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Are We Consumers, Citizens or Merely Subjects?

“Choosing a politician is like choosing a product in a store. If you are good at influencing people’s product choice, chances are you should be good at influencing their political choice.”
Susan Delacourt

I saw an interview earlier this week with Susan Delacourt, the Toronto Star reporter who has just published a new book called Shopping for Votes. Her basic premise is that politicians and their parties have begun to treat taxpayers as consumers rather than citizens. She gives a number of examples including the change in how political parties advertise and set short-term policy to support her theory and much of what she had to say makes some sense.

She postulates that there are two types of voters; citizens and taxpayers. She considers those who sees themselves more as taxpayers than citizens to have short-term ‘want’ goals and who see their vote as a way of getting something for themselves while citizens are more interested in the long-term benefits of good governance to the country.

While most of what Ms Delacourt has written is accurate, I believe it only scratches the surface and her conclusions miss a more fundamental truth. There is no question that there are those among us who put immediate wants ahead of long-term realities and we often see special interest groups advertising for a candidate who is promising to give them some immediate benefit even if it is at the expense of other taxpayers or long-term government debt.

But I think her premise is too simplistic. Lots of consumers make careful and considered purchasing decisions for the benefit of themselves and their families. Health coverage, life-insurance, houses, cars and mutual funds are all long-term life-improving investments made by consumers.

I spent a lot of years in strategic marketing and advertising and what political parties are doing merely resembles consumer marketing.

To be sure, they’ve incorporated some of the techniques but have not grasped the fundamental understanding that there is a synergistic relationship between the provider and the consumer. It is an ongoing relationship built on trust, quality of product and customer service. The kiss of death in consumer marketing is to fail in each or any combination of those areas.

In politics, they understand that they rely on us to obtain and maintain power and to fund their governments but it ends there. They fail to grasp that they have a responsibility to us that extends beyond getting elected and passing legislation.

Most of us see ourselves as citizens or taxpayers or consumers or some combination of all three but government doesn’t. They see us as subjects in much the same way as the old monarchs used to see the people of their realms. They understand that they do not rule by divine right as jolly old kings like Henry VIII believed but beyond needing us to get elected and to fund government, they fail to see us as very useful at all.

They call us taxpayers and stakeholders but in fact what we really are is shareholders and those people we elect and that they appoint all work for us. In the good old days, everybody worked for the king. Unfortunately, too many of our elected politicians have forgotten that we’ve actually moved on from that idea.

Elections are trust agreements. Political parties are meant to put forward their vision, their legislative program and the people are meant to decide which one is the one they believe is right for the country. If and when (as usually happens) the elected government of the day reneges on its election promises, it breaks that agreement and violates the trust of the people.

It’s like purchasing a new something or other that doesn’t actually do what the advertising promised it would do.

It also undermines the foundation of our democratic rights as citizens.

We see it happen all the time regardless of party. Indeed, there isn’t really much difference between the parties once they’re elected to office. They only flaunt their ideological beliefs when their looking for support during an election.

The current Conservative Government ran on a conservative platform but has eschewed conservative values and principles to maintain power. It has avoided any discussion on abortion for example and addressed the 2008 recession in pretty much the same way any progressive government might have done.

Whether it’s the current Conservative Government promising not to eliminate income trusts during an election and then turning around after the election to eliminate them or promises by the Liberals to eliminate the GST only to keep it after the votes were counted, the simple fact is that the people have the right to make the decision. Once that decision is made, regardless of what the politicians think, it is there responsibility to act upon it not to do what they want after the election simply because they think the people made the wrong decision.

 In a democracy, the people have the right to be wrong. It is, after all, their country and their government.

Too often, politicians and their parties fail to understand that they were not elected to rule us but rather to govern on our behalf. I was reminded of that again yesterday with the release of a report on the costs associated with the cancellation of two power plants by the Auditor General for the Province of Ontario.

If there was ever an egregious example of putting political interest ahead of responsibility to provide good governance on behalf of the people, this was it.

During the last election, the incumbent Liberal Government of Dalton McGuinty made a decision to cancel construction which was already underway for the two plants in an attempt to save five Liberal seats in the election. The cost of that decision was revealed in the AG’s report as $1.1 billion. That’s not Liberal money that was spent to get someone elected – that was our money – money intended for other things like health care, infrastructure and education.

It is nothing less than a form of theft – stealing money provided by taxpayers and used improperly and one would have thought, illegally. Certainly, in the real world where politicians seldom go, it would be.

Even when we try to protect ourselves, politicians put self-interest ahead of their responsibility to serve rather than rule. In Manitoba, there was a law requiring the government of the day to put any proposed tax increases before the people to allow the people to approve any increase in their taxes.

It’s an old principle – no taxation without representation and if you don’t have a vote on whether or not a tax should be levied, you have no representation and it’s based on the simple premise that the money belongs, first and foremost, to the person who earned it. They have a right to participate in the decision about whether or not to give more of it to government.

