The following post was delivered as a lecture for The School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, Friday, February 1, 2013.
Public Policy Definitions:
- The principles, often unwritten, on which social laws are based
- The principle that injury to the public good is a basis for denying the legality of a contract of other transaction
- Distinct from Private Policy, which serves personal or corporate interests
Other scholars define Public Policy as a system of “courses of action, regulatory measures, laws, and funding priorities concerning a given topic by a government or its representatives.”
Public policy is commonly embodied “in constitutions, legislative acts, and judicial decisions.”
- “Relating to citizens”—is the art or science of influencing people’s beliefs on a civic, or individual level, when there are more than two people involved
- Modern political discourse focuses on democracy and the relationship between people and politics. Politics is thought of as the way we “choose representatives and make decisions about public policy”
If people are not engaged, or politicians evade public involvement, the policy decisions are made by representatives with variable results based on
- how much time they have
- who was consulted
- what financial interests are involved
- what the party policy is
- what public perception is (determined through polling)
The goal of government (through public policy), is:
- A fair, inclusive society committed to engaging all citizens in the democratic process and ensuring social, environmental and economic wellbeing into the future
- This includes minority, marginalized and ethnic communities and their participation and benefit
- That’s democracy—representing the majority and protecting minorities
And the role of government is to do the hard work of comprehensive analysis of issues and reflect the long term public interest in policies. Why else would we elect governments of the people?
Question: Does money potentially subvert the democratic process? If so, how?
Policy example: What would an ideal electoral (party) financing process look like in Alberta?
Issue/problem: How to ensure efficient, fair, transparent and accountable elections? (e.g., concerns about excessive influence of money on electoral politics and policy)—Review of current Act and regulations.
Values and principles assessment: What would limit and fairly support the finances needed for democratic process?
Who should be involved? Expert analysis (comprehensive) and state of the art knowledge and standards about the current and future state of the issue, including costs, benefits and trade-offs.
All-party Committee examine the scope—current status of who can donate, donation limits and tax credits assigned; reporting frequency.
Here’s what happened with Bill 7
Bill 7—Election Accountability Amendment Act, 2012 (Denis) passed in November and was proclaimed in Dec/12.
Background: This followed from the 2008 election which was fraught with delays for voters, incorrect polling station information, inconsistent standards for eligibility and identification and a 41% voter turnout.
- Brian Feldheim the CEO at the time was hamstrung by delays from the government in identifying Returning Officers (temporary employees that supervise the election process in each polling station)
- Following the election we took the government to court for violating its own election act and Brian Feldheim wrote a scathing report calling for 102 changes to the Act
- He was replaced as CEO soon after
In addition, there have been many illegal donations in the past few years and the government recognized the liabilities:
- Justice Dept sent out the drafts a few days before the Legislature opened and debate ensued: the two most contentious issues were Legal Limits ($15K/year; $30K election year – cf. Federal elections allow $1100/yr and no corporate or union donations) and Donations by Corporations and Unions
- Neither of these entities has a vote – why would we give them such inordinate financial influence?
Over 100 amendments were suggested to Bill 7 – none accepted
- Minor changes to the public reporting of donations and more frequent reporting of financial status.
- No change to the contentious issues of high limits and freedom of corporations and unions donating rather than individuals (federal law).
The major issues: excessive limits and heavy influence of corporations were not changed. These clearly influence campaign strength and on subsequent policy. One good change this Bill brought in:
- Makes it easier for post-secondary students to vote–Alberta students who are studying out-of-province are permitted to vote in Alberta provincial elections in the constituency where they are ordinarily resident and were residing before leaving to attend school. Alberta students who are studying away from home but still in Alberta can choose to vote either in the constituency where they are currently residing or where they are ordinarily resident.
Out-of-province students attending school in Alberta are considered residents of Alberta and may vote in Alberta provincial elections in the constituency where they are residing.
Policy reflects many interests rammed into a ‘sausage maker’—the process is critical; all the steps, transparency and accountability must be in place and we need some appeal processes where policy (such as Bill 7) strays from the test of long term public interest.
Political parties are very human organizations with their own interests, values and practises and must be held in check by regulations and ethical standards but also by the people.
If the people lose interest, lose trust, lose courage or can’t take the time—we lose control over policy (laws) and slip into abuse of power, self-interest, cronyism and ultimately corruption. No surprise – power corrupts.
Democracy is fragile—mostly volunteers—it depends on conscious people paying attention to public issues and ensuring their opinions are being heard at municipal, provincial and federal levels.