A renaissance in active citizenship and direct democracy

Federal elections are the Stanley Cup playoffs of Canadian politics and the 2015 Campaign post-season is about to begin. The press and pundits are evaluating star players, analyzing team strategies and dissecting every statistic known to man (and woman—considering all three major campaigns are run by women).

In this adrenaline-fuelled environment, it’s easy to get excited—I’m excited; show me a political obsessive who isn’t. For the first time in Canadian history, we have a tight three-way race with the NDP leading in a majority of pre-election opinion polls.

With this election too close to call, it’s only natural to consider how different outcomes might impact Canadians. What would a federal NDP government do? What if the Conservatives are re-elected? What if there is a minority government?

And yet, as interesting as this speculation may be for inveterate politicos like me, many Canadians remain largely indifferent. The truth is that while electoral politics may be more exciting than ever to some, it may actually matter less than ever to most.

That’s because for most Canadians, whoever wins on October 19—the NDP, the Conservatives or the Liberals (or a combination of)—Canada will look pretty much the same on October 20 as it did on October 18.‎ As a country, our challenges will be the same, as will the choices we have to address them.

But let’s not confuse politics with democracy. While we may believe that the public’s interest in politics is in decline, our passion for democracy has never been greater. In fact, we are witnessing a renaissance of active citizenship and direct democracy.

In this new—or renewed—governance model, the public is far more engaged and empowered. Where politicians once led, they must now constantly connect and collaborate with the voters whose interests they are elected to represent.

There are many reasons for this shift—from the rise of social media to the increased emphasis on social licence—but whatever the root causes, they add up to one thing: What happens between elections is now more important than what happens during elections.

Canadians, as citizens, taxpayers and voters, have to see themselves and their priorities reflected in the decisions that affect their lives. If they don’t, they have the power to stop those decisions in their tracks. If they do, there is a more than reasonable chance at success.

Robocalls, online surveys and town hall meetings aren’t enough. Meaningful public engagement requires dialogue, a two-way conversation that leads to policies that are a part of a common undertaking with tangible benefits for individuals, their families and their communities.

It’s not easy—few things worth doing well ever are. At its best, however, public engagement is how governments—of any political stripe—are going to move our country forward, and confront the social and economic challenges facing us.

So, enjoy this election playoff cycle. It promises to be one of the most exciting in living memory. But remember, the regular season is much longer and where the hardest work actually takes place.