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What do construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline and reform of Toronto City Council have in common? Both challenge conventional ideas about democratic leadership, but in very different ways. While Doug Ford’s populism asks people to trust strong leaders, Canada’s courts are busy rethinking consultation. Who is on the right track?

Let’s start with the Federal Court of Appeal’s decision on Trans Mountain. It obliges Justin Trudeau to sit down with Indigenous communities, talk through the issues and, where appropriate, accommodate their concerns on the pipeline.

This kind of “dialogue” could easily be exported to non-Indigenous communities. The court’s ruling thus is about more than Indigenous rights or even the pipeline. It is a very public test of a new way to make decisions.

Last week I wrote about how a “dialogue” on Trans Mountain can avoid an impasse. This week I’d like to say something about how Ford’s populism raises the stakes for the process.

Basically, if Trudeau succeeds in this process, dialogue could emerge as the Liberal government’s answer to populism. If Trudeau fails, however, populism may look like the best game in town.

What’s Wrong with Consultation?

In consultation, government typically asks the public for its views on an issue, then goes behind closed doors to consider what it’s heard. It is supposed to use this time to weigh the arguments and evidence and arrive at the best decision – much like a judge deliberating over a case.

Of course, hardly anyone believes this is how such decisions are made, especially on big, complex projects like a pipeline. Many people think governments decide what they want.

Well, not exactly. The problem with consultation is not just that governments tend to ignore the evidence, but that the evidence available is often of little use. Many of these issues call for decisions that are not about evidence.

Consider the different views in Trans Mountain: some people care about the economic opportunity, others worry about the impact on wildlife, environmentalists want to reduce greenhouse gases, and First Nations fear their rights and lifestyle are under threat.

The disagreements between these groups go beyond facts, science or logic. They involve deep conflicts over values. How people prioritize the issues is inherently subjective. They may disagree, for example, on which is more important: jobs or the environment.

In this kind of conflict, the challenge for policy-makers is to strike a fair balance between competing values. Let’s note, however, that this kind of decision-making is mainly about compromise – “give and take” – not assessing evidence.

Asking a few officials to go behind closed doors and deliberate over the arguments people have made suggests otherwise. It implies that this balancing can be done in an “objective” fashion. It can’t.

As a result, the participants in such a consultation are often hugely disappointed by the outcome. They present their arguments in good faith, then wait as the officials deliberate. When they emerge, their conclusions almost always favour one set of values over another. And the losers feel cheated. We can call this the consultation problem.

Solving the Consultation Problem

Doug Ford’s solution to this problem is to dispense with process altogether and move straight to action. Basically, his strategy is to claim he has a mandate to get things done, then push ahead.

Thus, many people argue that he has no mandate to reform City Council and that he should consult with the public to get one.

But the argument is persuasive only if you think consultation is reliable and fair – and increasingly people do not. Indeed, the more frustrated they get with such processes, the more attractive this “man of action” model looks, which brings us to Trans Mountain.

If opponents want a real alternative to Ford’s get-it-done style of populism, they need a new generation of engagement processes that effectively solve the consultation problem.

The Supreme Court’s work on dialogue heads in the right direction. It can be combined with recent work from other sources to create reliable and effective decision-making processes, the essence of which can be captured in two basic points.

First, people and organizations are far more likely to accept trade-offs on values, priorities, or interests if they’ve had a say in making them. Where appropriate, governments must be willing to move these discussions out from behind closed doors and give the public a meaningful role in making them.

Second, the process must ensure that discussion is disciplined and fair by including and enforcing “rules of engagement.” For example, participants must listen to one another, learn about each other’s concerns, discuss their similarities and differences, weigh evidence, and work together to strike a better balance between competing values and interests.

Trans Mountain has thrust the consultation problem into the political spotlight and, for better or worse, now Trudeau must wrestle it to the ground. The Supreme Court’s work on meaningful consultation is a promising start, but it could be strengthened and improved by borrowing from other work. Ultimately, it should be adapted for non-Indigenous communities.

By contrast, Doug Ford’ populist approach might allow an aggressive leader to get some things done, but there will be a high price to pay, including a centralization of power in the leader’s office, a low tolerance for dissent or disagreement, and an increasingly divided political community. Donald Trump’s America shows us where this kind of populism leads.

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: 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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