Liberals and Conservatives: Facing the Post Inauguration Dynamics of Canadian Democracy
February 17, 2009Senator Hugh D. Segal, C.M.
Series on Democratic Accountability at Yale University’s MacMillan Center
Political accountability is one of those terms that can have a positive meaning but, if badly or incompetently done, a negative impact. In Canada, our tradition of responsible government and Parliamentary Constitutional Monarchy makes the context for democratic accountability somewhat diffuse and on occasion somewhat arcane. When one adds the particular distortions of our very pure first-past-the-post single member constituency system, we can add to the arcane and the diffuse, a wonderful soupcon of regular distortion of the outcome voters actually chose.
I lay out the accountability problems this afternoon because I would not want you to think me insensitive to them as I celebrate some of the real strengths of our system north of the forty-ninth parallel. And there are many.
Our system is peaceful and peaceable and has produced, by any measure, social and economic progress and opportunity that is among the most compelling in the world. Dissent is broadly embraced as an integral part of our democracy and the polyglot nature of our multi-racial and multi-cultural population, is while not without problems, exemplary. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, an early 1980's Liberal innovation, improved and strengthened by social democrats and Tories, has added to the joint foundation of the British Common Law and the French Civil Code a further justifiable layer of individual freedoms and rights. The duality of our founding European influences, British and French, has remained central to how we govern and live together. The consensual approach to decision-making of the First Nations, whose land was "discovered for the King and the glory of God”, has also survived, even if full reconciliation and restitution with First Nations' descendants for the seizure of their land has yet to be in any way complete.
And in a sense, the relatively recent and precarious year-end permutations of our parliamentary balance – between a newly re-elected minority Conservative government, having won more seats in October than we had in the last Parliament, and a Liberal opposition with its worst popular vote performance in October in percentage terms since elections started in Canada – speaks eloquently to the kind of parliamentary accountabilities our system can produce when either side oversteps the parameters of equilibrium and fairness Canadians expect. My Conservative side, unwittingly or otherwise, deserted that equilibrium by attempting without consultation or warning, to do away with public funding of political party central campaigns and headquarters. That overstep was countered by a proposal by the opposition parties to form a governing coalition led by the most rejected Liberal leader in history, and dependant on the support of parties that between them had barely thirty percent of the vote – and who also had never so much as floated a trial balloon on coalition before election night votes were counted. Canadians did not like the surprises coming from either side.
The Conservative side had to structure a tactical regrouping and more engaged fiscal plan; the Liberal side deposed their leader, forsook an open convention process to competitively choose his successor and, then with a new leader, voted for the Tory January 27th budget. The risk of a government falling just weeks after winning an election has been replaced with what I would call, conditional term limited stability – or to use a very Canadian approach – seasonally adjusted political survival.
At one level, Parliamentary accountability worked to impose upon all sides the only priority that matters – helping Canadians through our version of the present global economic crisis – which, while wildly different from the challenge here, is nevertheless in some way shaped by the tone and sense of anxiety that invades the many reports of economic setback and employment challenge reported minute by minute in and from American towns, cities and factories.
The context of economic downturn – all be it from record highs in earnings, profitability, housing values, and credit availability (highs rarely mentioned by the more hyperventilating among observers and journalists – and thankfully not all media are), is a good context with which to look at what modern political accountability really means. Some obvious accountability issues, which become efficacy issues quickly and can become legitimacy issues overnight these days, suggest themselves:
In 2006 and 2007, I had introduced a Bill in the Senate of Canada which passed all stages, was referred to the House of Commons, received multi-party support and was due to be reviewed in Committee. It is now part of the Conservative governments programme. This Bill, if passed, would require a new approach by government departments and Crown corporations to submit quarterly financial reports to both Houses of Canadian Parliament, just as publically traded companies must do. The point of quarterly reporting is straightforward. The current practice of retroactive annual reporting, looking back on government departments' and Crown corporations' spending, means that parliamentary scrutiny no longer takes place in real time. Rather, financial reporting that occurs only on a government-wide basis, quarterly, or by department, annually, and always retroactively, highlights departmental inadequacies and failures long after remedial action is possible.
