Lenihan: Fixing our broken politics

Originally posted on National Newswatch (available here)

Is politics broken? Yes, but we also know how to fix it. Through the ages, politics has been broken many times, yet people have risen to the challenge. The question now is whether we will do so again. Let’s start with a few examples before turning to the solution.
When King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, he was under pressure from the barons, who felt politics was broken. To fix it, the king had to agree that even he was not above the law. The Rule of Law has since become the rock on which our political system rests.
Or consider the American and French Revolutions in the late 18th century. They were based on the idea that the source of government’s authority was not the king, but the people. The principle of the Sovereignty of the People rallied the people behind democracy.
During the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed the New Deal, where government took on a new responsibility to provide relief and jobs for the unemployed. Today, the principle of Equality of Opportunity underpins a vast array of social programs, such as social assistance, education, unemployment insurance and healthcare.
These three periods were marked by profound social changes that made the political system of the day obsolete: politics was broken and it had to be fixed. In each case, the solution came through a new principle that placed new limits or responsibilities on the leaders.
History is at another turning point. The rise of digital technology has changed our society, vastly increasing the speed, complexity and interdependence of events; and turning the system of nation states into a global village. Huge amounts of data and information on everything imaginable—health, weather, traffic, trade, finances—are streaming through cyberspace.
The tools to organize and “scrape” this data are evolving daily. Statistics Canada reports that it can now get all the information it needs for the census by scraping 500 government databases, and at a fraction of the cost. Within a decade the census will be gone.
This is a sign of things to come. If content is now pouring from cyberspace like an open faucet, soon it will be gushing like a firehose. New “smart” devices of all kinds are getting plugged into the internet, from cars to lightbulbs.
By 2020, over 50 billion devices will be pulsing out data on their surroundings and their users. New artificial intelligence systems will supercharge the capacity to scrape, organize and use this data, radically advancing our knowledge of DNA, nanotechnology, the environment, the global economy, security, transportation, and so on.
This capacity to integrate Big Data from a range of sources marks the beginning of a new era in human knowledge. It could also vastly improve policymaking, if we use the data well. And that brings us to politics.
Last week, Samara Canada released its Democracy 360 report on the state of democracy at the federal level. Among other findings, fully 60% of Canadians now think MPs only want their vote, and only 40% of us trust them to do what is right. Another 39% say they haven’t had a single political conversation in the last year.
No one should be surprised. This is the logical result of a trend that began centralizing power in the Prime Minister’s Office under Pierre Trudeau. Today, the policy process is run out of the PMO. It is utterly lacking in transparency and parliament has been reduced to little more than a shell.
Of course people are cynical. They know where the real decisions are made and that public debate over them is a facade. That is why politics is broken and needs to be fixed. But how? As with the other examples from history, we need a principled way to reverse this trend.
There is a new principle that I believe can do this. It is called Open by Default and was formulated by the Open Government movement to guide governments around the world as they transform themselves for the digital age.
The principle turns conventional government thinking about data and information upside down. It declares that in the digital age they must be defined as a public asset. The role of governments is to act as stewards of this resource, rather than owners of it who are free to use it as they wish.
Under this principle, these assets must be openly available to the public, unless legitimate concerns, such as security or privacy, dictate otherwise. When they do, the rationale for confidentiality must be given and proper oversight ensured.
According to the Treasury Board Secretariat website, the Harper government now accepts this principle. I’ll return to this below. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau also endorses Open by Default in his Private Members Bill on freedom of information.
But Open by Default is about more than data and information. It also applies to the dialogue and debate that is needed to put this asset to work in the service of better policymaking.
For example, it we want to map the issues around a community’s health needs, we must combine data on a range of factors, such as the environment, food consumption, education, exercise, income, cultural background, and so on.
This transforms the usual two-dimensional picture of a policy issue into a dynamic, three-dimensional model. Different combinations of factors produce different models and may lead to different conclusions.
Arriving at the best policies to solve issues on the environment, poverty, pipelines or national security thus is not simply science. Evidence-based decision-making is about exploring these options to make the choices that best meet our needs and aspirations as a community. It is a democratic exercise based on dialogue and debate that is open, informed, fair and inclusive.
So here is the deep question Open by Default raises for democratic process: Will this new approach to policymaking be conducted openly, with MPs, experts, officials and the public involved? Or carried out in secret by a coterie of analysts and then “sold” to the public?
This question has moved from pressing to urgent. For two decades, the public service has been building a vast new network of digital infrastructure to handle Big Data. Notwithstanding its alleged commitment to the principle of Open by Default, the Harper government has signaled its willingness to use its power to bring this infrastructure under its control.
Bill C-51, the anti-terrorism bill, will establish a massive new information-sharing regime to improve security, yet the government appears unwilling even to listen to arguments about new forms of oversight to monitor how the data is being used. For those who thought centralization couldn’t go any further, it has apparently entered a whole new phase.
The only way to fix politics is to reverse this centralizing trend. This will take a range of major reforms, both to parliament and the public service. And there will be cries and claims about the damage they will do to our system of government. Every age has its apologists for the status quo.
But to succeed, first and foremost, reformers must unite behind a single, clear and powerful idea of the kind of change we want to bring to our governments and why. That idea should be to put an end to government secrecy and to establish a new age of openness and evidence-based decision-making. It should be to make our governments Open by Default.

