a fundamental contradiction that runs through the book, this dystopic democracy is painted as, at one and the same time, an inevitable result of the new technology and as a failure of democratic leadership. Marland is both a causal necessitarian about history and a hectoring superego on the body politic given that control of the message now has such enormous consequences when a member “goes off message.” MPs have been reduced to the puppets of a ventriloquist.
Marland does offer one ray of hope – Gordon Chong’s Bill C-586 amending the Canada Elections Act and the Parliament of Canada Act giving the leader much less control and the member more opportunity to express him/herself, though Marland insists that the proof will be in the practices that result. However, the overwhelming mood of the volume is pessimism stemming from his adherence to the Innis-McLuhan thesis that “technology is the driver of social organization.” Further, with the development of electronic and visual communications, these forces have become more pervasive, more powerful and more potent.
In the next blog, I will take up the issue of whether his analysis of those tools of communication, the techniques used to employ them and their impacts determine political structures or whether his analysis is much more a reflection of the Harper government in Canada from which he derived the bulk of the content of his book. My own direct experience suggests the latter since much of the process of centralization had very little to with messaging and a great deal to do with control.
My main example is a proposal we submitted to amend existing migration policy. Rather than initiating a new program, we had proposed to take in refugees to replace temporary skilled workers. In the “old” days, the change would have taken less than a week for the minister to approve. We were informed that because it was so palatable to the government, it would be approved, but still would take four months. For every change had to be approved in the PMO. Eighteen months later, there was neither an approval nor rejection.
The process was particularly galling since the change, one tested in both Halifax and Calgary, would deliver a quadruple hit with only positive upsides. Business support existed and would grow because it was a program preferred by business which could do better long term training and planning at even less cost. Projecting a humanitarian face for the Harper government would certainly have been a result, and a needed one. At the same time, private sponsors eager to help the refugees could be satisfied instead of having to wait, sometimes more than a year, for the entry of those privately-sponsored refugees. The tweak to the existing program would also provide a back door to exit the unskilled temporary work program that had become such an embarrassment for the government.
Let me offer other examples, most also all based on direct experience wikth the Harper government:
- At the same time as the above, we were informed that ALL approvals, even for the purchase of more paperclips, had to go through the PMO, and that it took weeks even for miniscule authorizations;
- Libraries for helping write policy papers were removed from the department and placed in storage;
- The policy unit in the department had been dissolved;
- In a policy paper that I had been involved in writing, we were asked to excise the word “Syrian” because that term was anathema to the PM;
- Social and natural scientists working for government were muzzled;
- Outside knowledge that could disrupt plans and priorities was excised from any input into government – such as the cancelled long form census survey;
- I was also told, though I have not verified this, that civil servants were booking off sick days in record numbers; this was explained in terms of the impotence forcefully introduced into the civil service with a resultant pervasive depression when initiative was severely discouraged.
I could go on offering other examples, but most of the above have nothing to do with controlling a message and everything to do with our former PM being a control freak. What struck me in reading the book, and contrary to Marland’s insistence that he had been politically neutral, is that while he, like Tom Flanagan, whom he credits as an essential guide, was totally distressed by the huge democratic deficit that had been created, he seemed to want to find the Conservative Party innocent by removing any significant blame from Harper and placing it on the demands and drives of changing technology. In that way, the Liberals and Conservatives would be painted with the same brush while Marland preserved his superego standards intact.
There is a way of testing whether my hunch is correct or false, but that requires reviewing the tools and techniques available in the digital age, how they are used, and the impacts of both on government structures, organization and policies. This is the task I will take up tomorrow.
With the help of Alex Zisman