Democracy, Expertise – and Politics

When a new policy is announced, or adopted, the motivations behind it are not always clear.  In a well-established democracy like ours, there are often contrasts between expert advice, public opinion and political decision-making.  Sometimes these forces are in alignment; sometimes they are at odds.  These days, examples of the latter are plentiful.

Let’s start with crime.  Notwithstanding one report from the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, all criminologists and statisticians in Canada will tell you that crime is generally going down.  However, the government insists that crime – especially unreported crime – is on the rise, and is pushing tough-on-crime legislation to deal with the “problem”.

On to nuclear safety.  In early 2008 Linda Keen was fired from her role as nuclear safety watchdog for ordering a plant shutdown that led to a reduction in medical isotope supplies.  The government criticized her for not considering the production implications of the shutdown.

What about health policy?  Ontario’s Health Minister, Deb Matthews, recently rejected calls to help a young mother obtain a costly breast cancer drug, saying she would be abusing her position if she got involved.  Regarding the woman’s ineligibility to receive treatment because of the small size of her tumor, Ms. Matthews effectively removed herself from the decision-making process, stating that the issue is best left to the experts.

These examples offer just a glimpse of the friction that can develop between elected politicians and unelected officials.  Regardless of one’s partisan stripe, most recognize that tensions between democracy and expertise are on the rise.  So what does this mean going forward?  And where does the unmediated voice of the public fit in?

Cue the 2011 Walter Gordon Symposium.

This year’s event, hosted by Massey College and the School of Public Policy and Governance, will explore the dynamic tension in the policy-making process with well-known Canadians who have experienced, witnessed or studied the democratic dance.

Opening night, March 22, will feature lively presentations from seasoned experts Mel Cappe, Antonia Maoni and Munir Sheikh.  Misha Glouberman, host of the Trampoline Hall lecture series, will moderate the evening.

Day two, March 23, draws a smaller audience of academics, politicians and policy-makers, and will consist of two panels.  The first, “Talking to the Public” will examines the way in which the government interfaces with the public, featuring a pollster, a member of the Globe and Mail editorial board and a public engagement expert.  The second, “Serving the Public,” focuses on the role of experts in policy-making in criminal justice, healthcare and education.

Set against the backdrop of a potentially game-changing federal budget, there couldn’t be a better time to talk about democracy, expertise – and politics.

See you at the Symposium.

For more information:

– By Bridget Nardi

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