Analysis: Who is Matteo Renzi?

At just 39 years of age, Matteo Renzi became Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister in late February. Yet only months before, the then-mayor of Florence had been embroiled in a primary race for the leadership of the Italian Democratic Party. He secured victory with a convincing majority in early December 2013; Renzi won 68 percent of the popular vote, while rivals Gianni Cuperlo and Giuseppe Civati scored just 18 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Following his December victory, Renzi quickly became frustrated with the government’s prolonged stalemate, due in part to his own party; neither the government coalition nor the prime minister, Enrico Letta, were capable of pushing through much-needed reforms. In mid-February, having lost patience, he called a meeting of the Parliamentary Party, during which he briefly thanked Letta for his leadership but also called for—really, effectively demanded—his resignation.
The dramatic events that led to this meteoric rise are nothing new for Renzi. Over the course of his relatively short political career, the former lawyer and regional counselor earned the nickname “il Rottomatore”—meaning “the bulldozer” or “the demolition man”—thanks to his reputation for taking on the establishment and pushing through political reforms. The Financial Times has dubbed him “a young man in a hurry,” but a number of commentators have questioned whether his lack of experience at the national level could undermine his ability to modernize Italian politics and kick-start economic growth.
Others, however, suggest his very willingness to shake things up is what Italy needs and that this willingness to push for reforms will be precisely the source of his success.
Download Matt Browne’s analysis here.
Matt Browne is a Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress, a member of the Canada 2020 Advisory Board, and has been advising Matteo Renzi for the past 3 years.

So you want to build a progressive movement in Canada

Last November, Larry Summers opened his talk at our packed Canada 2020 event, by saying that think tanks, such as Canada 2020, were vital to the political process. In his view, much of the North American political discourse is the result of a carefully placed op-ed, or a strategically researched issue brief from a think tank.
We were delighted to hear this. But we were also mindful that Dr. Summers was speaking from a U.S. perspective: think tanks do indeed play a crucial role in shaping the policy agenda in Washington. Our long-time U.S. associate, The Center for American Progress (CAP), was seen by many as a government-in-waiting during the Bush years. This was not far from the truth as many staff – including Melody Barnes whom we will host at our health event next week – and even more ideas made their way from CAP to the Obama Whitehouse. What John Podesta has built in the past ten years, and the impact that CAP has had on the U.S. policy agenda, is nothing short of extraordinary.
In Canada think tanks have generally been thin on the ground, and typically associated with specific political parties. This remains true today.
We launched Canada 2020 in 2006 because we wanted a space for progressives of all stripes to meet, discuss, and share ideas in an environment that was free of the partisan mentality of old. For seven years we have been hard at work building out that space with our sold-out free events, online engagement, conferences, debates, research briefs and yes, carefully placed op-eds. We’re proud of the work we have done and the voices and ideas that we have featured: we have never had more momentum than we do now.
Other organizations are now beginning to join us.  That’s a good thing – we welcome these additions to the conversation. But as the progressive movement grows, it becomes increasingly important to carve out a unique vision, and a substantive offering.
This is what we have been doing in our marquee project, The Canada We Want in 2020. We identified five areas in which the federal government can and should play a more progressive, strategic role: reducing income inequality, increasing innovation and productivity, rising to meet the Asia challenge, securing our health system for the future, and squaring the carbon circle.
In each of these areas we have fueled new thinking, and engaged different voices in our effort to build a more progressive Canada for 2020 and beyond.
Ultimately, we at Canada 2020 believe that governing is about making choices. Sometimes, and ideally, the choices that governments make are strategic – the product of hard thinking to address major hurdles which coalesce at a particular point in time.
We believe that Canada is at such a point in time today – and that Canada 2020 is playing an important role in driving a discussion about the role of the federal government in Canada.
A serious public policy strategy for the country means doing less of some things, while focusing decisively and aggressively on a few important things. This requires in-depth analysis of the really big challenges and opportunities facing the country. It requires governments to be straight with Canadians about the risks and rewards that lie ahead, so that citizens will buy into a clear direction set by government.
The basic orientation of Canada 2020 is that the federal government has a vitally important role to play in developing and implementing strategic policies, focusing governments and other institutions in society on the big challenges the country faces, and mobilizing consensus for action. In other words, we believe that the federal government can be a force for significant and positive change.
This does not necessarily mean big government. But it does mean intelligent, innovative, analytical and strategic government. It could conceivably result in smaller government, focused on a few big and important areas of public policy that really matter to the Canada’s future.
Canada 2020 is very proud of what we have achieved in our first seven years and we look forward to continuing to build a progressive community around our shared interest.

