Highlights of the Failing State Debate: An Idealist and a Cynic debate the answer to hyper partisan politics and polarizing debate

6 minute read

By Rhonda Moore, Practice Lead, Science and Innovation

On 16 October, 2019, the IOG hosted a debate entitled The Failing State: Is it the politics or the process?In front of a live audience of about 85 people, with a few dozen more watching online, Rachel Curran, President, Wellington Advocacy, and Fellow and Instructor, Clayton H. Riddell Program in Political Management, Carleton University, and Don Lenihan, Senior Associate, IOG, debated the following resolution: “Be it resolved that the answer to hyper partisan politics and polarizing debate lies in establishing a new generation of engagement process rather than yet another promise to do politics differently”. Matt Luloff, Deputy Mayor of the City of Ottawa, moderated the debate with acuity and a little humour.

Unlike some of the debates during the recent federal election campaign, the October 16 event was structured to allow the debaters to explore the resolution put before them, and constructively respond to their opponent. The moderator also made sure to leave time for some questions from the audience.

Perhaps also unlike the recent federal election debates, our debaters – one, a self-identified cynic, and the other, labeled an idealist by the cynic – found a number of items upon which they could agree.

In principle, both the cynic and the idealist agreed that Canadians expect transparency from their federal government. According to both debaters, Canadians understand federal parties present platforms during campaigns. Once elected, the governing party uses its (four-year) term to deliver on that platform. Canadians expect the governing political party to do what they promised, and to be transparent about their progress, both by bringing more of the political process into public discourse (e.g. publishing ministerial mandate letters) and by using technology to make information available, in real time and via the latest technology.

The debaters agreed that there is room to improve consultation and public engagement practices at the federal level. Both dismissed the ‘standard’ consultation practice described in the IOG’s paper on this subject, released in September. They agreed that public policy issues facing Canadians are increasingly complex and require better public engagement. The cynic believes that current approaches to these activities can be improved through a series of small, incremental changes, which, over time, creates real impact. The idealist, on the other hand, proposes a more extensive change to public engagement, as outlined in IOG’s paper, above.

Both debaters agreed that elected, political leaders are risk-averse. How a government delivers on its mandate, and the extent to which and how they make use of public engagement, is where our debaters differed in opinion. The cynic proposed that Canadians elect governments to take on tough policy questions and debates, to deal with complex policy issues and simply to keep Canadians informed of their progress. Canadians, said the cynic, are busy raising their families and living their lives. They do not want, nor do they need, to engage in the work of the government at every turn.

The idealist believes that Canadians care deeply about the complex policy issues facing them and our country, and identified public engagement as a means by which Canadians may be engaged on a divisive issue and, through process, may discuss trade-offs, find middle ground, and achieve buy-in. Effective public engagement can bring citizens to the decision-making table with a unified voice and clear idea of their value statement. And when funded and endorsed by government, said the idealist, public engagement saves government time and money.

The cynic identified a four-year political term as “an incredibly short period of time during which political parties cannot afford, and nor are they interested in, a public engagement process where the outcome is uncertain” and may or may not reinforce a predetermined position they have on a certain issue or decision. Politicians, maintains the cynic, must address any issue or challenge inside the term they are given; issues rarely survive a change in government. Rather, the cynic encouraged civil society not to wait for government to catch up or support efforts to bring people together and identify a common ground, arguing that the government of Canada is already challenged to deliver on its responsibilities to Canadians without adding this to the mix. The cynic also suggested that a robust process with compelling findings will find its way to government, to inform policy.

Our idealist disagreed, saying that public engagement can be an effective means by which to ensure buy-in for an issue, and a means to identify direction for the electorate.

The conversation between our cynic and our idealist is typical of a dialogue that is taking place across Canada, at varying degrees, about the state of public trust and social cohesion in our fair country. Is there an issue of declining trust in public institutions in Canada? Many Canadians, our debaters, and countless public polls and research surveys tell us that, Yes, there is indeed a decline in trust of public institutions. Is the trend irreversible? Does a decline in our trust of public institutions infer a decline in social cohesion?

Our cynic agreed that there is a decline in public trust, but does not draw the link from a decline in trust of public institutions to a decline in social cohesion. To illustrate this point, the cynic pointed to a number of factors : economic inequality has declined in Canada over the last decade; voter turnout remains relatively constant; Canadians of differing opinions are still finding ways to talk to each other; and Canadians continue to elect governments with populist messages (e.g. Trudeau’s focus on the middle class). In contrast, the cynic shared examples of life in the U.S. where there is a decline in social cohesion.

The cynic believes in the power of debate and discussion as a means to explore issues, strengthen arguments, and determine a path forward. The cynic does not believe it is necessary to find a middle ground on every issue, and indeed, does not believe there even is a middle ground on some issues.

Our idealist, however, draws a link between trust in public institutions and a decline of social cohesion, saying that the problem can be fixed through new tools and approaches to public engagement that create safe spaces for dialogue, where Canadians can come together to find common ground, using new, clear, rules of engagement. Citizens, said the idealist, are the experts on Canadian values, and the government and civil society have a role – and perhaps a duty? – to create and support places for those conversations in order to reduce polarization among Canadians. Failure to identify and act to repair the decline in social cohesion could have a detrimental impact on Canadian society.

These two positions could represent ideological positions about the role of government in Canada, or two variations on the pulse of Canadians’ thinking. Which is true? Which represents your personal view point?

At the end of the debate, the moderator asked which debater presented a stronger argument. By a show of hands, our audience was tied.

A recording of the full debate is available on the IOG Youtube page here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBokXjQQjqY.

Failing State Debating

About the author

Institute on Governance

Institute on Governance

Founded in 1990, the Institute on Governance (IOG) is an independent, Canada-based, not-for-profit public interest institution with its head office in Ottawa and an office in Toronto. Our mission is ‘advancing better governance in the public interest,’ which we accomplish by exploring, developing and promoting the principles, standards and practices which underlie good governance in the public sphere, both in Canada and abroad.

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