Preston Manning, founder of the Manning Foundation for Democratic Education and the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, had a comment piece in today’s Globe and Mail. The following is my response. I have also submitted it to both the “Letters to the Editor” and Comment email addresses at the Globe, but since I suspect there will be no response, I have decided to “publish” it here.
Before we get to it, though, you may want to take the Manning Centre’s “What kind of conservative are you?” quiz as a warm-up exercise or just for kicks and giggles. It turns out you can’t be anything BUT a Conservative, no matter how hard you may try–just a certain “type” of Conservative. (Apparently I’m a libertarian conservative. I love the little hedgehog graphic I got, but I’m not sure how to interpret my “42%, 21% below average” score. I guess I’m a below average libertarian conservative??? But let’s not go down THAT rabbithole!)
Anyway…on the with the show!
While Preston Manning did not say as such in so many words, I wholeheartedly agree with his implied assertion that municipal government in Canada is incredibly important. In fact, I would suggest that in many ways municipal government is the most important level of government in the land. It certainly has the greatest direct impact on our individual and collective daily lives. For most Canadians, police, fire, and other emergency services are provided by municipal government. So are the water we drink, the roads we use most frequently, parks, libraries, swimming pools and soccer fields, and on and on. Municipal government is also directly responsible for decisions large and small about land use and (urban) planning–everything from the height of a fence between neighbours to comprehensive growth and development strategies.
Local government and “politics” directly and tangibly touch our daily lives in many more ways than their provincial and federal counterparts do. They truly are “grass roots democracy”. But as Mr. Manning quite correctly points out, voter turnout for local government elections is generally far less than it is for provincial or federal elections and is indeed abysmal. Given that local government is perhaps the most important to voters’ daily lives, this is truly ironic and depressing.
Where I wholeheartedly, emphatically, and unequivocally disagree with Mr. Manning, however, in in his assertion that the “solution” to this “democracy deficit” is in the introduction of “think tanks, training programs, and communications vehicles” to the municipal arena. I would propose that it is precisely the introduction of such third-party entities into the “democratic” and/or “political” arenas that is the direct cause of the “democratic deficit” that Mr. Manning laments. We need only look to our neighbours to the south to see how “think tanks” and “communication vehicles” (Super PACs, anyone?) have co-opted, corrupted, and virtually destroyed “democracy” in the United States. To propose these sorts of bodies and organizations as a means of “improving” local governance across Canada seems naive at best and pernicious at worst.
While Mr. Manning’s call for “strengthening the knowledge, skills, ethical foundations, and leadership capacities of candidates” for local office may seem innocuous, benign, and even desirable on the surface, one also needs only to look more closely at both the “Manning Foundation for Democratic Education” and the “Manning Centre for Building Democracy” (and most specifically at the “Municipal Governance Project” of the latter) to see that these bodies and projects are not by any means “non-partisan”, “apolitical”, or “non-ideological”.
A stated “value” of the Foundation for Democratic Education is “free markets, freedom of choice, and limited government”. A gentleman named David Seymour “leads the Foundation’s project to develop market oriented policy for municipal government”. The slogan of the Centre for Building Democracy is “Building Canada’s Conservative Movement”. And the slogan of the Centre’s “Municipal Governance Project” is “improving local government through free markets”. (All quotations taken directly from the Foundation and Centre websites).
Mr. Manning may claim that he and these bodies that bear his name are “neutral” and only interested in “strengthen(ing) democratic governance in Canada at its most basic level”, but this is a patent and undeniable falsehood, as the evidence above clearly demonstrates. These are not apolitical entities intended purely to supposedly improve the quality of candidates for local office (and presumably by extension, to increase voter participation in municipal elections). They are entities explicitly intended to promote a certain form of “Conservatism”, and carry an equally explicit “free market/libertarian” ideology.
You’re right, Mr. Manning. I do “see a conspiracy behind such attempts to innovate”–at least this one. It is precisely the sort of double-speak which seeks to thinly veil or cloak ideology behind seemingly lofty, “apple pie and motherhood” rhetoric about “democracy” that I find disingenuous, deplorable, unconscionable, revolting, and frankly not only undemocratic but anti-democratic. If this is the sort of think tank, interest group, or communication vehicle that Mr. Manning wants to introduce into the municipal democratic process in Canada, I for one say a polite, “No, thank you”.
I certainly hope that the “best and brightest” consider offering themselves for elected public service, with honorable intentions, at all levels of governance in Canada. I sincerely wish more people took it upon themselves to be informed, educated, and engaged citizens. And I profoundly wish more people would vote–especially at the municipal level! I may not know how to achieve those things, but I do know with absolute certainty that the introduction of third-party think tanks, training programs, interest groups, and/or “communications vehicles” into the municipal electoral process is precisely what we do not want or need to do. I’m equally certain that if we do, voter cynicism, disenchantment, disengagement, and participation will only get worse, not better.