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National Opinion Centre

If the Liberals hit the ball out of the park in 2015, things will be a lot tougher this time around. But here’s an idea that not only Liberals, but all progressives should rally around: Canadians need a progressive model of cabinet government – and the 2015 Liberal platform points us in the right direction. Before getting to how and why, let me start with some historical context.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Canadian progressives focused on reducing poverty, providing healthcare, and promoting public education. This was our version of the welfare state.

By the 1980s values were shifting and progressives got deeply involved in equality rights, especially around gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. As Neil Nevitte shows in his seminal study, The Decline of Deference, it was the start of a major realignment in our politics.

Until then, authority figures – clergymen, business leaders, politicians, and others – occupied a privileged place in Canadian society. Canadians trusted them and deferred to them on important matters, including policy and politics. Political parties needed them to help broker deals on major issues and to bring the public along.

Nevitte shows how the new interest in equality rights clashed with the old culture of elitism. As a result, Canadians’ deference to these authority figures declined rapidly through the 1980s, and the brokerage system got pulled down with it.

But change was already underway. A new generation of politicos was dabbling in public opinion research and, as the old system dissolved, political parties got keenly interested in the new and emerging field of consumer marketing.

Susan Delacourt’s Shopping for Votes provides a rich and insightful account of how “political marketing” transformed Canadian politics through the ‘80s and ‘90s. While the old brokerage system relied on elites to identify and balance needs, the new approach was all about buy-in. And the way to get it was not through dialogue and debate, but by surveying people to find out what they want, packaging it the right way, and giving it back to them as policy.

By the early 21st century, concepts like “market-testing,” “buy-in,” “products” and “brands” dominated our politics. Delacourt neatly sums up the new approach in the term consumer politics.

In hindsight, however, there was a fly in the ointment. Consumer politics does a great job of reaching out to ordinary people to find out what they want or get their reaction to an issue, but it provides no reliable and authoritative way to distinguish between wants and needs or to make trade-offs between them when they conflict. Ultimately, this is left to cabinet – and that is a problem.

Imagine a debate over whether to allow logging in an ecologically sensitive area. When the cabinet meets to deliberate, it will have to grapple with very different viewpoints, weigh different kinds of arguments, and make trade-offs between competing values and interests.

As we’ve seen, it can no longer assume the public will defer to its authority and decisions. Those days are gone. On the contrary, making big trade-offs behind closed doors is usually met with suspicion and can become the launchpad for resistance.

Governments do have a tool to avoid such conflicts. It’s called consultation. In theory, giving people a chance to have their say before the decisions are made should build public buy-in for the process. In fact, it often does the reverse.

On issues like logging or climate change, consultation exposes the divisions between people, but it does nothing to resolve them. Instead, public jousting between different sides often raises the stakes and pushes them to extremes.

Once the consultation is over, cabinet is left with all the same hard trade-offs as before – except now views are polarized, expectations have been raised, and emotions are often raw.

Despite the growing list of such debacles – the pipeline debates leap to mind – our governments continue to insist the cabinet system works; and that it can solve tough issues like these. It doesn’t – and the situation is getting worse.

Our policy process was designed for a different era – one that was more elite-driven and supported by deference. The old brokerage system worked because it engaged community leaders in a dialogue that built mutual respect and understanding. It created cohesion and trust among citizens and with governments. Unfortunately, it was also elitist.

Consumer politics gives us important tools for policy-making, but no reliable way to sort through competing wants. Ultimately, it turns policy-making into a marketing contest, where the one with the most buy-in wins – and that divides rather than unites people. So, what is the answer?

Canadians need a new kind of brokerage system, one that fits with our commitment to a more open, equal, and inclusive society – we need a progressive model of brokerage politics.

In fact, lots of work is being done on this. Public Deliberation includes a wide range of processes that give stakeholders and/or citizens a meaningful role in different kinds of decision-making, but in a disciplined and methodical way. Basically, people work through the issues together. As they do, they learn from one another and gain a greater understanding of the issues.

Critics who say this turns decision-making over to the mob or leads to paralysis are simply misinformed. Engaging this way creates a sense of personal responsibility for the success of the process and of ownership for the decisions that result from it. Deliberation often leads to innovative solutions that build trust and cohesion. Nor is it meant to replace cabinet decision-making; rather, it supports it – much in the way consultation is supposed to do now.

Perhaps Canadians didn’t realize it at the time, but Liberals’ 2015 agenda was an important step toward this solution. The commitment to a new era of dialogue, engagement, and collaboration, combined with the commitment to restore cabinet government, was shifting attention onto the deeper problems with consumer politics and centralization in the PMO.

If Liberals had pursued this further, I believe their discussions would have converged on public deliberation as the only viable way to deliver on these promises.

It’s a difficult time for Liberals to be talking about engagement, dialogue, and cabinet government, but they mustn’t lose their resolve now. The policy process is broken and badly needs to be fixed. There are ways to repackage the ideas for 2019 and, done right, this is an idea that Canadians might find very attractive – Liberals might even hit another one out of the ballpark.

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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