The current government ran in the election on a promise of no tax increases but once elected, announced that they were going to raise taxes. That ‘after-the-election about face not a new phenomena in politics and happens too often. Fortunately, the people of Manitoba were protected by a law requiring government to put new taxes and tax increases before the people. Unfortunately, the government arbitrarily used its power to simply repeal the law and take away the people’s right to decide.

That isn’t treating people as either citizens or consumers. It is treating them like subjects to be coddled and stroked at election time but pretty much ignored between elections.

The other issue is that most people are fed up with the ongoing attack ads. They work but only primarily with the 10% of swing voters. Most thinking voters, who already support one party or another, find them distasteful and with good reason. They want to know what a party stands for not simply what it opposes.

In other words, they want to make an informed decision but they are denied that opportunity by the negative attacks made by all parties. Walmart will never run ads accusing Target of improper product purchasing. They understand that negative marketing affects not just the target of the ad but the entire industry.

And that is precisely what is happening in politics today.

The entire profession is being undermined. Even those politicians who may well be people of integrity with a sincere desire to serve are increasingly looked upon with suspicion. More and more people are turning their backs on the electoral process because they don’t see the point of voting when politicians break trust after the election.

In the end, I believe that despite the fact that political parties have torn a page or two from the consumer marketing handbook the fact remains that there is a significant difference between consumer advertisers and politicians.

Consumer advertisers understand that their customers are gold. Without those customers, they have nothing but warehouses full of products. Politicians only remember us when they need more money or our votes. The rest of the time they serve only themselves and that, my friends, is the difference between being a citizen shareholder and merely a subject.

We are governed by those who denigrate our political institutions, erode trust in government and undermine our democracies. You only have to look at the current mess in the United States where Congress and the President have failed to avoid a partial government shutdown. Their battle for political advantage has taken priority over their responsibility to govern on behalf of the people.

Politics is no longer about governing and the marketing of political parties is not about providing ideas to the electorate from which they can choose.

Politics has become a world of its own; a battle between rival clans for power. As for you and I – well, we’re just subjects of the realm and unless we start putting aside our petty differences to take back our nations from those who want to rule rather than govern, we might just as well practice bowing and tugging our forelocks whenever the great and mighty drop by to ask for our votes.

If we don’t Ms Delacourt may yet prove to be right.




© 2013 Maggie’s Bear

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  • brad maynard

    agree Maggie. excellent post.

    • MaggiesBear

      Thank you

  • Gerry

    I wonder if we would not be better operating under a corporate model where shareholders (as defined by those of us who actually pay taxes and therefore fund the ‘corporation’) have annual shareholder meetings where we can turf out directors and make operational decisions about strategic directions and whatnot. Probably lots of reasons why it won’t work – but then as you point out the current system doesn’t work very well for shareholders either.

    Because of some personal experiences (which if I ever get to Ontario again we could ruminate about each of ours over a suds or three) I became interested in where authority derived from and consequently how accountability within a parliamentary bureaucratic system functioned. It was an interesting experience. Simply stated, in our system (as opposed to our neighbor to the south) our rights derive from the crown. They are formally given to us, not as things we hold inherently (notwithstanding all of the ill-informed rhetoric Canadians tend to spout off on the basis of watch too much US television) and as Trudeau under the War Measures Act demonstrated government can take them away in an instant. Ok, so this is a long referent back but when the nobles forced King John under the Magna Carta to delegate to them certain powers (rather than assert their authority by virtue of being armed men) they endorsed the fact that the King (i.e. the Crown) had all of the authority and it went through delegation to others. Fast forward from that to the early 1700s (indebted to Hayek for this) where the British parliament declared itself, not the Monarch, sovereign and you have our current situation where parliament is sovereign and in its beneficence deigns to give us ‘rights’ which it then can take back but also can declare pretty much anything it wants as a right – think political expediency at voting time. I have a more developed thesis along this line in a talk I gave years ago to the local justice group but that focus was on so where the hell do laws come from and what has changed – ok so not phrased that way but pretty damn close.

    Back to your comments which I really enjoyed chewing through. I really appreciate your marketing perspective as it provides insights into what political discourse has devolved into. I am still stuck at the point as to what the heck we do about it.

    • MaggiesBear

      You’re right in your assertion that our rights have tended to flow from authority down but I also think you miss one key factor. History has shown that the people will allow authority to determine their rights for only so long and then they take them, from the authority in the form of revolution. Whether it was the Magna Carta or the French or American Revolutions, those in authority only rule as long as they have either the power to control the people or their consent. Once they lose either of those, they lose the power to grant or take away rights. Bashar al-Assad is learning that right now.

      I wish had more answers than questions about what we do about it but I don’t. I do believe, however, it starts with restricting the power and privilege of political parties. I think Elections Canada needs more power and that there should be serious rules that limit what political parties can and cannot do and those rules should be overseen and enforced by an independent body much like the Supreme Court. I also believe we need some kind recall mechanism so that we can implement a process to recall a government that we, as the people, believe is in violation of the mandate it was given.

      The problem with our system is that there are not enough checks and balances in place and that is why I reject abolishing the Senate and support reforming it and giving it more teeth.

