The Democratic Deficit in Canada

The Democratic Deficit in Canada

by

Howard Adelman

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:

  1. 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;
  2. Libraries for helping write policy papers were removed from the department and placed in storage;
  3. The policy unit in the department had been dissolved;
  4. 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;
  5. Social and natural scientists working for government were muzzled;
  6. Outside knowledge that could disrupt plans and priorities was excised from any input into government – such as the cancelled long form census survey;
  7. 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

Undercutting or Reinforcing Canada’s Civic Religion

Undercutting or Reinforcing Canada’s Civic Religion

by

Howard Adelman

In the previous blog, I wrote about the philosophic underpinnings of our current Canadian value system, what I call our Canadian civic religion. The positive spirit of our time and place is well expressed in the values and morals that have become dominant in Canada. They express the Absolute as revealed in our history that is articulated in the religious and moral consciousness of our age. There is possibly no better place to observe this spirit at work than at an interfaith conference held in Canada’s capital to commemorate the country’s 150th birthday as those in attendance searched for solidarity in diversity. The conference focused on Islamophobia, social inequalities, the plight of aboriginal peoples and on immigrants and refugees. In the final blog of this series, I will address the key elements of that civic religion, but today, tomorrow and the next day, I want to describe the conditions of our time that threaten it.

This past week, I attended the awards ceremony of the Donner Prize, a $50,000 award given to the best book published in Canada or by a Canadian on a public policy issue. The criteria for the award include the topicality of the issue covered, its significance (in the sense of importance) and the skill in communicating the subject matter. When the chair of the jury described the criteria and the process, he did not mention the depth, breadth and quality of the research and analysis entailed, but these factors could possibly have been included in the third criterion. A discussion of the five books on the short list offers a convenient portal to explore core Canadian values.

The five nominees for the prize, with my short form of reference included in square brackets, were:

  1. L’intégration des services en santé:une approche populationnelle[HIS – health services integration] (Yves Couturier, Lucie Bonin & Louse Belzile);
  2. Priests of Prosperity: How Central Bankers Transformed the Postcommunist World[Priests] (Juliet Johnson);
  3. A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices[Good Death] (Sandra Martin);
  4. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age[Lies] (Daniel J. Levitin);
  5. Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control[Political Branding] (Alex Marland).

 HIS is about efficiency and efficaciousness, values widely held, applied to the delivery of health services. Since it is about organization and administration rather than the values themselves, I will not discuss this book as offering a source of critical reflection on the spirit of our time.  Priests, the most thoroughly researched book, as well as the one from which most could be learned that was new, was the one I favoured for the prize. But I was the only one at my table to do so and it did not win.

Priests is not about a civic religion rooted in the practices and values of the people, but about a priest-centered one. It is about the holy of holies in a materialist society: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and, most of all, the consensus developed among Western bankers on how the globalized international economy operates and the consensual neoliberal rules governing international monetary policy. Price stability, limited inflation targets, credibility and transparency were its central idols rather than employment, growth and social security. What better way to understand the priesthood than by examining the priests of another religion, a mercantilist one, converted and indoctrinated between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 2007.

The sacrificial goats in the West were those who had to absorb the impact of obsolescence and the home owners, particularly in the United States, who found the values of their homes underwater when the U.S. asset bubble suddenly deflated and Lehman Brothers collapsed. Unlike the banks, commoners were not bailed out by the neo-economic policies of the Obama program to save the Western financial system when the crisis became full-blown in 2008. And the crisis remains with us as Europe faces one crisis after another as the 2007-08 collapse turned into a sovereign debt crisis for some members of the EU. The priestly religion had lost its absolute authority and saintly status as the two elder children of the system (a puzzle for my readers) took their own lives as martyrs to save the system but, note, not reduce the suffering.

For no longer were monetary and financial policy to be left in separate silos to prevent the former from contamination by the latter. The priests, on the defensive, blamed the crisis on excessive risk-taking in financial policies by the politicians. The high priests were not to blame but, rather, the political commoners forbidden entry to the holy of holies who stormed the holy gates and, helped by a few wayward priests who betrayed their calling by innovating and not using consensual monetary policy to reign the upstarts in, contaminated the holy of holies. The temple was not destroyed. Its ramparts were reinforced as central bankers eased up on the strict monetary code with quantitative easing and other measures.   

