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How the Endless Campaign Radically Transforms the Public Interest

by Michael Teeter

Defining the Public Interest: What we were taught

Most students of politics were taught that competing interests expressed views and opinions to political and bureaucratic decision-makers and these people weighed the pros and cons of the various conflicting or competing positions to arrive at a balanced, nuanced and benevolent decision in the public interest.

Decision-makers were trusted to have conversations with outside experts and advocates in the collection of information, insights, intelligence and facts that could then be used to inform better decision-making. There were few restraints on the ability of decision makers to reach out, to consult, to get informed and to have conversations. Internal organizations in government, whether science-based, evaluation-based, or policy-based, etc. were valuable members of the internal decision making process. Conflicting internal views were respected and nurtured.

Democratic institutions, while still driven by partisan interests, encouraged outside interests to express themselves and Parliamentary Committees had an open door policy to requests to appear before committees.

There are many political science terms to describe the formation of this type of public interest decision-making but the one I have always preferred is "interest group pluralism". In this model, decision-makers are trusted to make decisions in the public interest, based on the collection and understanding of conflicting and competing group perspectives and facts.

Defining the Public Interest: What we are experiencing today

Approximately 5 years ago, this notion of public interest decision started to completely evolve. It started with the federal government but has now found its way to many provincial government and even municipal governments. We are now evolved into what I term "programmatic decision-making" and this type of decision making is now defining the public interest. Let's examine its characteristics:

  • Public servants and political staff are no longer trusted by the centre of government to speak, consult or communicate to outside interests to collect facts, opinions, etc. , unless this exercise is directed by the centre of government and is consistent with the program that the centre of government wishes to promote. For example, with the Harper government at least, traditional labour unions or environmental groups are shunned while Christian organizations and oil sands companies are sought out and encouraged to give views and participate in internal and external discussions.

  • This erosion of internal trust is not just confined to senior bureaucratic and political decision-making. Unfortunately, it has, in the past year or two, been extended to Parliamentary decision-making as well. Groups can only appear before some committees if they are invited to appear and these groups usually hold the same views as the bill or reference before the Committee. The situation has gone so far that government MPs now are instructed to discredit any witnesses which may have opposing views. Talking Points and Questions that will do this are planted by the Parliamentary Secretary so that government MPs can follow the program dictated by the Centre. Government legislators no longer think for themselves and they do what they are told. Sometimes they completely bungle the talking points as we have recently witnessed by suggesting that witnesses should imagine that being raped may be ok if it is seen as not violating individual rights.

  • Talking Points are everything when a government is being directed by a specific program, often reflective of the personal views of the "base" of the party or the Prime Minister or Premier of that jurisdiction. Policies and policy delivery are run by communications offices directed by political staff at the centre of government. There is little scope for policy expertise or robust propose and challenge decision-making.

  • The effect on bureaucratic behaviour is profound. It is now a virtue to ignore phone calls and emails from legitimate interests. Large groups of public servants often meet in advance to decide how to respond to a phone call when a senior official or political staffer decide that responding is necessary. Facts are not divulged. Officials plan based on "spin" in order to feed a particular programmatic message to the outside interests asking the questions or seeking to be heard.

  • Many government officials today are completely focussed internally. Many public servants today have not spoken or interfaced with a member of the public in years.

  • Internal policy and science processes, people and departments have been emasculated and no longer are expert or competing internal views sought or encouraged.

How these changes affect people

Some political leadership has now figured out that the only people that matter are the people that have the same views as you. What this means is that there is no need to pay attention to some regions of the country or to some groups of people, as these people are immaterial to a positive electoral result. The secret of forming a majority government today is to marginalize the opposition and to mobilize the parts of the society that support your program. Where low-voter turnout supports this objective the governing party will encourage this. Where low involvement and participation in the democratic process is supportive of government political objectives then this outcome is supported and encouraged. By-elections are called on the Monday before a National Holiday and a long weekend for most. It is ok if MPs get elected with 9% of the eligible vote.

The result for most Canadians is growing cynicism and disengagement. The result for Canada is policies less likely to reflect majority Canadian values.

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