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Without accountability, democracy is broken

The following editorial was published in the Guelph Mercury, July 8, 2006.

I need to understand accountability in government.

This is how it works now: there is none. Oh sure, every four years or so we get to listen to a bunch of people make speeches and call each other names. We vote for the ones we think are least likely to represent us in the worst possible way. Then they go and do whatever they darn well please. End of accountability. End of democracy. End of story.

I don’t want to sound unfair, but it’s not much different than a benevolent dictatorship without the annoying part where we actually have to vote. This is not meant to disrespect the work done by opposition politicians, community groups or people who write letters to the editor. What’s so maddening is that these interests are rarely listened to, no matter what the idea. The fact that advocacy groups sometimes have to get downright rambunctious before politicians pay attention just helps make the case.

I’m not referring specifically to local politics, although these points do apply. This is a bigger issue, because it’s the one that takes away our voice, and with no voice except that four-year thing, there is no accountability.

This is the fundamental weakness of modern-day democracy, and it is going to bite us.

The process by which our democracy works is what I call the conspiracy of non-involvement. Politicians count on it. Municipal staff long for it. Provincial public servants tolerate the vocal minority only when a state of non-involvement can no longer be maintained.

Some claim to want involvement, and they can seem quite genuine.

Tony Dean, for example. The provincial cabinet secretary and super-deputy minister last month stood in front of 300 business leaders at Hart House, at a closed dinner with all Ontario Deputies hosted by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. All in all, a darn good idea. He talked about how government needs to run more like a business; about how we are not voters, or citizens of the province, or constituents, but “customers”. Customers! Wow. He talked about how government departments need to do a better job of serving their customers, of integrating systems and providing a better experience at every point of contact with the Ontario government’s vast public service.

I wish that could be true. And I wish, on those occasions when people believe it to be true, that it could be enabled and enacted through a mechanism and a culture of service. Maybe then, things like an environmental assessment of the Liberal government’s plan for nuclear energy wouldn’t become a casualty of some half-baked excuse about the review process taking too long. Maybe there would be transparency. More locally, maybe a culture of service would give initiatives like SmartGuelph a fighting chance.

Unfortunately, it is far more common for a government to exempt itself from its own process when a particular law is inconvenient, or to act unilaterally when it suits the will of the few. Whither accountability?

Democracy is broken. For years, people have been quite complacent about this because our lives have been rolling along well enough.

But now, there is a rising sense that all is not happiness. The environment is collapsing on every front. Our communities and infrastructure are falling apart. We barely earn enough to pay our skyrocketing tax burden. We read that Finance Minister Greg Sorbara can’t change the property assessment system—as the Ontario Ombudsman has recommended—because the government can’t figure out who would pay for the lost tax revenue. So a system that is wildly inconsistent at best and arbitrary at worst is sustained. Fine way to treat a customer.

I’m an optimist at heart. I believe in the inherent goodness of people. But we’re reaching a point where our world no longer works the way it did, and clinging to the old way is just dumb.

If people who are passionate about quality in some aspect of their community don’t have a mechanism to be part of creating a solution, then society will probably deserve what it gets. And it will be our elected leaders and their public servants who will be responsible.

In smaller cities and towns, unelected paid staff have much to do with what happens, and local representatives sometimes sleepwalk through municipal decisions with an attitude of impunity; bobbleheads—not challenging, not listening—only nodding as they take your deputation, presentation, position, concern. Yes, thank you for your opinion. Next.

I don’t have the answer. But it’s time to get the great unorganized masses marching toward a democracy that works, even if it takes some political kicking and screaming.

We have to create something new. The will to do that can come only from people.


©Garrett Klassen is president of Crunch! Communications in Elora, Ontario, Canada.


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