Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Healthy Society - Chapter 8 Discussion

In chapter 8 of A Healthy Society, Ryan Meili discusses how to improve our democratic system, distinguishing between the participatory action research model which is helping to drive development work in Mozambique and the top-down structures and cynical views of the political system that have all too often been the norm in Canada. And Meili suggests that treating the public as having an ongoing interest in politics rather than being simply a source of votes every four years may benefit both our political system as a whole, and the parties who best address the public interest:
From big picture issues like international development and energy production to local concerns around the allocation of health care resources and community economic development, it’s clear that people care deeply and want a say in the decisions that affect their lives and communities. The disconnect between passionate interest and lack of involvement stems from a growing perception that electoral politics are not a fruitful arena for public engagement. Be it the perception that the hands of governments are tied by international structures, beholden to large corporations, or simply disinterested in the voice of the average citizen, people feel they are being ignored in the democratic process.
A democracy is not a fixed and perfect system. It requires constant reconsideration to ensure that it functions smoothly and is truly representative.

Within a party, this would mean a continuous process of citizen engagement to keep it active and healthy. This goes beyond selling memberships and passing resolutions at conventions. Consultation can’t be token and inconsistent; it needs to be constant and meaningful. A party that develops mechanisms by which to compile the diverse opinions of multiple and varied constituencies can lead the way in setting a vision for change at a larger level. Structures that enforce accountability of those in leadership to the party membership will strengthen the commitment of citizens to that vision. This could lead to the commitment required to develop functional local councils on key issues: the economy, education, the environment, health care, which is to say a meaningful system of citizen leadership in addressing the determinants of health. In this way Canada could follow the example of other countries that have been successful in enacting significant reforms and increasing citizen engagement. Local areas, based on local understanding and expertise, can work with provincial and federal governments to meaningfully direct their own development. The party that leads such a transformation would be a party that had truly found its voice: the voice of one who listens.
The reason I choose to align myself on the left of the political spectrum is that while an attitude of “we’re all in this together” has room to emphasize an ethic of personal responsibility and initiative, an attitude of “every man for himself” cannot provide for all and actively interferes with the need for an organized approach to improving society. The key to a healthier society is not the elimination of government; it is the re-structuring of government to be what it should be: a mechanism for achieving the will of the people, a truly democratic institution that allows the good instincts and ideas of people to be reflected in a larger plan. It is the idea of society as a project we’re all working on, and government as the workshop.
Largely left out of Meili's focus on a localized decision-making structure is the role of the leader - which is of course in stark contrast to how politics are generally addressed by the media (and indeed analyzed within parties as well). But I'd think it's worth noting how important leadership is to a "workshop" model.

That isn't because I see all that much to be said for tight control, but because of how rare it seems for those with a position of nominal decision-making authority to offer genuine decision-making authority to anybody other than political advisers in the pursuit of maximum partisan gain. And the end result of the familiar tendency toward central control may be as much a problem for an individual leader's own goals in the long term as for the system as a whole.

In principle, the governing-from-the-centre model implemented by Trudeau (and taken to extreme lengths by Harper) allows for easier control over government in the short term. But the effect of building a party where all principles can be discarded at a moment's notice without cost - and where there are no countervailing forces listening to or representing smaller constituencies - is to make the party entirely vulnerable either to a takeover by anybody looking for the shortest path to the greatest amount of power in good times, or to utter collapse if a leadership choice goes wrong. And the federal Libs may offer a cautionary tale on both fronts - as Paul Martin's path to temporary power set the stage for what's looking like an ever more precarious existence.

In contrast, a party which builds and supports consultative and decision-making structures at multiple levels should be much more resistant to either outside domination or internal atrophy. But it only takes one leader going too far in centralizing control to alienate the citizen base that's vital to both partisan and governing success in the longer term. And so one of the most important criteria we should look for in any progressive leader is an emphasis on allowing decisions to be made by the people in the best position to make them - rather than assuming that the simplicity of top-down control is worth the long-term cost.

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