      • Gerry

        Ah, but with respect Bear you conflate things. The Magna Carta had nothing to do with revolution; it was a power transfer with the underlying acceptance of the power of the King as being ordained by God. Revolution, on the other hand, denies all legitimacy of the authority being revolted against. see the difference?

        Certainly the rulers only can rule as long as those rule are complicit but that notion did not arise until the last 200 or so years. It is only lately that people have learned that the governing only can as long as you are complicit. Unfortunately few realize that.

        We have a recall mechanism what we don’t have is an active engagement to invoke it. And I am not at all convinced that revolution is the answer. My family survived the early days of the soviet revolution and WWI in a siberian concentration camp so you may perhaps excuse my lack of enthusiasm for revolution.

        • MaggiesBear

          You’re right, of course, about the Magna Carta but my point in using it as an example is that the individual authority only rules by the consent of those being ruled. In the case of the Magna Carta, it was the nobility that resented the arbitrary power of the king and they took up arms to express their displeasure. The won, the king lost and power was transferred to a larger but still very small group.

          I’m not advocating revolution either. I think it’s a terribly messy business and in the end doesn’t resolve much. All revolutions are power transfers. It always seems as if it is power transferred to the people but typically a power elite emerge at some point. Both modern France and the US were born out of revolution but both are examples of what I wrote about in my post.

          At some point, unfortunately, those who govern seem to become corrupted by their authority and slowly shift to becoming rulers and I have no idea how you fix that other than giving the all annual spankings.

          • Gerry

            Travelling so episodic connection. The governed are always complicit in what the governors do by virtue of the fact that power is given to the governers by the governed. Just rephrasing the point you make. Mind you my formulation usually generates strong negative reactions as people quickly raise examples of dictators and miss the obvious that without having people to dictate to they cannot exist.

            As to our situation, I like shareholder meetings.

            • MaggiesBear

              I like shareholder meetings if they have doughnuts. I won’t attend unless their are doughnuts.

              It’s a prickly business this balance between the governed and those that govern and I can accept that sometimes it swings a little to one side or the other. Where I get off the train is when those who were elected to govern decide that they are actually rulers and that those who elect them are little more than their subjects. Hmm, that’t a bad bag of ,mixed metaphors. I must be more tired than I thought.

              Travel safely

              • Gerry

                Thanks Bear, arrived in one piece.

                If we could just figure out how to disabuse those elected of the transition you elucidate from servant to master we would be doing the world a service. Personally I trace it back to the loss of teaching about civic (or personal for that matter) virtue in our educational system. If I am right it will take several generations to recover even if we were to start teaching about duty, honor, character, virtue in our elementary and secondary schools. Some years ago I was asked to give the Remembrance Day talk in my church and I researched the context in which my wife’s uncle (buried in Begium) grew up in and why so many young men of his era stepped forward. That led me into the culture of the day and the media as well as education’s stated purpose. One of my favorite satellite radio stations is the old time radio dramas. What is noticeable is that most of the dramas had a very clear moral lesson being presented, concepts of right and wrong were not as nuanced as today. That is part of it. Another is simply man’s inherent ability to convince him or herself of just about anything that puffs up their self-esteem. Is it not odd that what used to be called the 7 deadly sins are now 6 self-help groups and one virtue (pride = self esteem). I wish I had come up with that and I forget who did.

                • MaggiesBear

                  The people of Paris rose up against Louis XVI in a revolt against privilege. They were living in poverty and being given food that had been rotting on the docks while the nobility lived in comfort and luxury. When the disparity between the haves and the have nots became too great, the revolution was born.

                  Leaders emerged. Georges Jaques Danton was a pragmatist; Camille Desmoulins and Marat were fanatics while Robespierre fashioned himself a highly moral person who tried to walk the centre line. Each was consumed by the revolution. Danton first, charged with corruption for lining his pockets, Desmoulins and his wife for betraying the revolution and ultimately Robespierre for betraying his own morality.

                  Eventually, the new Republic floundered and France was governed by Napoleon and even a return to the Bourbon monarch before the modern day republic was finally born. I believe it was less a search for good governance than a search for governance based on principle and leadership based on a morality that was true to its values.

                  When you read the constitutions of great democracies, including our own, the words are often inspiring. They speak of principles and rights and are founded on a secular moral code. Unfortunately, those words are too often rendered meaningless by politicians who place expediency ahead of values and their own morality.

                  Stephen Harper is often called pragmatic which I think is merely a polite way of saying that he doesn’t really stand for anything other than maintaining political power. It is why I criticize him. I expected better from him and it is disappointing to see that he is no different than all the other politicians who have been corrupted by privilege and power.

                  In our naive arrogance, we believe that events like the French Revolution or even the Libyan or Syrian revolutions could never happen here. Those who believe that are wrong. We are already seeing the anger and escalating accusations; the loss trust in government and erosion of respect for our political leadership that are characteristic of the march to rebellion. Add to that increasing economic uncertainty caused by political mismanagement, corruption and excessive taxation and you have all the conditions you need to spark a revolution.

                  I sometimes think it’s why I write the things I write. I’m trying to get people to stop and think before we plunge headlong over a cliff into an abyss of chaos from which there will be no escape.