Book Review: The Search For Beauty

Genevieve Fuji Johnson, a political scientist, spied the land for democracy. Not the sordid democracy of Parliament, where lobbyists ghostwrite bills and people go to jail, but the truly beautiful democracy envisioned by ancient Greeks. Her search ended badly. The result is this crisp and engaging book. There is nothing like disillusionment to inspire compelling non-fiction.

“Deliberative democracy is a rich ideal,” writes Fuji Johnson, associate professor at Simon Fraser University. “It invokes a democratic system of governance in which citizens actively exchange ideas, engage in debate and create laws responsive to their interests and aspirations.”

“Ideal” is the key word here. Many Canadians think of democracy as the right to dissent and be left alone. Democratic Illusion went in search of something finer.

“I sought out success stories in contemporary public policy to understand how principles derived from or related to the ideal of deliberative democracy are being applied, and what their implications are for a broader system of collective norm formation and decision making,” Fuji Johnson explains.

And how did that work out? “Appearance was deceiving,” she writes.

Democratic Illusion is neither cynical nor dark. It is an entertaining account of how Greek democracy doesn’t stand a chance in 21st century Canada. Fuji Johnston examines case studies from Nunavut to Nova Scotia in which town hall engagement resulted in disappointment.

An example: Toronto Community Housing Corp., largest public landlord in Canada with 164,000 tenants, created advisory committees where residents could vote on how to spend maintenance budgets: “After discussion and debate, residents would either use secret ballots or dots on a flip chart to collectively rank the projects.” So far, so good.

Tenants’ committees quickly became unwieldy. One had 22 members, bigger than the Yukon legislature. Then tenants began voting for budget items that offered immediate benefits: better gardens, new playgrounds; modern bathroom vanities; more security cameras. Spending on roof shingles and boiler maintenance declined, and by 2013 the corporation had a capital deficit of $750 million.

Then directors misspent funds on sole-sourced contracts and “team building” junkets like boat cruises, and in 2011 the CEO and entire board was dismissed. The corporation was stripped of most of its spending powers in 2012.

Another example: Nova Scotia Power Inc. in 2004 commissioned a “deliberative poll” called a Customer Energy Forum. It worked as a focus group; 135 utility customers were invited to debate and discuss priorities. Participants got $150 and a meal voucher; the utility got a report indicating customers were worried about emissions from coal-fired plants, and quietly shelved the findings. Nova Scotia remains one of Canada’s biggest coal burners, producing so much pollution it was granted a 2014 waiver from federal greenhouse gas regulations.

“Polls played a very minor role relative to closed-door negotiations,” notes Democratic Illusion; “Perhaps cynically, the polls may have also been an endeavor to improve public relations.”

Democratic Illusion does not despair, it explains. Most of us don’t have the time or inclination to participate in deliberative democracy; government is so complex it is “impenetrable by the average citizen”; and people who run things will never relinquish power, anyway.

“We learn from my study that, no matter how robust the procedures may be, if there is no elite willingness to empower them, they are essentially undemocratic,” Fuji Johnson concludes. “Perhaps worse, they are undemocratic while creating an illusion of democracy.”

We are left with dissent, and the ritual of punishment. Let the voting begin!

By Holly Doan

Democratic Illusion: Deliberative Democracy in Canadian Public Policy by Genevieve Fuji Johnson; University  of Toronto Press; 200 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-11245; $24.95

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