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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday 11 May 2015

The Beneveolent Slave Owner: Coyne in the Democracy Box

On matters such as these, my friend Richard Pietro loves to ask the question - which would you prefer, a benevolent slave owner who is kind, or the nasty slave owner who beats you into a pulp whenever he's in the mood?

The best answer, says Richard, is neither; the most desirable option, the one that was left off the table is freedom.

Our Westminster model of democracy dates back to 1066 - before cell phones and the Internet, before TV, before even cars. Society was generally broken down by class - the gentry, high-born or land-owning "upper class" and then the unwashed masses, powerless except for their ability to become mobs.

Under this model, Parliament was formed as a way to hold government - the crown - to account for taxation and laws.  The Crown and the Crown's Ministers would propose laws or taxes based on whatever notions they had or advice they got, then Parliament would weigh in.  Parliament consisted of elected representatives who would leave their communities, travel the distance to the capital and be present in actual Parliament.  The nature of this relationship meant that Members of Parliament had to be able to exercise their own judgement and be through representatives of their constituents' interests,. because there was no means to get real-time feedback from them.

Eventually, caucuses of interest formed, ensuring that there were enough people carrying unified messages to break through the din and force the Crown to pay attention.  Message discipline mattered, even then.

Of course now, by convention, the Crown's Ministers (who make policy) are pulled from ranks of Parliament (whose role is to hold The Crown to account).  Instead of getting their messages through, the goal of caucuses today is to form government, ideally a majority government.  They then get to make policy without really having to worry about Parliament, of which they hold the majority, holding their feet to the fire.

That process now happens once every four years through elections, and in minor fashion throughout the mandate by media and the like.  The media can be undermined, circumvented, even used as a tool for fundraising drives.  Add to that the fact that traditional media is dying as people get their news in other formats and look for different, more interactive experiences online.

Coyne is media.  Coyne is one of Canada's most recognized Canadian pundits.  Like the gentry of old, he has access to our policy makers and shapers in ways most Canadians do not.  Like most traditional media, he sees his job as to create and push content - not to interact with them.

The choice Coyne offers us is akin to Richard's Slave Owners - he asks about who should decide the details of leadership debates, which still involves partisan leaders the vast majority of Canadians cannot elect - after all, we elect Members of Parliament, not government.  

Each of those leaders has narrow coalitions of voters they are targeting, with a great deal of their energy going to attacking their fellow leaders and giving their potential voter coalitions pause.  Somewhere down the line are the actual representatives we vote for who will parrot policy lines delivered to them from on high far more than they will focus on local concerns and solutions.

Meanwhile, we've already seen that it's possible to engage the public directly in the policy making process, both online and in person with policy hackathons.   When communities have access to the public servants who can explain how the process works and provide information - even open data - to support local policy development, some great ideas emerge.

The people on the ground, you see, aren't interested in forming government or playing the Game of Seats - their concerns are more about quality of life, service delivery, equitable access and economic opportunity. 

I understand why Coyne takes the angle he does - like all of us, he is a product of his environment. Much like the most well-meaning politicians can get lost in the tribal partisanship of politics, journalists can only see the world and options available through the lens of what they know.

More debates and opportunities "to see what they're made of" are great - I always love a good conversation.  What we need more of, however, is civic literacy, civic engagement and skin in the policy making game.

The real debates should be happening in communities, with residents bringing forward the solutions they want and would-be politicians acting as facilitators, winning based on their facilitation skills and ability to message up, not down.

And the House of Commons need not be an exclusionary place; not when Open Government can move the conversation onto common ground.  We just need to think outside our usual box.

We cannot elect the leaders we spend so much time focusing on; our should-be representatives are enslaved by a process that discourage them from speaking truth to power, the role they are supposed to fill on our behalf.

In today's politics, democratic freedom is about more than the vote; it's about being part of the debate.

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