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Rights + Justice

They're Recharging Democracy

These groups start at the community level, and you're invited.

Murray Dobbin 19 Apr

Murray Dobbin's "State of the Nation" column now appears every other Monday in The Tyee and on Rabble, and he also publishes articles on his blog.

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All together now!

As many writers and activists have declared for some time now, Canadians -- and citizens in all English speaking developed countries -- are facing a crisis in democracy. Another way of putting it is that we face a democratic deficit. That term harkens back to a book written 35 years ago called The Crisis in Democracy, commissioned by the Trilateral Commission (TLC), an international neo-liberal forum of CEOs, former and current heads of state and free market academics. The crisis they were talking about was different. As Samuel Huntington, a prominent American neo-liberal wrote in the book, there was "an excess of democracy." Too many people were asking governments for too many things -- and, even more dangerous, beginning to believe they were entitled to them.

In the over three decades since Huntington wrote those words, a virtual blitzkrieg of think tanks, media owners, right-wing political parties and academics have been recruited to disabuse citizens of the notion that government should actually create the conditions for a social, as well as a political, democracy.

That project has been extremely successful. The health of democracy in Canada is at a 50-year low point, especially at the federal and provincial levels. The right's successful framing of key issues like the deficit, "tax relief," efficiency, and trade  -- and demonizing government itself -- has lowered the people's expectations of what is possible from government, and partly as a result, has convinced them that participating in such a diminished democracy holds nothing for them.

The state of the mainstream media, hijacked by millionaire ideologues like Conrad Black and the Aspers with clear political objectives, made dealing with this crisis extremely difficult for social justice and labour movements.

As a result, many activists who turned away from federal and provincial movement politics are looking at community-based civic politics based on sustainability and a more direct democracy. While local politics does not involve the big issues like foreign policy, Medicare and post-secondary education, it is the level of government closest to people in their daily lives and the least susceptible to the kind of neo-liberal propaganda that plagues politics at the senior levels of government. People can see everyday what their taxes pay for -- or don't.

It is also a level of politics that has traditionally been framed as "non-ideological," largely because it rarely involves political parties (Vancouver being the main exception). Of course all politics are ideological and business interests have dominated municipal politics for decades -- casting themselves as the purveyors of a-political "common sense" while implementing pro-business policies. But this can actually be an advantage: the majority of people identify themselves as "non-political," and that can make them more accessible at the civic level.

Welcome to Transition Town

Into this most basic realm of politics have come a number of initiatives that are aimed in varying degrees at responding to the climate crisis, peak oil, the curse of consumerism and the disengagement of citizens from the political process.

One of these international initiatives is called Transition Town (TT), which was started over four years ago in Totne, England and has since grown throughout England and into the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and Chile. According to its website (where you get guidelines and a primer), the TT initiative starts simply with a small group concerned about dealing with climate change and asks this question: "For all those aspects of life that this community needs in order to sustain itself and thrive, how do we significantly increase resilience (to mitigate the effects of peak oil) and drastically reduce carbon emissions (to mitigate the effects of Climate Change)?"

The TT initiative is largely aimed at changing the political culture of the town rather than changing the governing council. Those involved are engaged in education, bringing like-minded groups together, doing projects (on anything from food security to innovations in transportation). Once they have proven themselves, they get certified by the Transition Network headquarters in Britain. Over the longer term they are expected to launch a " defined, community implemented 'Energy Descent Action Plan' over a 15 to 20 year timescale."  The TT's work with local government on individual issues but do not engage directly in the political process of local elections.

There are some 275 certified Transition Towns in eight countries, with 13 certified in Canada, mostly in Ontario and B.C.

The people of Slow Town

Another, parallel initiative grew out of the Slow Food movement which started in the Tuscany region of Italy in the 1990s. Called Cittaslow, or Slow Town, it has spread to over 140 communities in 20 countries. North America is among the last regions to get engaged and Cowichan, B.C., became the first North American town to get certified last year. Cittaslow's international conference is being held in South Korea in June.

While the TT is focused more exclusively on responding to peak oil and climate change, the Slow Town movement casts a wider net and talks about quality of life, reducing commercialism and consumerism and reclaiming the commons.

One local web site states that the movement focuses "on quality of life and sustainable use of natural resources, the local environment is valued and enhanced, local traditions are cherished, people friendly infrastructure is put in place and air and noise pollution is reduced. It includes eco-friendly architecture, aesthetic signage, low light pollution, promoting local healthy food... It also encourages citizen involvement in decision making and participating in local cultural events."

Like the Transition Town, Cittaslow requires a fairly rigorous and demanding assessment process to get certified by the international body. Part of that certification involves explicitly working with the local municipal council and getting it formally on side -- in fact, the international body insists that the best way to get certified is to have the application made by the elected council: "The Cittaslow philosophy is meant to be 'embedded in the municipality,' and you won't be able to achieve this unless you have won support from elected members."

The civic league wants you!

A third strain in this local democracy and sustainability movement was started in Canada with the Guelph Civic League (there are civic leagues in Edmonton, and in Coquitlam and Saanich in B.C). There is no national governance body or certification process and the focus is on bringing people and organizations together based on a detailed progressive values survey which is ultimately used to engage directly in the political process.

The league creates a report card on the city council incumbents based on how their voting record jibes with the extensive values survey, a process that engages the community in the year before the local election. One of the objectives is to increase voter turn-out using public events, door-to-door canvassing and direct mail campaigns to engage citizens in finding solutions to municipal issues based on their stated values.

Compared to high intensity campaigns by national or provincial organizations aimed at senior levels of government these three citizen movements seem pretty low key. And while they don't always confront corporate power or political power the way we are accustomed to, successes at those levels have been few and far between over the past 15 years. While there are significant positive exceptions, whatever we are doing at those levels just isn't working very well, as witnessed by the political gridlock federally and a government in power in Ottawa that is at complete odds with the values of the vast majority of Canadians.

Never mind the cynics

While federal politics is in gridlock, progressive national politics, at the extra-parliamentary level, is moribund. The flowering of a democracy movement following Harper's second prorogation should have been a signal for the labour movement to awake from its long slumber and engage with offers of support and solidarity. It didn't happen. Nor did many other national groups join the groundswell.

It seems it won't happen from the top down. But the common feature linking the anti-prorogation movement (it is still actively organizing) and the local community organizing efforts is the democracy imperative. They are both about engaging citizens and enhancing democratic politics. And that, perhaps, is the necessary ingredient for national political change. Rather than focus exclusively on single issues -- the Afghan war, Medicare, child care, poverty, human rights, climate change and the environment -- the focus on democracy is the glue that will ultimately hold all these critical issues together. Those single issue organizations flourished at a time when governments actually listened.

For the cynics who thought that "democracy" was too ephemeral an issue to attract attention, the 60-plus demos across the country in February should have put that notion to rest. Rooting a movement for democracy at the local level, especially in smaller cities, makes sense because of scale and because it can engage people at the level of their values and community. Once people have a taste of democracy locally, they are more likely to demand it provincially and nationally. That could be the catalyst for a renewal of a progressive politics nation-wide.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics

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