Quarterly reporting would enhance trust in the management of public money and the challenge of spending taxpayers' money carefully and effectively. It would mean progress on many fronts. Above all, it would give Parliament real-time financial information with which to discharge its Magna Carta duties, namely to control the expenditures of the Crown before they transpire.
In the real world, if an individual, pension fund or a public company chooses to invest hard-earned dollars in a publicly traded corporation in Canada, they can rely on quarterly reports to assess and monitor a company's performance, at which point an informed choice can be made to withdraw the investment or to allow it to remain, based on the information provided in those reports. Retroactive reporting and judgment operates solely in a judgmental framework. It works well if the only goal is to finger-point and to lay blame, but it does nothing for actual corrective parliamentary action in real time. So transparency is vital, if accountability is to be real.
And, it is surely fair to suggest that the first-past-the-post system by jurisdiction in America, plus the constitutional division of powers between branches of government and the relative lack of party discipline opens the trap door underneath effectively articulated accountability quite consistently here as well.
In Canada, the last election during which a federal government was afforded a parliamentary majority was 2000. Our senior public service has had utter political instability since Prime Minister Chretien announced in 2002 his intention to step down in 2004. Successive minority elections in 04, 06 and 08 mean that the planning continuum has been deeply foreshortened – and I would argue that despite progress made by both Prime Minister Martin and Prime Minister Harper since, the short-term nature of what are relatively shallow reforms, while unavoidable, is sub-optimal in terms of critical issues like income security, foreign policy – especially foreign development aid, tax reform, a deepening role for Canada in the Americas, arctic sovereignty, climate change and energy policy.
What is the impact of the new American administration on Canada's political culture of accountability? New American administrations usually do have an impact. FDRs 1933 New Deal affected Prime Minister Bennett's reforms in 1935. Mr. Kennedy helped renew public interest in politics and government which helped Mr. Trudeau's assent in 1968. Reforms to political fundraising in Ottawa and the provinces followed the Watergate years. And clearly the digitally driven sense of broad partnership and common cause – that was both cross-generational and multi-ethnic and was such a large part of Senator Obama’s campaign momentum, fundraising breadth and depth and crowd-drawing magnetism, will have impacts across many democracies – Canada because of proximity perhaps sooner than others.
In the end, I predict that what will matter in this economic crisis, will not be how many billions or trillions our governments stuff down the same stovepipes and old instruments we have always used. Actual dynamic accountability will focus on whether we have the courage to shape new instruments tied to our real economic reality on the ground. Classic welfare spending and infrastructure investment are flawed and inefficient. A basic income guarantee to bring all our poor and working poor in both countries over the poverty line would produce liquidity far more quickly. Relying only on traditional banking, which is paralyzed because of bank insolvency fears, produced by irrational credit policies and even worse – the re-selling of those assets to contaminate the whole system – is a flawed, means of economic rebuilding. It is consumers, home owners and home buyers who need liquidity – to prime the demand pump. American banks will not solve the problems they started, here or in Canada. Consumer liquidity may.
On accountability, we might also ask how the digitally-energized, broad-based, multi-generational and multi-ethnic campaign will change the presidency and its relationship to democratic accountability in America – and what contagion effect that may have on our politics at home.
My own strong view is that the intensity of our economic challenge should free all political parties to dilute partisanship, set narrow ideologies of the left or the right aside, in favour of a pragmatism that is more inclusive and competent than partisan or narrow. And poverty will be the ultimate test. And not only at home.
When we look around the world at the hotspots that are very much on the agenda of America’s new President, or our Prime Minister and their counterparts in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas, behind every insurgency, behind every border dispute, behind every build up of violent or terrorist or criminal activity is a broad overlay of relative poverty.
