Originally published on ipolitics.ca
2011 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for Canada. The federal election in May ended seven years of minority parliament with Canadians electing what Prime Minister Stephen Harper gratifyingly calls a “strong, stable national Conservative government.” Now, voters in at least five provinces – PEI, Manitoba, Ontario, Newfoundland & Labrador, Saskatchewan – will be going to the polls this Fall and there’s a possibility that British Columbians and Albertans could be voting as well. All of these elections will be coming at the most critical time since 2008, when some of the world’s major economies contracted significantly.
They are also taking place, though, at a time when society’s expectations of government are becoming less and less.
Elections are about making choices, not just about individual candidates or parties, but – more importantly – about what they represent and how they would govern. Publicly, the choice has been framed by some as between those who advocate a minimalist, at best incremental, approach (reflecting the views of the electorate) versus those who believe now is the time to “think big” and do big things to deal with present and emerging challenges.
Arguably both are wrong.
The real issue isn’t the size of policy agenda but its need and intended impact. Voters should be asking themselves: what is the right thing to do? (For those who think “right” is too suggestive, replace it with “smart.”)
Earlier this year, the Manning Centre measured the attitudes of Canadians towards government in general and found that “citizens have little expectation or desire that governments will have an increasingly meaningful impact on their lives.” The findings suggest that “Canadians expect governments to respond to problems as they arise, not to pursue grand visions or force grand designs on the population.” The authors conclude that the role of government in the minds of Canadians today is that of a facilitator or partner and that Canadians prefer small government with small manageable agendas.
The dilemma for governments today is how to reconcile the wishes of the electorate for whom they work with the responsibility of actually leading society towards positive change. One need look no further than to the United States and its recent experiences to realize that, when governments lack the courage to “speak truth to power” and are inclined to give the people what they say they want, it eventually leads to harming the very people and country the government was chosen to serve and protect.
What has gone unsaid is why voters – whether in Canada or in the U.S., Britain or other western democracies – have formed the opinions of government that they have. I suspect the answer can be found in voters’ unfulfilled expectations of governments to actually do the right things. Our politics have been highjacked by constant polling and a 24/7 news cycle, both of which end up creating a lot of noise and an undue amount of attention on largely irrelevant things such as who’s up and who’s down along with meaningless coverage of scripted events and the tactics behind them.
No wonder the public is disconnected. Cynicism has hardened and the electorate now is prepared to settle for what little they can get from government as a consolation prize in a political environment gone awry.
This needs to be rectified, but the question is whether this cycle can be broken or must things get even worse before they get better?
Canadians heading to the polls this fall can do their part by voting not for who is going to do the least or most for them but by choosing candidates and parties who are prepared to do the right things for the right reasons.
This seems simple enough, but unfortunately it has been all too elusive.
Goldy Hyder, General Manager and Senior Vice President at Hill+Knowlton Strategies Canada, is a seasoned communications strategist and a regular commentator on political affairs activity in Canada. Prior to joining H+K, Goldy served as Director of Policy and Chief of Staff to the Right Honourable Joe Clark, former Prime Minister and former Leader of the then federal PC.