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Our Politicians Are Failing Us. Here's What We Need to Do

01/18/2015 05:25 EST | Updated 03/20/2015 05:59 EDT

2015 is an important year for Canadians. Sometime before the end of the year we will have a general election to elect a new Parliament and Government of Canada.

Yet, more and more Canadians, especially younger ones, dismiss politics as a boring and outdated struggle amongst elite political operatives seriously out-of-sync with the rhythm of modern times.

I can understand the skepticism, and outright cynicism, that people feel about national politics. Our democracy is under siege, not just from the current Conservative government, but also from the extreme consolidation of executive power that will continue - whatever the outcome of the next election -- unless Canadians start engaging and fighting back.

Because, despite our widespread cynicism and distrust of politicians, we have to mobilize to demand more from those who seek public office, and then get the vote out to see our values and issues better reflected in our Parliament and government.

While we may tune out national politics, huge numbers of us are active every single day with civil society groups and organizations that contribute to the well-being of the nation, especially where it concerns the struggling and disenfranchised.

As well, social networks' participatory power and our unfettered access to data are transforming politics -- and democracy itself. Political influence is shifting away from brokers and elites, and back to the people. Cyber-powered democracy is becoming the means of making known to our elected representatives our most pressing issues and concerns.

This shift highlights a troubling paradox: We have more information and data than ever about the critical challenges we face - whether environmental, economic, social, or geopolitical. Yet at the same time, we have less confidence than ever in our politicians' ability to deliver steady, trustworthy and visionary leadership to confront such challenges.

Canadians are deeply cynical about the capacity of politicians to set aside short-term self-interest and act in the long-term national interest. One of many examples of this dereliction of national duty is the failure to deal definitively and effectively with the needs of Aboriginal peoples. Our country has much unfinished work in this area and it must start with establishing a lasting and constructive partnership with Aboriginal peoples.

Another example is political foot-dragging on the growing threat of climate change. If ever there was an issue that highlights the discontinuity between short-term political thinking and the need for action to benefit future generations, this is it. But the disconnect between citizens and politicians creates less collective ability to build the consensus and unity of purpose needed to support urgent long-term action on behalf of all Canadians, present and future.

Canadians understand more clearly than our leaders the challenges we face. For most of us, the challenges start at home where the Canadian dream of equal access to opportunity is a mirage. We see only two groups. There are those at the top benefiting from advantages in background, wealth, valuable connections and access to higher education that lead to higher wages. And then there is a steadily increasing pool of relatively disadvantaged persons who are all too likely to be trapped at the lower-end of the low-wage economy.

Over time, this social polarization is a recipe for disaster. The only question that needs answering is how -- not whether -- we will take concrete collective action to change the diminishing prospects for an increasing number of Canadians.

Our established national parties, however, are too slow to adapt to these new realities, to recognize that citizens, not just the brokers within closed party hierarchies, will soon have the definitive power to set political agendas.

My detour through partisan politics has strengthened my growing belief that our existing political party system is highly unlikely to be reformed from within. The current elites and power-brokers are unable to adapt to the networked, non-hierarchical world that has so much potential to support a dynamic democracy. They cannot see beyond politics as a kind of leader-centred sport, secretive and controlled, focused on the next election instead of Canada's interests over the long-term.

Rather than think outside the box, tear down old structures and focus on engaging Canadians in informed conversations about ideas, choices and reasonable compromises, we are presented with short-term Band-Aid solutions, pandering to superficiality instead of principle. Hence the lazy cultivation of the star candidate -- promised easy rides though nominations by the leader's entourage -- hoping to rally voters however fleetingly on election day around a familiar personality, instead of around an inspiring long-term plan of action that would support much broader-based mobilization.

Canadians need to get off the sidelines and take back the initiative to shape Canada's future from self-serving political machines. How can the energy, skills, and grassroots experience and insights of our country's many existing citizen-based mobilization efforts be converted into effective political power?

At least part of the answer is to choose to support the most thoughtful, principled and ethical candidates for election -- regardless of political party affiliation. But these representatives must be clearly committed to the significant transformative change over the long-term that is so essential to restore public confidence in our democratic processes.

Far better to elect a Parliament, riding by riding, with more trustworthy Elizabeth Mays and Brent Rathbergers, than seek the ephemeral holy grail of the mythical leader herding his flock of docile MPs to the nirvana of political power with a platform of empty rhetoric and bromides.

In 2015, we need to begin by demanding specific commitments from individual candidates with respect to the implementation of specific democratic reforms as a matter of the highest priority in the next Parliament: Replace the first-past-the post electoral system; abolish or reform the Senate; impose legal limits on executive power and the Prime Minister's Office; restore power to Parliament and the people.

We must insist on the details not generalities.

• Establish limits on the PM's power to shut down Parliament by prorogation; new rules for the summoning and dissolution of Parliament; transference of the power of the PM to make public service appointments to an arms-length Public Appointments Commission, together with a fully-independent appointment process for judicial and quasi-judicial appointments, subject to a meaningful parliamentary confirmation process.

• Establish limits on the PM's power to appoint a seemingly infinite number of political staffers, and to manipulate and sidestep the vital work of parliamentary committees as the "primary forums for legislative review, administrative scrutiny and accountability."

• Require more free votes and put an end to crass political advertising paid for by taxpayers.

• Provide Elections Canada with the unequivocal mandate to stop voter suppression and encourage citizen engagement at all levels, including reform and supervision of the candidate nomination process on behalf of all political parties.

Clearly there is no quick fix to the current democratic deficit. But one fundamental point is clear. We must stop looking to "the leader" for every answer and demand more of ourselves, civil society, and each candidate for election to the House of Commons.

It is time for all Canadians to get off the sidelines. Democracy will not work if you sit back and let things happen. Complacency is dangerous. It is time to take back Canada -- One Canada for all Canadians.

[For more on the need for a new ethic of government and citizenship, see my post on "Trading Apathy for Action." I wrote it almost 5 years ago, yet sadly it could have been written yesterday, which I submit makes its message all the more urgent.]

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