This book, however, unlike my treatise, is about priests and not commoners, and the conversion and indoctrination of the priests of an alien mercantilist religion in Eastern Europe. The losers and the victims in the West are not the subject of this volume. In the final chapter, the book is also about the god that failed. The result, faith in globalization, in the international priesthood and its values and norms, suffered a drastic blow. One of the results – the rise of protectionism and mercantilism along with populism in the West. Juliet Johnson does not overtly deal with the irony of this outcome in her final chapter, but it haunts that whole chapter as the effort to salvage the role of the central banks rested, not on reducing their functions, but expanding them into micro-level financial regulation and supervision, thereby politicizing the banking system and removing its immunity from day-to-day politics.

The commoners were entering the holy of holies. Donald Trump was elected on a protectionist platform. He became a partner of Vladimir Putin in the effort to resurrect mercantilism, including the kleptocracy that accompanied such policies as Trump himself had been a beneficiary of the $500 billion Russia had accumulated in foreign reserves during the oil boom. Russian money was laundered through Western capital investments. If Putin and his cronies helped Trump, then Trump would return the favour now that the Russian economy was in dire straits. In turn, the Trump brand would directly benefit from the resurrection effort and the U.S. currency as the stabilizing factor of last resort was about to be put on the altar for sacrifice in the holy of holies, thereby contaminating it forever.

The fight for control of the Holy Temple is now in full swing. It is important background to my concern with civic religion.

Four of ten people at my table voted for Good Death to win the prize, but, like HIS and Priests, it also did not win. Good Death, like most of the other books on the short list for the award, is ultimately about social ethics. The book focuses on the right to die at a time of one’s choosing in the search to find the correct balance between compassion for the suffering and protection of the vulnerable, between individual choice and social responsibility.  As Sandra Martin wrote, “Baby boomers, reared on choice and autonomy, are radically restructuring the landscape of death, not only for themselves but for their elderly patients and the children coming up behind them.”

I mention her book as the first of the three dealing with civil society values because it affirms the critical importance of the leading cohort in society changing the ethics and practices in dealing with how and when a person chooses to terminate personal suffering. For the book is more about suffering than death. A good death comes with a minimum of suffering; this is the semi-Aristotelian premise of the volume.

Choice. Autonomy. In contrast to those values, Daniel J. Levitin in Lies contrasts the bad data, half-truths and outright lies in our current information age with the need to evaluate rational arguments, assess statistical data and recognize the meanings of words used in communication. Donald Trump demonstrates daily how limiting access to information – about workplace violation of norms and corporate disregard of environmental regulations that offer the new norm – has undermined Moses’ (Obama’s) political leadership in moving towards the Promised Land. While the financial crisis seriously weakened the sacred authority of monetary policy as set by central bankers, Trump was busy attacking the legitimacy of the polis itself by deregulating its role in every field as he issues ethical wavers to allow the profiteers and outright crooks to enter the political palace.

Levitin offers up the rabbinic codes of the information age, defining the proper use of statistics and how they are to be read, the role of clear and distinct language to replace obfuscation, and the role of informal logic to construct rational arguments and spot fallacies. The book is particularly strong on statistics but somewhat weak in its discussion of language while providing a clear and concise introduction to informal logic. However, it is like reading a nostalgic longing for the enlightenment, for rationality and for the scientific method in the face of a rise in philistinism and irrationality in public discourse.

Alex Marland, in the book that won the Donner prize, took an opposite tack and focused on the Canadian polity to uncover the role of unreason and control – in contrast with Sandra Martin’s celebration of choice and autonomy – in managing information and spreading a message. But it was the most moralistic book of them all, upholding a rationalism in public discourse, not as a standard as Levitin did, but as a “rational” populist political counter to the sustained effort to desecrate autonomy and choice in favour of collective thought on a niche level and the control over what people choose.

Branding is not inherently bad. The effort in marketing and selling an idea or a product by controlling images and messages from a central point of authority offers concision, simplicity and efficacy in communication. However, in his analysis, institutional weaknesses and the current digital media environment – not illogic, innumeracy and lack of literacy – are the culprits.

 

I end with Marland’s very sincere and spontaneous acceptance speech (he was truly surprised at winning). It dwelt with how to keep the threatening ghouls away from your door. The priests, evidently, will not protect you. Neither will simple good management. Presumably, confronting the sources of irrationality with logic, statistics, logical arguments and precision in one’s use of language will not keep the zombies at bay. In the age of messaging and mass manipulation, any emphasis on choice and autonomy might be a side show. What does Marland suggest in dealing with the outright lies, distortions and distractions of Donald Trump?

Turn the messaging mechanism off whenever Trump is discussed. Become a silent and distanced protester. Spend your considerable time on helping to forge Canadian policy where, in my words, a more compatible civic religion and political institutions exist. Will heeding the voice of a superego to ensure purity and immunity from contamination save us?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman