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Kathleen Wynne spent the last six years working on climate change, income inequality, and sex-ed – and it all vanished in a few weeks. When the pendulum swings, it can be vicious. So, when it swings back, will Doug Ford’s footprint be any deeper? Or are legacies becoming a thing of the past?

The political pendulum has always swung between left and right – sometimes faster and deeper than others – but there was always enough common ground between the two for worthy ideas to survive. That’s how we got healthcare, multiculturalism, and free trade.

Well, politics is changing, and common ground is getting hard to find. Governments with big plans should take note. There’s a new ruthlessness out there and opponents are usually lying in wait.

Consider Justin Trudeau’s plan to balance the economy and environment. At first, fortune seemed to smile on the Liberals. Nine provincial governments were onside. Today, Ontario and Saskatchewan are staunchly opposed to a carbon tax. If Jason Kenney wins in Alberta, he will join them.

On the other side of the debate, the BC election spelled disaster for the pipeline. The new NDP government, environmentalists, and some First Nations are now vowing to take whatever steps necessary to ensure it never gets built.

In hindsight, we might wonder why anyone ever thought the Liberal plan was going to work. The opposition was always out there, just waiting for a time and place to make their move. With so many players and pieces in the project, an election somewhere was sure to provide one. And it did.

So, what’s the moral? Are ambitious plans doomed to fail? Should governments just give up on them?

When the Charter of Rights was introduced in 1982, it gave the courts huge new powers to strike down laws. In response, governments developed new techniques for drafting legislation to avoid a Charter challenge. They called it “Charter-proofing.”

Political parties could learn something from this. Basically, they should be making plans to election-proof controversial initiatives. Like a skyscraper in San Francisco, a potentially divisive project needs deeper, stronger foundations to see it through changing circumstances, especially elections. The key here is something called community ownership.

Community ownership contrasts with “public buy-in,” which is when a government makes a controversial decision, then looks to communications experts to tell it how to “sell” the idea to the public. Buy-in is about marketing these ideas to get the public’s agreement to move ahead with a plan. Let’s call this the “Marketing Approach.”

Ownership sets the bar much higher. It gives the community a deeper role in designing a project, which, in turn, builds ownership.

For example, in late 2012, the Ontario government launched a process to renew its condominium law. Several thousand condo owners and stakeholders participated in searching discussions of key issues, where they had to make concessions to one another to find solutions.

When the 2014 election was called, these discussions were at an advanced stage and the question was raised: What if there is a change in government? Will this work be swept aside?

Now, public consultations normally use the Marketing Approach: a government asks people for their views on the issue, then goes behind closed doors to draw conclusions about how it should respond and, finally, develops a plan to sell its conclusions to the public and get their buy-in.

If the condo process had taken this approach, a new government would have been justified in cancelling the process and launching one of its own: it would have argued that it needed to hear for itself what the community had to say before drawing its conclusions.

But this wasn’t a normal process. The condo community had been deeply involved in designing the new regulations. As a result, no one had to “sell” them on the changes. They already had a genuine sense of ownership of them.

Indeed, had a new government tried to kill the process, the community would have resisted – fiercely. They would have told the minister that real progress had been made and that he/she should respect their efforts – that they had no intention of starting over.

I think the new government would have listened. In other words, the process had been election-proofed.

This is one example, but there are many others, as well as other techniques to build ownership, from volunteer work to rallies. And not every initiative can or should be election-proofed. Choices must be made. The focus here is on ambitious and/or controversial ones, like a new hospital, a pipeline, or a carbon tax.

Initiatives like these usually involve more than one government, take years to complete, and almost always have opponents. Elections are unavoidable along the way and one bad one can kill the project.

Strong community ownership makes such a project a far less attractive target to an opposition party looking to score political points. Attacking it amounts to attacking the community that owns it – and a party preparing for an election will think twice about that.

But let’s be clear: election-proofing is hard work. It takes significant time and resources, and that’s enough to put some people off. So, what’s the alternative? A government can use its time in office to work hard to build the things it believes in, then hope and pray that when a new government comes along, it doesn’t tear them down.

Good luck with that.

Dr. Don Lenihan is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement and Open Government. He is currently advising The Ottawa Hospital on an engagement plan to develop its new Civic Campus – a $2 billion, 10-year project. He also co-chairs the Open Government Partnership’s Practice Group on Open Dialogue and Deliberation. Don can be reached at: Don.Lenihan@bell.net or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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