Friday, January 30, 2004

Time to listen once again

by Colleen Flood et al.

This open letter was originally published in the Toronto Star on December 1, 2003

There is much sound and fury emanating from Ottawa these days about the need to address the democratic deficit. In Ottawa-speak, the concept has a largely institutional meaning: Changing how government operates to enable members of Parliament to play a more expansive role in shaping the policy agenda of government.

That's all good and well, as is the prime minister-in-waiting's recent musings about the need for active citizen involvement in the business of government.

But until our elected leaders demonstrate they are prepared to do something about the other democratic deficit- listening to Canadians- these changes will do little to reverse the growing sense of "disconnect" about government many citizens are feeling.

Just over a year ago, following what was arguably the most successful, comprehensive and inclusive citizen engagement effort in our country's history, the federal government tabled Building On Values, Roy Romanow's report on the future of health care.

That tens of thousands of Canadians found the lure of the Romanow process irresistible is beyond question. Indeed, the staggering level of public participation in the Romanow deliberations is eloquent testimony to the deep attachment Canadians feel for their health-care system.

But it was more than that. What Romanow offered Canadians was two things that had for too long been absent in the political discourse over their most cherished social program: respect and hope.

For well over a decade, in poll after poll, Canadians identified health care as their number one priority.

And year after year, before special committees, task forces and round tables, they kept telling their governments that they were prepared to make hard sacrifices to preserve the integrity and quality of their health-care system.

And to what end?

Both in times of deficit and in times of surplus, the response was the same: The type of health system Canadians wanted and were ready to pay for was a non-starter. Small wonder the Romanow process has had such a galvanizing effect.

The broader significance of the Romanow phenomenon should not be underestimated.

For many Canadians, the Romanow process offered them an opportunity to participate in a direct way in the democratic process. It gave them a sense that their contributions could make a difference, that for once, they were not powerless.

That the demise of a program to which they were profoundly attached, and which appeared under threat, was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Earlier last week, a new public opinion poll was released indicating overwhelming support for the core medicare bargain and ongoing support for Romanow's reform agenda. The poll also showed dwindling support for two-tier health and ongoing concerns about the long-term effects of creeping privatization on the integrity of the system.

No doubt we will still hear derisive claims that Romanow is wrong, that advocating health-care policies and programs reflecting Canadian values is naive.

Either, such critics believe we are incapable of making an informed choice, or they have a perverse notion that leadership means inflicting on people policy choices they have clearly and firmly rejected over and over again.

Little wonder why the health council Canadians were promised last February to improve accountability within the health care system has yet to see the light-of-day. Democratic deficit ... indeed!

Colleen M. Flood, assistant professor, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto; Tom Kent, former policy secretary to Lester Pearson; Dr. Robert Y. McMurtry, professor of surgery, University of Western Ontario; Charles E. Pascal, former deputy minister Ontario Premier's Council on Health and Well-being; Dr. Terry Sullivan, vice president, research and prevention, Cancer Care Ontario