We’re separated from autocratic government by little more than a quadrennial ritual observed by barely half of us and a theatrical scrim of accountability and consultation that’s raised and lowered to fit the political scene.
It wouldn’t take much of an uptick in apathy or ignorance for our tenuous grip on democracy to wither and atrophy into irrelevance but if it does we’ll have only ourselves to blame.
Some – jurists and purists – will point out the rule of law is what stands between liberty and tyranny, and while there’s merit and truth in their argument, lawmakers are so called with reason. Legal, even constitutionally entrenched freedoms are fragile, and while their erosion begins almost imperceptibly the shifting sand can quickly undermine vital democratic institutions.
In America, voter suppression has taken hold in numerous states in deceitful response to mythical voter fraud, a fantasy fed by a president who called the 2016 election rigged and famously refused to commit to its outcome until he won.
Apathy has plagued American and Canadian democracies for generations.
Turnout in presidential elections hasn’t topped 60 per cent of eligible voters since 1968. In Nova Scotia, the 2017 election produced the lowest turnout on record when only 54 per cent of potential voters bothered to cast ballots.
And yet ignorance is rapidly overtaking apathy as the graver danger to democracy. America’s last presidential election was a dis- and misinformation campaign complete with foreign assistance and the winner lies pathologically but is believed by a sizable minority of Americans who prefer not to know better.
Public education in many states, where teachers are forced to take a second or third job to survive, has produced an America that’s no longer just blissfully unaware of the rest of the world. It is woefully unschooled about its own democracy.
It is axiomatic that an informed, engaged citizenry is essential to a healthy democracy. A knowledgeable electorate is also the best cure for lousy government.
Even in nations where rights are restricted, the contempt of a defiant citizenry will temper a despot’s abuse of authority.
Nova Scotians have a government that fully enjoys the inherent authority bestowed upon it by about one in four eligible voters. Content with that mandate, the Liberals apparently see little virtue in nurturing soft, consensual authority between elections. Or, if it recognizes the advantages of soft power, the government has absolutely no idea how to earn it.
Stephen McNeil’s Liberal government prefers to find or create supportive surrogates with the qualifications to paint a veneer of knowledgeable respectability over its policies, rather than risk engaging groups and organizations created to represent specific sectoral or professional interests, yet the government will refer to those same organizations as “partners” when the purpose suits.
For instance, last week on the night before the province announced it was closing two hospitals in Cape Breton, Doctors Nova Scotia was informed there was a big announcement in the offing but was given none of the details. Professional leadership at the doomed facilities was kept in the dark as well.
This spring teachers learned of sweeping changes to the structure of public schools only when Education Minister Zach Churchill announced them publicly.
It takes a special kind of arrogance for politicians and bureaucrats to imagine they can make better decisions in splendid isolation than in collaboration with those most intimately involved in the public services affected.
Collaboration with doctors, nurses, teachers, farmers, fishermen, municipal officials and any other Nova Scotians that the government likes to label “key stakeholders” is not just a recipe for better policy, it earns the government soft power, a legitimacy for its actions based on the virtues of transparency, accountability and due diligence.
It’s like a boss who involves her employees in the decision-making process. The decisions are better and understood by the employees who buy into the objectives. The alternative, a boss who simply tells workers what to do more closely resembles the province’s current model.
Good government isn’t afraid of engagement, while a government motivated first and most by politics holds its cards close to its vest, so it can maintain tight control over the message. The former has confidence it can support its decisions. The latter works hard to keep secrets because it lacks confidence it is doing the right thing.
It’s a cliché that people get the government they deserve but it is not always true. History is resplendent with examples of governments no one deserved.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.