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Opinion Danny Graham on citizen engagement: ‘I have tremendous faith in Joe Public’

Danny Graham.

Dan Callis

In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with renewing our democratic institutions.

Danny Graham, former leader of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party and founding chair of Engage Nova Scotia, was interviewed on July 2 by Adam Kahane, chairman, North America, of Reos Partners.

Kahane: What concerns you about what's going on in Canada?

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Graham: Since the 1990s, there has been more edginess in our political leadership. Politicians are more dismissive and disrespectful of each other's ideas. Politics has become this crazy world where people are yelling at each other, "We're right and you're wrong, shut up, sit down, and pay attention to what I have to say." Attack ads are symptoms of this dynamic. The important point is that these messages are a symptom of a more polarized public who want – even demand – simple answers to complex questions. A fundamental shift needs to happen for us to create a new balancing point.

Kahane: What might that shift look like?

Graham: The game-changers are deep democratic reform and, in particular, citizen engagement. The essence of democracy is collective wisdom. If we put our faith in people and include them more often in deliberations and decisions between elections – and not just for these single events – Canada would get back on the path toward being a vibrant, successful, sustainable, progressive country. The way forward is through processes that bring citizens into conversation with each other, especially around important, complex issues.

Kahane: Can you think of an example where we have managed to engage in the way you think is required?

Graham: Back in the 1990s, the public and political leaders felt that Young Offenders Act was resulting in young criminals who committed serious offences getting off scot-free. The reality was that Canada was sending youth to jail more frequently than almost any Western country. In response to the public outcry, Ralph Klein, the premier of Alberta [at the time], who wanted tougher criminal laws, brought together a citizen assembly of 150 Albertans to set the direction for the criminal justice system in Alberta. Some people expected that the group was going to recommend tougher penalties. During the three-day process, those citizens were informed in depth about the choices they had. What emerged from this deliberation was a set of excellent common-sense recommendations about the direction of the criminal justice system that was born from the best practices and evidence, and not from rhetoric.

Kahane: Are you saying that average citizens have a greater capacity to be sensible than politicians do?

Graham: I'm not sure if I would say that. But being in political office is a tremendously distorting experience, and you can lose your compass when you pay too much attention to the media and communications advisers.

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I have tremendous faith in Joe Public. Research has shown that if you give him or her the opportunity to apply their wisdom to something, they will usually arrive at a wiser decision, and the rest of us generally accept the outcome. For example, consider the extent to which our general public accepts jury decisions.

Kahane: Do you think the current political narrative can change with a different set of leaders?

Graham: Not a chance. Zero chance. It can't happen just from the top down, for a variety of reasons: decline in trust in institutions, a lack of informed discussion around the real challenges, and the complexity of issues.

One hundred years ago, we lived in a time where people trusted the elite more because of the lack of education and the limited exchange of information. But in this day and age, people just aren't going to buy a solution unless they've had a chance to spend time with it. So any fundamental changes have to be both top-down and bottom-up.

Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca

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