The truth is that sadly, there is a large and growing soft underbelly of civil society world wide - which this crisis will only expose more, that is being shaped by the marginalized people who have no hope, no prospects, no self-respect and no income – and this is about as destabilizing a force in society and the world as one can have. Bigots, extremists, terrorist recruiters and criminal organizations prey and feed on those most unfortunate and disadvantaged. This is as true in downtown New York and suburban Toronto as it is in Rio, Mumbai or London. This is not just about the costs of prisons, hospitals, or other institutions in which the poor are wildly over-represented. It is about how we keep deep recession at home, its effects world-wide and the despair of poverty from adding massive civil instability to an already less than calm or balanced global context. In our larger world, the economy, security, terrorism, government instability, all the things that occupy the time and energy of our representatives – all are made worse, and in some cases stem from, poverty. Globally, we must ask how we keep deep recession from turning nations inward so the thugs, dictators and terrorist-few get a free ride while they molest, pillage, intimidate, criminalize and brutalize either their own innocent people or neighbouring countries? There is a reason that those with nothing to lose end up in desperation targeting those who do. There is a reason the poorest parts of the world see huge proportional investments in armaments. From Pakistan to Afghanistan, the Middle-East to Darfur and Sudan, the role of poverty, while not exclusively the cause of understand suffering, is seminal and broad. Engaging in development engineering and innovation around the world targeted at poverty eradication, investing in the infrastructure of civility, is as important as building bridges, highways, airports and armies.
The proof of accountability that is meaningful will be a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor during this crisis – and our steadfast refusal to not let it get worse.
One of the possible benefits of our present crisis, in some real way - might well be the demystification of both public company and public sector finances – which are rendered unnecessarily impenetrable by jargon, and accounting rules which make reality more opaque, regulation and supervision neigh impossible and has the effect of removing all but the smallest elite from informed awareness or evaluation.
So, in summary our accountability challenges are real, and if not addressed can and in my judgment will reduce public legitimacy for public initiatives and the governments that sponsor them. Our present economic crisis will make the accountability challenges more acute, forcing us to look hard and quickly at the challenges of financial transparency. More accurate and focused representation by population, core duties to the poor and disenfranchised, are the ways by which accountability is made a dynamic constructive force for better government, rather than a negative cult of blame and shame that serves no other public interest.
Democracy, and the accountability it mandates must be tended to, improved, strengthened and broadened. If it is left unimproved, events, crisis and changes in society will reduce its relevance, scope and competence. There are always dark forces as history tells us who have other than democratic methods for governing our societies.
We must in defence of democracy be aggressive and engaged. Failing to do so would be the ultimate abdication; with attendant risks we underestimate at our collective peril.
Liberals and Conservatives in Canada have strong differences of opinion on a host of issues from national defence to taxation policy, from the federal provincial balance in areas of social and fiscal policy to the nature of accountability itself. And while these differences will animate large parts of the democratic narrative at home, as well as very different kinds of leaders and histories, it is likely that the next election will be energised by the way in which the two parties are viewed as agents of compassion, coherence, competent programme delivery, and policy competence. There will be little refuge on the right or the left in the temples of ideology or rabidly negative campaigning. And my sense is that those who attempt to use the old campaign instruments and negative weapons will face a harsh judgement from the electorate.
A younger generation of voters will come into the economy in a challenging time, as an older generation of voters is forced to adjust to meaningfully narrowed retirement prospects in terms of standard of living. Global challenges from Iran to the Arctic Sea, Afghanistan to Venezuela, Kashmir to Gaza will evoke a higher level of scrutiny by voters. If President Obama is deemed to be largely successful in his economic engagement and a new approach to world affairs that will in Canada, render obsolete the old Liberal hiding place of veiled but poignant anti-Americanism. It will also be an invitation to Conservatives to move more towards the Disraeli one nation Tory bias relative to narrowing the gap between rich and poor, both at home and abroad.
Not only will accountability change, but the issues for which governments are held accountable will also change. If President Obama, the American Congress and counterparts around Europe, Japan, China and Canada fail to keep the fiscal and economic sinkhole from expanding, then we will be having a far more serious kind of discussion a year from now.
The infrastructure of civility, respect for the laws, deemed public legitimacy of governments and public agencies depend on a sense of economic fair play and reasonable stability. That civility and the democracy at its core are not unrelated to the balance of economic forces and opportunities that remain positive and equitably available.
For Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives and Republicans, it is not business as usual. Those who understand how quickly the criteria of accountability are being changed by the economic crisis, will survive. It was once observed that in a crisis, those who are learners can survive and prosper. The learned who are not adaptable may not.
That is the shape of the accountability challenge our democracies on both sides of the border will face. I am an optimist about our collective capacity to meet that challenge, but a realist about the hills we must climb before we do.