The Romanow Report represents the best fifteen million dollars the government of Canada has spent in a very long time. This probably sounds counterintuitive and definitely won’t sit well in Alberta, but bear with me for a moment. Its recommendations aside, which are well reasoned and supported by a healthy body of evidence, the Report demonstrates how well democracy can work, given a chance. A great deal of hot air has been produced in Ottawa of late bemoaning the democratic deficit. Although this "deficit" does exist, adjusting the rules of procedure in the House of Commons will do little to address it. But whether or not the Romanow Report improves our healthcare system, it’s clear to me that is has already improved the health of our democracy.
The release of the Romanow Report was treated by the Canadian media as a true event, which is remarkable considering the history of Royal Commissions in this country. Newspapers across the country devoted whole sections to point-by-point analysis of the content of the report along with the predictable deluge of irreverent and irrelevant commentaries. Better yet, the discussion did not disappear after a day or two in the papers. To date, it shows no sign of diminishing; I tried to call in to Rex Murphy’s Saskatoon-based "Cross Country Check-up", which featured Romanow himself along with a panel of experts and citizens, but received a busy signal for an hour and a half. In bars and offices, in public and in private, people have been discussing the Romanow Report with a kind of fervour that is foreign to most public policy discussions.
Democracy depends upon the quality of public discourse. In recent years, the bulk of Canadian public political discourse has revolved around the inane happenings in the Liberal leadership race, or Stockwell Day’s latest foot-in-mouth blunder. But on matters of policy, the public was simply not interested.
The public may not be the ones to blame for their apathy. John Ralston Saul discusses this weakness in our democracy at length in Reflections of a Siamese Twin, arguing that this country’s political elite engages the public on the same level that a parent engages a child. In his analysis of the implications of the 1995 Quebec referendum, Saul notes that "the citizens have gathered neither to worship their leaders nor to be condescended to. They are hoping to hear, from those with responsibility, something which might help them, the citizens, to understand the situation and to act. They are expecting to be addressed as if they were the source of legitimacy and not just a crowd susceptible to easy emotions. They are assuming that their leaders will enunciate clearly the sort of arguments the citizen will feel comfortable assuming and using. Instead, they were subjected to cheap patriotism."
Saul goes on to identify Pierre Trudeau as the last Prime Minister who truly engaged the public as capably intelligent citizens rather than a collection of idiots with votes. In contrast, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Paul Martin have intentionally avoided any discussion of substantive matters of policy. As citizens, we have difficult decisions to make and priorities to establish, and we can’t do this to the best of our collective abilities without sufficient information. If our politicians do not provide the leadership in these discussions, the public will seek it elsewhere. Declining levels of political trust and voter turnout seem to confirm that people have realized this and are actively looking for alternatives.
In order to function effectively, democracy demands discussion and discourse. Discussion and debate provide crucial opportunities for people to test out their abstract beliefs against the reality of other people and other opinions. Discourse, even when it gets rowdy, also builds tolerance and a sense of community, also necessary features of a healthy democracy. Unfortunately, within our efficiency-obsessed, private-sector culture, talk is seen as idle and unproductive. Bearing in mind the zeal with which governments across the country have cut and slashed in an effort to reduce the size of government as a goal in its own right, the expenditure of 15 million dollars might also seem wasteful. But it isn’t unproductive, and it’s not wasteful. It has provided the public both with information and an opportunity to field-test their beliefs on an important subject.
So, if Canada’s political elite is truly interested in addressing the democratic deficit, re-jigging the rules of procedure in the House of Commons is not the answer. Instead, the answer is more Royal Commissions like Mr. Romanow’s. In other words, we need more detailed, rich documents that facilitate informed public discussion on critical issues. Part of the reason this is happening over the Romanow Report is the product of Mr. Romanow’s talents and his belief in informed discussion; if this was the Hedy Fry Report, it’s unlikely that there would be such a lively debate on the issue.
As a society, Canadians are going to have to make some difficult decisions about our healthcare system in the near future: are we willing to pay more taxes, or are we content to allow the private sector to assume greater control over the system? Unfortunately, the current crop of political leaders in this country are likely to be unwilling to tackle the issue head on. Like a parent with a child, they assume that rhetorical bromides will suffice in distracting the public and diverting their attentions away from issues that they alone are capable of handling. But people are not stupid, and the Romanow Report is proof that the Canadian public is capable of engaging their politicians on the highest of intellectual levels. Aside from improving our healthcare system, which is an important goal in its own right, let’s hope that the Romanow Report encourages us to demand more of our political leaders. Fortuitously, the Report provides an model for improving the health of our democracy as well as that of our healthcare system We’ll all be better for it.