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RM Issue #040118

Martin should reduce the truth deficit

Thomas S. Axworthy National Post January 17, 2004

In recalling Parliament for Feb. 2, Paul Martin will be presenting his first Speech from the Throne, the second major defining event of his government (the first being the formation of his new Cabinet). Strategic prime ministers need an overall theme -- Pierre Trudeau's was the Just Society. In his first Speech from the Throne, Mr. Martin should build on and amplify his proposals for erasing our democratic deficit by making "democracy first" the leitmotif of his prime ministership.

Martin has concentrated on expanding the role of backbench Members of Parliament, but a commitment to democratic renewal goes far beyond the House of Commons. Every element of our political system is in crisis: voters, especially young people, are dropping out of the system in droves; our parties rarely work on policy; our electoral system is flawed; our Senate is unelected; our bureaucracy is adrift; and our cities have no real power. As old as the ideals of classical Athens and as new as connectivity on the Internet, giving power to citizens to change their lives for the better and to hold accountable those to whom they have delegated responsibility, is an idea whose time has come.

Structural democratic reform -- an elected Senate, proportional representation, parties with policy think tanks, clear lines of accountability in the public service -- is a large piece of the puzzle and Martin should be radical in his prescriptions, but it is not the only response. We also need a change in the political culture to get away from the 30- second advertisement, photo-op, blow-dry, spin cycle that politics in the Western world now represents. People are turning away from politics not only because they can not influence decisions, but also because they are tired of elites never telling them the truth.

Real democratic accountability begins with truth and trust. "Truth," Montaigne tells us, "must be loved for its own sake" because it is the principal and fundamental part of virtue since all other virtues depend on it. Truth, for example, is necessary to trust: One cannot have good faith if your fidelity results in illusions or deception. Trust in turn is central to social cohesion: It is the foundation of family, contracts, and even love itself. Francis Fukuyama writes that, "a strong and stable family structure and durable social institutions cannot be legislated into existence," they depend on a strong civil society, and civility depends on the level of trust inherent in society.

Truth and trust are not top of the line concerns in most political offices. The penchant today is for spin, the requirement to get your side of the story out before the other guy. Politicians have always tried to tell their side of the story, but the new spin merchants produce the arts of media manipulation compulsively and intensively, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Presidential or prime ministerial offices engage in perpetual campaigns with the tools of selective leaks, instantaneous rebuttals, the hyping of modest achievements into world shattering events, or the covering up of internal problems.

Spin can bring you initial success, but eventually as truth fades, trust declines, and once it is gone electorates turn sour. The example of Tony Blair is instructive. Blair is one of the politicians I most admire: He is a committed reformer, with a strong moral core, who has demonstrated conviction and eloquence on issues such as Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and Iraq. But he is in real trouble, largely because of New Labour's love of spin. Meeting former U.S. president Bill Clinton soon after becoming Prime Minister, Blair told his associates admiringly that, "Bill gives great blow," and New Labour followed the Clinton precedent by blowing and spinning with a vengeance. It all went wrong over Iraq. Blair and his associates were accused of "sexing up" the intelligence dossier that claimed Saddam Hussein could fire weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. Blair denied the charge, but his credibility has been so weakened by years of spinning that he is mortally wounded. Blair still rules the nest, but he will never soar again.

Martin should start his prime ministership by shocking the Ottawa system in levelling with the Canadian people about the real choices that lie ahead. To reduce the democratic deficit we must first reduce the truth deficit. A good start would be to have a public inquiry on the Maher Arar case -- what did our senior officials know and when did they know it? By turning his back on spin, Martin could attain Francis Bacon's "heaven upon earth," which is "to have a man's mind move in charity, rest in providence, and turn upon the poles of truth."

Thomas S. Axworthy is chairman of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University

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