Lack of Legitimacy Threatens Democratic Governance

Canadian Speeches, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Lack of Legitimacy Threatens Democratic Governance


A democratic deficit is seen as a threat to the governance of Canada. Governments cannot function without the voluntary compliance of citizens, which in turn rests on their acceptance of the government's legitimacy. But that legitimacy is threatened when governments are elected by fewer than 24% of the eligible voters. Massive litigation placing the government under severe pressure in the courts and even on the streets could result if a continuing decline of voter turnout elects a government by fewer than 15% of eligible voters. Measures to strengthen the democratic process and government legitimacy are proposed. Prepared text for a speech delivered at the 2003 APEX [Associaton of Professional Executives] Symposium, Ottawa, June 4, 2003.

It strikes me that the issue of what governance in a democracy should look like in the months and years ahead just might strike hard-working, underpaid senior public servants as just a touch theoretical. The daily pressures you face in terms of today's programs, fiscal constraints, intergovernmental pressures, and political transitions are more than enough to fill any job jar.

So, my purpose today is not so much to "blue sky the future," but to reflect with you on the critical area of legitimacy as it relates to the processes of governance and administering government in our present democratic society, and the kind of democracy we are likely to see evolve in the decades ahead.

For more than a decade I have taught a policy seminar in governing instruments to graduate students at the Queen's School of Policy Studies. That seminar is made up of younger, recent undergraduates seeking their first graduate degree, and mid-career public servants from all levels of government -- the police, military, and many non-profit organizations. The seminar often has students from Japan, China, Mexico, and Europe at both the mid-career and full-time student level.

In examining how instruments are designed, how they are evaluated, and what instruments work in different ways in different contexts, I spend a lot of time on the issue of legitimacy. The reason for that is quite compelling.

As long as we do not live in a police state, the order in our society, and all the legislated, regulated and other public rules that define our behavior and relationship with government, are dependent on voluntary compliance. Simply stated, there are not enough police officers to police every corner, not enough tax auditors to assess every return, not enough inspectors to check every cow, not enough customs officers to open every piece of luggage. Without voluntary compliance, most laws, rules, programs and mandates would be meaningless.

Voluntary compliance is utterly dependent on legitimacy. If the vast majority of our fellow citizens do not believe that government's overall intent is constructive, and that those who work in government are, by and large, honest, and that they do, as citizens and voters, have some way of influencing change when they choose to, then legitimacy and voluntary compliance are seriously threatened.

In extremis, we can look to essentially lawless states in Africa, or failed economies in South America, to see how quickly law and order and even the most minimum levels of public and private safety can dilute down to zero, when legitimacy evaporates.

And before we get too smug, let's just reflect back to the initial days after the introduction of the GST here in Canada. There was a noticeable increase in "cash" transactions where Her Majesty's percentage seemed to disappear from the equation. Home repair scams, software that deleted cash register amounts automatically to fool auditors, plus a host of other creative attacks on the legitimacy of the tax system at all levels ensued. What is instructive here, and the pulverization by the voters of the government that brought the GST in, is further proof that doing what may seem right, when profoundly unpopular and not well explained, will test even the most polite and understanding of populations -- in which I number my fellow Canadians -- except, of course, during the NHL playoffs!

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