Sunday, August 05, 2012

On connections

Tuesday, July 31 was the deadline for submissions to the Wall government's consultation process on employment and labour law. Like hundreds of other interested individuals and groups, I took the time to put together a submission - based on the underlying view that however biased the process was from the beginning, and however unlikely a bought-and-paid-for government was to listen to anybody who offered ideas to provide a more secure future for Saskatchewan workers rather than seeking to grind them to dust, there's always some value to be found in fostering discussion between citizens and legislators as to how we should be governed.

And many others with positions starkly opposed to the Saskatchewan Party did the same - criticizing Wall for failing to provide a more thorough consultation process, but consistently expressing the view that a responsible government should seek to connect more with its citizens.

Tuesday, July 31 also marked the unveiling of an NDP effort to build on the limited consultation permitted by Wall. So how did Wall's base react to an open channel of communication?
"One of our main activities ... is identifying polls and Twitter feeds that need to go horribly wrong," [Kate McMillan] said in an interview this week. "It's all in good fun, but there's also a political statement being made."

One post the NDP flagged as offensive - "Tommy Douglas, not dead enough" - is a line that has been used for years on her blog, McMillan noted.

"This is all fair in love and war on the Internet ... Anything that's open to the Internet inviting opinions is subject for high traffic, from the left and the right," she added.

"Politicians and parties should stay very clear of social media," she opined. "The only people on Twitter for politics are people who want to hurt you."
Which offers about as clear a contrast as one could imagine. The NDP and its allies responded to a limited consultation exercise with two main messages: a principled argument as to the policy choices involved, and a concern that the government should do more to hear from affected parties.

In contrast, the Saskatchewan Party's authoritarian base considers it an important activity to ensure that any effort to build communication between policy-makers and citizens goes "horribly wrong". Which presumably helps to ensure that policy is designed by and for the few who already enjoy privileged access to a thoroughly-insulated premier, while limiting our political options to shallow personality choices developed within easily-captured top-down party structures.

Unfortunately, the right in Saskatchewan thinks it can get away with more and more extreme attacks on democratic participation based on the province's 2011 election result. And the NDP - having governed largely as a "we're not them" choice for four terms while having few spare resources to dedicate to citizen engagement - still has a long way to go in rebuilding its historic capacity to bring together Saskatchewan voters.

Indeed, relatively modest steps with the Were You Asked? site (such as a simple filter before content submitted to the site was published) would have avoided the easy manipulation by vandals and saboteurs that proved embarrassing last week. And presumably that's a lesson the NDP will need to keep in mind as it decides how to reach out to citizens.

But the more important point is that vandalism and sabotage are indeed part of the value structure of a government and its base looking to keep Saskatchewan's citizens as silent and inactive as possible. And that radical difference in how we value public participation should be one of the NDP's overarching messages as we work on developing more effective forms of engagement.

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