From Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand’s Canada’s Democracy Week Blog.
Canadian democracy is not exactly in crisis, but our political institutions do need to be revitalized. Many people – particularly youth – no longer see politics as the critical arena for making change. Few of my students want to run for office, though many are public-spirited. They’d rather start a fair trade café, use social media to advance awareness of homelessness and environmental issues, or fundraise for research on cancer or MS. They have civic virtue, but politics is not their vocation.
Many good people are deterred from political participation by the disrepute into which politics has fallen. Scandals over expenses, toxic levels of partisanship, and the media emphasis on political theatrics over the prosaic grind of legislation give politicians a bad rap. Canadians reject the culture of entitlement, Question Period antics, bullying and infighting. That is why UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions created the first-ever Summer Institute for Future Legislators.
We began with the premise that universities can and should prepare people for public life. Not academic preparation but training and mentoring by practitioners who could help impart the skills and know-how to be effective as legislators. The Summer Institute was cross-partisan – we included practitioners and participants from all parties. The only requirement was an aspiration to participate in politics. We recruited over 50 men and women of all ages and backgrounds – from business, the media, students, First Nations, lawyers, civil servants – and put them through a kind of boot camp: four Saturday workshops followed by a model parliament in the Legislature in Victoria. Others participated for free online.
The boot camp not only inspired greater interest in politics as a career, it provided an exemplar of what democratic life could be. Rather than replicate parliamentary business as usual, our political wannabes raised the bar. They came away with a deeper appreciation of the demands of political life, yet were not deterred; it actually made them feel more confident that they knew what they were getting into. We saw how quickly group-think kicks in, as participants began to operate as teams, but also how effectively they were able to monitor and overcome the tendency to bully, grandstand or exclude. As a result, mock legislation was passed by broad majorities following impressive deliberations. A sense of accomplishment was palpable as we ended the sitting.
By preparing people for public life we can encourage more good people to enter politics, channel the civic virtue of some of our best citizens, and demonstrate that politics can be done differently. That is just one way to reconnect citizens with democracy.