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Trudeau's Broken Electoral Reform Promise A Revolt Waiting To Happen

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In 2017 we will slowly adapt to the new normal of an outrageously uninformed American president who uses Twitter as a channel not just for random thoughts, but also for governance. As Donald Trump upends the rules-based liberal international order and recklessly ignores the rule of law, it is impossible to predict where we may be a year or even a month from now on the spectrum of "illiberal democracy."

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ont., Canada, Feb. 14, 2017. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Trump's election is simply the most obvious manifestation of the serious deterioration of representative democracy apparent in many of the world's established democracies. Executive rule, at all levels of government, has never been so strong, while responsive and responsible governance has never been so weak.

The tragedy is that we have reached this nadir of representative democracy when we are experiencing peak economic insecurity and anxiety. This affects all generations -- the 50-year-old factory worker as much as the 30-year-old millennial. The frontiers of biological, physical and digital systems are expanding at unprecedented speeds. Disruptive technological advances -- from artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things to self-driving vehicles and 3D printing -- are wreaking havoc on the labour market and our ability to hold down decent jobs at decent incomes.

So just at the point when we need creative and responsive governance to manage multiple challenges, we have leaders reducing complex issues to catchy slogans and tweets. Too many citizens see a frustratingly persistent gap across a wide range of issues between our aspirations and the capacity of any of our governments to respond. At best, we have governments settling for half-measures carefully curated and driven out through fragmented social media channels, all with an eye to the next election. At worst, we have a citizens' revolt, a Donald Trump is elected who proceeds to press the control-alt-delete buttons, and we are set up for another sterile cycle of cynicism and polarization.

Many Canadians like to think that a Donald Trump could not happen here.

In both the United States and Canada, broad-based political parties have lost their vibrant grassroots community bases, and along with them any meaningful outlet for principled public participation and their mediating brokerage role in building consensus around long-term action. Instead, party leaders and their entourages have centralized power and created top-down organizations that serve primarily as their 24/7 election machines. Executive-controlled parties lead to top-heavy governments that are guided by electoral cycles and special interests, not the broader public interest.

Many Canadians like to think that a Donald Trump could not happen here. Some even feel that we were lucky to have voted in a "good" Trump in 2015. But the majority Trudeau government is proving itself just as top-heavy as its Harper predecessor, perhaps even more so given its strong focus, indeed dependence, on protecting the Trudeau brand.

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President Donald Trump speaks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint press conference in the the White House in Washington, DC on Feb. 15, 2017. (Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Power remains extraordinarily concentrated in the executive branch of the Government of Canada, namely the Prime Minister's Office (PMO). Within the PMO-dominated House of Commons, we already see widespread sycophancy, together with the same recitation of mindless PMO-drafted talking points that characterized the Harper era. This deplorable development is perhaps most obvious in the conduct of both the former and current ministers of Democratic Institutions and in respect of the cash-for-access controversy.

The gratuitously abrupt cancellation of the electoral reform initiative through a simple rewrite of the mandate letter to a new minister of Democratic Institutions has demonstrated just how top-down the Trudeau government is. And the prime minister's outrageous claim that the cancellation was somehow our fault as citizens for not coming up with a sufficient consensus to replace the existing first-past-the-post/winner-takes-all system was utterly baseless.

If enough Canadians continue living precariously close to the edge, the conditions are ripe for a citizens' revolt.

Trudeau says he could not support proportional representation (PR), the system that would best ensure the popular vote is accurately reflected in the House of Commons. He claims PR would allow extremists to hold the balance of power in Ottawa. This is simply fear-mongering, unworthy of a prime minister. As for his suggestion that proportional representation would undermine the brokerage role of mass political parties, that argument could not even be valid for his own party since the Liberal Party is no longer a grassroots brokerage party of diverse ideas -- it is just an election machine run by the leader and his entourage.

The electoral reform charade has made it regrettably clear that there is no real commitment to building the "fair and open" government Trudeau promised would engage with Canadians.

In 2015, Canadians voted for significant change. We were not just settling for switching leaders and their entourages, and for "sunny ways." We expect serious reforms to our representative institutions and the role and conduct of government, in order to ensure responsive and responsible governance in between elections. We expect an ambitious, long-term agenda aimed at relieving the stress of precarious work, strengthening social security and building a vibrant economy for all Canadians, not just for the lucky few.


It is all too easy for Canadians to give up on politicians and the political process, when we hear careless comments by our securely entitled finance minister lecturing us to just get used to job churn and precarious work. We are frustrated. We do not have governments and politicians capable of undertaking the much-needed long-term collective action. Our governance structure is far too top-down. Our federal system discourages collaboration and harmonization across jurisdictions. Politicians at all levels are much too focused on the election cycle and short-term re-election plans.

If frustration reaches a tipping point, if inequality between the wealthy and the rest of us appears to be growing, if prosperity and progress always seem to happen to other people, if enough Canadians continue living precariously close to the edge, the conditions are ripe for a citizens' revolt that could erode the foundations of our much-admired pluralist society.

We need an urgent rebalancing of executive and citizen power so a less top-heavy government can genuinely respond to citizens' concerns and help us pursue an innovative ambitious agenda through greater collaboration and compromise. We also need the federal government to firmly take the lead in co-ordinating governance so all levels of government work together collectively.

This link takes you to a longer version of this post, and detailed suggestions for how to avoid a citizens' revolt.

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