While images of the fence at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City are still fresh in the mind, let me quote from a speech given on Oct. 27, 1998, in Aylmer, Quebec, by Jocelyne Bourgon, who was then Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet — the highest ranking civil servant in Ottawa.
It’s important to return to her remarks, because they dealt with the need for public dialogue. And because it’s the absolute lack of public dialogue, in the sense in which she was using the phrase, that has characterized the approach of the Prime Minister and his cabinet to negotiating a free trade deal for the Americas.
Here’s what she said: « Over the last decade, it has become clear that there is a growing risk of `disconnection’ between government and citizens. Research tells us that citizens are increasingly concerned that democratic institutions are out of sync with their values and interests.
« Moreover, citizens strongly believe that there is a growing gap between their actual and desired level of influence in government decision making….
« Many of these trends have been explored by Ekos Research…(which found that) citizens want a direct, substantive and influential role in shaping policies and decisions that affect them. They want to be heard. And they want a commitment that leaders will take citizens’ views into account when making decisions….
« Meaningful participation includes citizens at all stages of an issue: In defining a problem, in identifying and debating the merits of the possible options, and in selecting a course of action. It requires factual, balanced information written in plain language and provided in a transparent and timely way. It takes time and resources. For this reason, citizen engagement should be used selectively — for issues having a broad impact on the public, or involving difficult choices about fundamental values.
« And perhaps most important, we have heard from Canadians that meaningful participation means a commitment to listening.’’
The fence at Quebec City was a monument to government insularity. The question now is whether it’s possible to have a dialogue? I asked Judith Maxwell this question because, her organization, Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN), has been involved in exactly the kind of public consultations that Bourgon described.
Before initiating dialogues, CPRN produces a tool kit that explains how to run discussion groups, how to train a moderator, and how to report the discussion and its conclusions. It also contains non-partisan background information on the issues to be discussed. For more details, visit the CPRN website at www.cprn.org and search for « Public Dialogue: A Tool for Public Engagement.’’
Maxwell says dialogue will be possible only if both sides step back from confrontation. « Now that people have been mobilized against the Government, we have gone through a threshold. There’s been the provocation of the fence. There’s been violence. And the media is fixated on confrontation, not on ideas. So it’s difficult to go back and have a conversation.’’
On the one side, the Government will have to change its ways. In dealing with trade negotiations, it is not equipped to participate in dialogue on a national scale, she says. Typically, it negotiates behind closed doors, reaches a deal, and then focuses on controlling the message it wants the public to receive. « To suddenly be able to give citizens space for uncontrolled dialogue, with information going in two directions, will be a very big shift…. There have been some positive signs of interest. But, so far, very little has translated into action.’’
On the other side, leaders of groups that were relegated to the outside of the fence will have to restrain the movement they are part of, and be prepared for the moderacy of dialogue, she says.
The environment, the economy, and social well being — the three pillars of sustainability — are all at stake in these negotiations. Lets hope that each side can create a climate for conversation, because CPRN’s toolkit can then show them how to converse.