Searching for a new progressive narrative

In the last few years, commentators have remarked upon the narrative of Canada developed by the Harper Conservatives, emphasizing patriotism that supports the military, Tim Horton’s and the North. More recently we have heard calls for a new progressive narrative as an alternative to this Harper version.
What could form part of this narrative, and how could it gain a broader appeal with Canadians?
Much of the current conservative narrative concerns “freedom”, especially the freedom of markets that contrasts with the control that progressives supposedly want to exercise on Canadians through taxation and government programs. The truth is, though, that government services have in many instances increased the freedoms enjoyed by Canadians. Unemployment insurance allows them to feed their families when they are out of work, public education enables people fully to exercise their talents, safety regulations mean that people can work longer and be more productive, minimum wage laws have increased the purchasing power of the poor and socialized medicine allows Canadians to spend more of their money on items of their choosing. Canada’s social safety net has freed many Canadians to pursue their goals and exercise their talents.
A new progressive narrative must, though, make it clear that government action is not the only solution. Private action and enterprise are just as worthwhile. Indeed, society functions best through a combination of individual effort and collective action. Private donations and government programmes complement each other in helping the poor, while governments and markets compensate for one another’s weaknesses. The approach should be more nuanced than the “market-first” consensus of the current narrative.
There are real questions about the way in which the Harper Conservatives have managed the economy. A progressive narrative could point to the fact that the government did not foresee the recession in 2008, that the Conservatives have run up large deficits and that it was the Opposition that forced the Government to develop its Economic Action Plan to stimulate the economy. In addition, it is noteworthy that the regulations that prevented Canadian banks from suffering the same fate as their American counterparts were put in place not by Harper, but by previous governments.
A new progressive narrative could, therefore, challenge many of the stereotypes of progressive ideas and the people who advocate them, while also pointing out the weaknesses of many current conservative ideas and policies. In doing so, however, it should avoid blanket condemnations and insults, whether of conservatives, private business or any other group of people.
In the early 1990s, the Reform Party was often ridiculed for its policies, the implication being that its supporters were somehow un-Canadian. Many Western Canadians were offended by this: the attacks reaffirmed their support for the Reform Party as it became the Canadian Alliance and now the modern Conservative Party. At the same time, the stereotype developed that many progressives were hostile and insulting to anyone who disagreed with their agenda.
A new progressive narrative can not only debunk the negative stereotypes about progressives and counter the narrative of the Harper Conservatives, it can also help build a more positive dialogue in our country. Canadians frequently defy political stereotypes: Conservative voters show compassion for the poor and care for the environment, while Liberal, NDP and Green voters put in long hours of hard work and show entrepreneurial spirit. Indeed, many entrepreneurs have run as Liberal or NDP candidates over the years.
A new political narrative that recognizes this and helps to bring us together as a country, rather than worsening the tensions that currently exist, would provide an extremely valuable service to Canada and to all Canadians.
Jared Milne is a policy researcher and analyst from Alberta with a strong interest in Canadian history, Canadian politics and Canadian public policy.