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The Real Ballot Question

The political pollsters and pundits are predicting a photo finish race in the October 19th federal election. Whether or not a horse race materializes after 11 weeks of campaigning, and whether the result is a majority or minority government, a closely contested federal election creates an opportunity for inflection, and not just for politicians.

We’ve had almost a decade with one political party holding tight reigns on power in Canada. One could even argue that the last two parties elected to form and retain majority governments in Canada did so by maintaining an ever tighter grip on the reins of power. Decisions over the last two decades have been increasingly centralized and controlled by fewer people. Some argue that decisions are made within the PMO and Cabinet with less interaction, input and engagement by parliamentarians, public servants, and the Canadian public. As an aside, this is not unique to federal governments. Provincial governments of all political persuasions have followed a similar path to short-term political victory.

Why the pendulum has swung in this direction is an interesting question. It could have been as a counter reaction to the growing influence of well-funded, politically astute and powerful special interest and advocacy groups that some might argue had come to dominate Canadian public policy, often in defense of the status quo. It could be the insatiable appetite of 24/7 media to debate and criticize government decisions. Or, it could be due to the perception that complex public policy issues do not lend themselves to broad public discourse in a fast moving, quickly distracted social media world. Whether for the simple practicality of getting things done or driven by political ideology, there has been a shift in Canada which has resulted in fewer people voting in elections and less of us engaging in the public policy process.

By essentially abdicating our civic responsibilities we’ve allowed successive governments a free reign to make decisions in which we express no interest or little ownership. It is not just the fault of those elected to serve in government if public policy often appears one-dimensional or that it lacks public support. Even decisions, which potentially are good for the nation, don’t have the intended positive impact because they lack traction.

In Canada, we’ve had our greatest moments when more people “put their shoulder to the wheel” and do the messy work of democracy. Confederation, Medicare, repatriation of our constitution, free trade, wars, have all defined us as a nation. Today, more than ever, it takes an army of people, each contributing a slightly nuanced view, to get something done well. For each of us, whether citizens, companies, government or lobby groups, it might mean elbowing our way into discussions and focusing on solutions.

Come October 20, yesterday’s problems will still remain. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce identified ten barriers to competitiveness, all of which are too big and complex to be left entirely in the hands of the relatively few politicians who form government on October 19th.  This is a sentiment many Members of Parliament conveyed in interviews with Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan in their 2014 book Tragedy in the Commons.

So maybe the ballot question of greatest importance during the October 19th federal election is not the one each political party will craft and that appears in political advertising. Maybe the ballot question of importance to Canadians is more fundamental. Will we choose to vote and, by doing so, take a first step to exert our responsibility and interest in being engaged in the public affairs of our country? If so, how can we, practically and realistically in 2015, recast how we do government in Canada?

The views in this post are those of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of NATIONAL Public Relations.