Citizens after the election

The October 19 federal election was a moment of catharsis in Canadian politics. A majority of Canadians rejected the divisive, excessively partisan, mean-spirited approach to politics that had come to dominate our national stage. A change in government is an opportunity for a fresh start, with high hopes for a different way of shaping our life together in Canada. That’s what politics should be. 

We’ve already heard lots of advice for the new Prime Minister and MPs for how to turn the hope for change into reality. But what about the role of citizens? Do we go back to ignoring what happens in parliament until the next election? What is the role of faith-based groups? Should they continue working as they have, or does this moment in Canadian history require something different?

If our political culture really changes to be more respectful, inclusive and policy-focused, it will not be because of Justin Trudeau, although his approach to leadership will be important. It will not be because of a new charismatic leader for the Conservatives, the renewal of the New Democrats or the growth of the Greens. It will happen because enough citizens insist on systemic changes as well as small policy changes. It means a continuing level of citizen engagement, as high as during the election, but now focused on electoral change, change in our political culture and robust exercise of our citizenship in general.

From vote-splitting to ‘every vote counts’

Problems with the way we elect our representatives were evident before and during this election. Three parties were pushed to promise change before the next election. The political pundits are already saying, however, that reform of the electoral system will not happen because it is a complex issue. And it is true that referenda on this matter in three provinces have failed to bring change. I am optimistic, however, that there are enough alert, dedicated citizens to make it happen this time.

My optimism stems from the impressive work done by pro-democracy groups, such as Lead Now, who are working within the current system to change it. During the election they were thoughtful and strategic, involving their supporters in every step of a sophisticated approach to strategic voting. While the media dismissed strategic voting, it had an impact in more than 30 swing ridings.

They will persist and hopefully other groups will join in their efforts, including faith-based groups. While electoral reform doesn’t seem like a typical moral issue, doing justice, a core Biblical value, requires that a variety of voices are heard in the places where decisions are made about how we live together.  

From closed to open policy-making

Ideas for parliamentary reform are flooding in, and regular, active engagement between MPs and citizens is an essential one. The Liberals have promised to end the Canada Revenue Agency rules that stifled the voice of charities who questioned current policies, which is a healthy start. Creating forums for genuine dialogue between citizens, officials and parliamentarians is a lost art, but it has worked in the past and can be recovered.

Dialogue is different from lobbying or campaigning for a few specific demands. That mode has been forced on faith-based advocacy groups in the last decade. During the last election Christians could choose from multiple election bulletins prepared by a variety of groups, all quite similar in approach with different issues to push. In this mode the deeper values behind specific policies – values that shape our society – often get minimal attention. It also fosters division within churches over which issues are of the “highest” priority. We could see increased polarization, similar to in the U.S., as some focus on defending more traditional Judeo-Christian social norms they feel are threatened, while others apply Christian principles to contemporary challenges.

Faith-based groups have a special responsibility when religion is used for political purposes, as it was in the last election. This is a dangerous trend that leads to polarization here and to violence and armed conflict in more unstable countries. Perhaps it is time to think again about the way we work for justice as well as what issues are most important.

From personal interests to common good

Reducing politics to a consumer transaction is a dangerous trend. We are citizens who care about our common space and our neighbours as well as taxpayers who care about our pocketbooks.
Every citizen can contribute to changing our political culture by refusing to be caught up in an interests-based approach to government. We can remind all actors in the public arena, including the media, that we care about the well-being of all, not just ourselves or the middle class. 

If we can change the electoral system, open up the policy formation process and focus on the common good, then real change will last beyond the honeymoon with Justin Trudeau.


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