Lament for a Discussion
This week a friend I respect a great deal sent me an opinion piece on politics and asked for my perspective on it. I have been urging her to consider running for office, but reading this essay I can understand why so many exceptionally qualified people like her are increasingly taking a pass. The essay appeared in the New York Times and was written by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Entitled, Is Democracy Dead?, the essay is a powerful discussion of the decline of modern democracies when measured from the point of view of citizen engagement and efficacy. Can our democracy effectively tackle important public policy issues given the modern age of partisanship, wedge politics and media coverage? Does the present state of politics meet the needs of our citizens and engage them in the process? Blair shares his thoughts and frustrations on these questions and others in the essay, which can be viewed here:
I have to admit that I was disappointed that Blair appeared more interested in pointing at the problems rather than suggesting real solutions. It is easy to complain about our parliamentary democracy and its shortcomings until you realize that it has produced the country we know and love today. Our system, imperfect as it is, has provided Canadians with the freedoms and incredible wealth of opportunities that are the envy of the world. Winston Churchill best described the paradox with the frustrations of a system that produces exceptional results in his oft-quoted opinion that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.
A number of Blair’s points did resonate with me and my personal journey into elected office following years in the military and the private sector. One section of his essay was particularly interesting because it appeared to perfectly illustrate the poorly informed debate we have seen in Ottawa in recent weeks on a topic close to my heart; veterans. Blair describes modern democracies as increasingly narrowing all decisions down to political positions for partisan gain at the expense of rational discussion of public policy and that this process is actually assisted or exacerbated by the media environment that often appears to prefer bare-knuckled political panels over deeper examination of an issue. Blair summed it up well in the following passage:
In such a system, the emphasis is on striking political positions, not on delivering evidence-based solutions. In fact, modern governance is mainly a nonideological business.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this point better than the discussion in recent weeks on the New Veterans Charter (“NVC”) and care of our veterans. The NVC is perhaps the last great “nonideological” effort by Canada’s Parliament to deliver evidence-based solutions to an important goal; serving our veterans and their families better. The NVC was aimed at improving the healthcare and transitional support for men and women leaving the Canadian Forces and their families. The Charter was an evidence-based approach drafted with the direct assistance of leading veteran’s organizations, medical thought leaders and other experts. Swift passage of the NVC was encouraged because Canada was at war in Afghanistan and casualties from this combat mission were making all of these issues even more important than ever before. Here is my speech in the Commons on the NVC and related issues:
On a political level, the NVC was created by the Paul Martin Liberal government, but with all party support. All parties should recognize their role in the creation and implementation of the Charter. Unfortunately, in the political and media discourse over the last few weeks you would think the NVC was foisted upon veterans by our government to balance the budget. I have actually heard comments to this effect by MPs who voted for the Charter, but appear intent on using uncertainty about the NVC and other issues for short-term political gain. As Tony Blair would describe it, they have been striking politically advantageous positions at the expense of serious discussion about improving the NVC and supporting our veterans.
I was elected in 2012, so I was not in Parliament at the time the Charter was brought in, but I can honestly say that I would likely have supported it vigorously for all of the same reasons all of the Liberal, NDP and Conservative MPs of the day did. Our government is improving the NVC, but the challenge remains to try and communicate these and other changes to veterans affairs in the modern political environment that Tony Blair laments. I have been on a dozen political panels in the last few weeks and each time you are forced to decide whether you devote most of your three or four minutes of time to correcting the misleading diatribe of a political opponent or to use those valuable minutes to try and provide Canadians with important context or rationale on some of these challenging issues. I have tried to balance correcting the record and offering some context, but I have to admit it can be difficult and trying for me personally when your political opponents and other groups don’t want an evidence-based or serious policy discussion but prefer to continue to use these issues for political gain. While I am disappointed and often frustrated by this, I should not be surprised as I have seen this issue be used shamelessly since my very first days in the political arena. See for yourself: