11/12/2011 09:10 EST | Updated 01/12/2012 05:12 EST

Governing For The People: The Changing Role Of Political Parties And Civil Society

This is the final part of a three-part series that discusses Canadian citizens' dissatisfaction with politics as usual. Part one dealt with the importance of refocusing on public services in the midst of government dysfunction. Part two proposed the creation of an accountable and dynamic council that facilitates coordinated action between all levels of government. This final part discusses the changing role political parties and civil society must play if we are to truly solve the democratic deficit in this country.

To reverse the public disengagement from our political institutions, political parties and civil-society groups must take dramatic steps to rethink their roles, structures, and operations, taking responsibility for promoting the concerns and aspirations of Canadians.

Canadian politics will continue to be organized around political parties for the foreseeable future. Political parties are still necessary as vehicles for addressing societal conflict and reconciling competing interests into differing but coherent visions for society. It would be wrong to think that we can give up on political parties altogether and rely only on issue-specific engagement in civil society. But the old ideological divisions among Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats -- the old 20th century conflicts between the state and markets, big or small government -- no longer define the political landscape. Twenty-first century politics are much less ideological, and much more idiosyncratic and dependent on character, leadership, and the ability to project a long-term vision that resonates with the electorate.

Political parties can no longer rely on a dedicated grassroots base to mobilize voters. Between elections, political parties and their agendas no longer find any resonance with the public, which is inundated with far more interesting and fulfilling opportunities to participate in building their communities or world through their social networks. Our age of instant communications and social media demands that political parties become accessible to everyone.

Each party will live or die by its ability to project principle and purpose -- a coherent vision of the kind of country and society we are building together -- and to respond to the aspirations of Canadians by establishing over-the-horizon goals. To this end, the party must continually develop practical policy positions that are accessible (see, for example, U.S. President Barack Obama's online platform). At the same time, the party must actively reach out to the disparate civil-society coalitions on an ongoing basis and then, during an election, attempt to persuade them to mobilize their respective followers to support a particular party's candidates.

In the past decade, some positive steps have been taken toward building more open and inclusive political parties. All major parties at the federal level have now embraced a universal vote of the membership to choose their leaders -- a vast improvement over the old convention system that excluded the majority of party members, to say nothing of those outside the party. Corporations and unions can no longer dictate terms to the parties through their superior-donor clout. But parties have a long way to go if they wish to halt their precipitous decline in relevance.

One area that needs urgent improvement is the party's ability to present authentic and committed candidates during an election. Parties must reform their nomination procedures to present candidates who are accepted by the electorate in individual ridings, rather than just the choice of a party machine. Riding associations would establish mechanisms to vet all potential candidates for basic suitability only. Their primary responsibility then consists in establishing as widespread a debate as possible among potential candidates, in as many local venues as possible -- from coffee houses to pubs to community centres. Every voting resident of the riding should then be able to cast a mail-in ballot for the candidate of his or her choice via a transferable vote (wherein voters rank their top three choices). The result will be a candidate who is not only known to the electorate, but who also owes allegiance to the people who elected him or her, and not to a party machine or an unrepresentative group of paid-up party members. These reforms that promote open and unrestricted community engagement in the nominations of national candidates must be complemented by reforms at the parliamentary level that reign in the excessive power of the office of the prime minister and party leader that has allowed a small clique of party loyalists to sidestep legislative oversight and reduce members of Parliament to little more than parliamentary eunuchs.

In tandem with this transformation of political parties, the role and operations of civil-society groups will also fundamentally change. In moving to the centre of the political process, the role of civil-society groups during elections should no longer be restricted to sending predictable questionnaires to party members and candidates, and getting back equally-predictable responses. Civil-society groups now have potential to influence the direction of politics and shape the public agenda. They must expand their activism to encompass everything from the nomination of candidates by political parties, to the identification of key election issues, to endorsing appropriate candidates during an election. The changing role of civil-society groups will require a relaxation of severe restrictions on the advocacy of organizations that are entitled to charitable tax status. Dr. David Suzuki's decision to endorse Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty's green energy initiatives is an excellent example of civil-society leaders asserting their power more effectively to influence the political process.

At the national level, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative party are currently much closer than any other party to mastering party politics in the 21st century. The Conservative party is able to rely on narrowly-based groups -- anti-gun control, anti-immigration abuse, anti-tax, pro-monarchy -- to mobilize a critical base of voters, whose membership is also a dependable source of revenue, on election day.

What wins elections in this cynical era of disengagement is the ability to deliver votes at the margin. The main political party positions and platforms are so similar that election campaigns become very character-focused, and in these races, the ability to mobilize narrow coalitions determines the outcome.

With almost 40 per cent of the electorate sitting out the recent federal vote, the Conservatives mobilized supporting coalitions to achieve a decisive majority, while neither the Liberals nor New Democrats could similarly mobilize the far greater number of progressive Canadians involved in a wide-range of civil-society groups.

Canada is at a critical juncture. Our environmental, economic, and social challenges require nothing less than a rewriting of the social contract that has sustained our democracy since the Second World War, and a transformation of our political institutions to restore representative democracy, and principled, responsive government at all levels. The increasing number of both aging Canadians who have contributed to the debt, infrastructure, and sustainability crises we now face, and younger, under- and un-employed Canadians struggling to believe that a better quality of life is still possible, must work together to restore a shared sense of justice, fairness and balance, and to assure a world of expanded opportunities for all Canadians. A revamping of political parties and a more engaged role for civil society could go a long way to bring the focus of political life back to long-term rather than the short-term manipulation of power by those who view Canadians as simply self-absorbed taxpayers and consumers.

Over and over, Canadians have demonstrated the ability, far better than our leaders, to pull together to protest injustice and seek ways to strengthen our social fabric and collective commitment to build what can be one of the great nations of the 21st century. The time is long overdue for bold and imaginative leadership, committed to restoring our confidence in our ability to manage change, and ensuring all Canadians are fully engaged in building an exciting sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.

This post was originally published by The Mark News.