For most of the past decade, Canadians repeatedly told the pollsters that improving health care was their No. 1 public policy priority. During that period, four federal election campaigns were held but produced very little tangible progress on the issue. Instead, Canadians witnessed nothing but sterile, destructive, polarized debate in which the defenders of the status quo were accused of wanting the sick to die in the waiting lines, and the proponents of substantive reforms were accused of wanting to kill or Americanize Canadian health care.
Not only did this produce little progress on health-care reform, but increasing numbers of Canadians have become convinced that their No. 1 public-policy concern cannot be resolved by political processes and institutions, and that politics is part of the health-care problem, not part of the solution.
If the political debate over Canadian environmental concerns now proceeds along the same well-trodden path, the net effects will be even worse: no progress on the issue itself, and a further dangerous deepening of the disillusionment of Canadians with politicians, parties, political debate, elections, Parliament, and democracy itself.
So what is it about how we do democratic politics in this country that allows this to happen, and what can be done to correct the situation? Please consider the following.
First, Canadians place a very high premium on tolerance and the avoidance of extremes. This is one of our most endearing national characteristics. But it can also be our political Achilles heel. It means that in political debate, the quickest and most effective way to discredit an opponent's position on an issue is not to debate their position at all, but to push it to its extreme and then vehemently argue against that extreme.
Thus, on the environmental front, liberals and social democrats devote little time and attention to debating the actual environmental positions of conservatives. Instead, they characterize those positions as extreme right-wing policies that will likely destroy the environment, and then argue against that extreme. Likewise, the temptation for conservatives is to ignore debating the actual positions held by liberals and social democrats on the environment. Instead, we tend to characterize those positions as extreme left-wing policies that will likely destroy the economy, and then argue against that extreme.
The reality, of course, is that no one in the federal political arena is out to destroy either the environment or the economy. To say or imply so is both ridiculous and dishonest. Who will show leadership in renouncing this approach and placing the political debate of environmental policy on higher and more positive ground? I suggest that the first federal politicians to break out of this dangerous pattern -- to offer environmental policies that build consensus rather than polarize, and that debate the real options offered by opponents, rather than extreme caricatures of those options -- will become the politicians trusted by Canadians to address their environmental concerns.
Second, this debilitating, democracy-discrediting feature of political debate is compounded by media coverage and the currently accepted definition of "newsworthiness."
In the modern news business -- and this is as much our fault as news consumers as it is that of the media -- short-run is more newsworthy than long-run, simple is more newsworthy than complex, emotional reactions are more newsworthy than rational initiatives, conflict is more newsworthy than co-operation, and extremism is more newsworthy than moderation.
Communicating in the political arena about real solutions to the environmental challenges facing Canada involves communicating about rational, long-run initiatives requiring consensus-building and co-operation for their implementation. But these are precisely the type of communications that modern media coverage tends to ignore, dampen, or filter out altogether, while amplifying those environment-related communications that are short-run, emotional, conflict-inducing, and most heavily laden with the "extremist" accusation.
Who among our national, provincial, and local media will provide the leadership required to change this approach and place media coverage of the political debate of environmental policy on higher and more constructive ground? I suggest that the first journalists to do so will become the news sources most trusted by Canadians for their coverage of environmental issues.
Third, we Canadians simply must learn to be less polite and tolerant of political and media conduct that fails, rather than serves, our country and its interests.
The next time you are at a political meeting and the "debate-the-extremes-not-the-realities" phenomenon breaks out, don't just sit there and take it. Get up and object! Protest, and if there is no change, walk out saying loudly why you are doing so. If this happens enough times on a big and noisy enough scale, the political actors will eventually get the message.
And if you witness a political presentation in person or on television, where Candidate A takes the high road, addressing the environmental issue honestly and doing justice to his/her opponent's position even while disagreeing with it, and Candidate B takes the conventional low road, presenting a caricature of his/her opponent's position and then trashing it -- and the media coverage the next day is all about Candidate B's colourful, emotional, confrontational attack, do something! Call the reporter, the editor, the publisher, the producer, the owner -- whomever you can get, as high up as you can get -- and register your objection in such a way that it will be remembered the next time that journalist or news organization covers a similar event.
My point is that if we -- the politicians, the media, the voters -- do not change the way we handle priority issues such as the environment in the political arena, we run the very real risk of doing irreparable damage to the environment, to democracy, and to ourselves.
Preston Manning, a former leader of the Official Opposition, is a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute and president of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.