- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 28 Apr 1983, p. 340-350
- Bennett, The Honourable Claude F., Speaker
- Media Type
- Item Type
- Examining the direction in which political forces, particularly governments, are heading in the years ahead. The new age of instant and global communications as the most obvious impact on politicians. What that means for the political process. The unsatisfactory marriage of the old and the new. Questions that must be asked in the field of political communications. Changes in the style of campaigning, influence by electronic communications. Undertaking some major activities in Ontario designed to make people, rather than systems, more readily accountable. A description of some of those activities. Adjusting the political process with the changing times, but taking great care. Expectations in the decades ahead in the political world. The speaker's belief that the greatest change in our political society in the next two decades will be "the quiet, insistent demand of the majority for reason and decency." Changes in the "silent majority" and the "patient majority." Other changes directory affecting the world of politics and government, such as the further evolution of the "open government" concept and the "one-window" approach which will become the "one video screen." People's resistance to change. Giving hardware a larger place in our lives while making sure it does not displace human contact. Looking for stability in our political system. The successful politician looking first to the needs of the people. Finding leaders who will bring us the greatest benefits of technology by electing those who put people first.
- Date of Original
- 28 Apr 1983
- Language of Item
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- Full Text
Politics In The Third Wave
AN ADDRESS BY The Honourable Claude F. Bennett MINISTER OF MUNICIPAL AFFAIRS AND HOUSING,
PROVINCE OF ONTARIO
CHAIRMAN The President, Henry J. Stalder
Distinguished Past Presidents, members, and guests: To introduce the Honourable Claude Bennett to you today is indeed a special pleasure, for he has been a very close friend for many years. And any politician who can be a good friend for years cannot be all that bad!
The Honourable Claude Bennett was sworn in as Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing on July eighth, 1981. Ten years earlier, shortly after his election to the Ontario Legislature as the member for Ottawa South on October 21, 1971, he was appointed Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Treasury, Economics, and Intergovernmental Affairs. His appointment as Minister Without Portfolio followed on September twenty-eighth, 1972, and he was appointed Minister of Industry and Tourism on January fifteenth, 1973. Mr. Bennett was appointed Minister of Housing on January twenty-first, 1978.
Mr. Bennett had been elected to Ottawa City Council as an alderman first in 1961. He was re-elected in 1963, 1965, and 1967. He was a member of the first Ottawa-Carleton regional government from 1968 to 1970, and in 1970 he was elected to the Ottawa Board of Control to serve as Senior Controller and Acting Mayor. He became a member of the executive of the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Council in 1970 and Chairman of the Ottawa Planning Board. He entered provincial politics the following year.
As an independent insurance agent, Mr. Bennett received the three outstanding young men's awards of the Ontario Junior Chamber of Commerce in 1968. In 1979, he was named Man of the Year by the Ottawa Shrine Club. He is on the Board of Directors of the Central Canada Exhibition Association and on the Board of Trustees of Grace Hospital, both in Ottawa, and he is part owner of the London Knights Hockey Club. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Honourable Claude Bennett.
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen: Recently, my ministry co-ordinated a conference called "The New Neighbourhood" in this hotel. One highlight of that week-long series of seminars was a speech by well-known futurist, Alvin Toffler. The audience hung on his every word--and I must admit that I have continued to think about the future direction of our society in a much different light since then. He excited our interest in the new life-style that the future holds in store for each of us. It is incumbent upon us to be prepared to move with the rapidly changing times.
There is, therefore, a burgeoning concern that we anticipate the future. The question "Where are we heading?" has, of course, been asked since time began, but in recent years, the popularity of forecasting the future has reached new plateaus. Even the term "futurist" is now considered a logical definition of a career which, if used a few years ago, would have given the vision of a carnival side show attraction.
As our society tries to keep pace with ever-evolving technological change, it would seem logical that we examine the direction in which political forces, and now particularly, governments are heading in the years ahead. Politics seems to be one sphere of society that full-time professional futurists have not yet completely analyzed: and yet it could readily be argued that politicians must be the consummate futurists if they are to survive personally.
The most obvious impact on politicians is the new age of instant and global communications. From semaphore to telegraph to microwave and from television to home computers, Ontario has taken gigantic steps forward. The satellite is cost-insensitive to distance. It brings the world to our homes and institutions. There is no doubt that ever-faster communications are having a tremendous impact upon society as we have known it. But, for politicians, the new speed-of-thought transmission is a two-edged sword.
With our new electronic society, we are capable of putting our demands for change to a politician instantaneously. Yet, through the nature of our system, we expect that politicians will make immediate, considered, and thoughtful decisions. Society demands, in fact, that many traditional systems be altered slowly so that the imbalances that are effected by change will not adversely influence certain segments of that society. Elected officials must deliberate under fire, criticism, and suggestions from whomever the opposition may be--even immediately after the vast majority of the population has given its support to those elected officials. The intention is just, and designed to protect the minority groups in our society. Its application in today's world becomes obviously more and more difficult.
The speed with which we, as politicians, adapt to change is a problem we must consider and solve. If we do not face it squarely and openly, we risk other alternatives--namely, that the institutions once designed to permit public scrutiny and judgement of the political process will become more ritualistic and less revealing, or more show and less tell. An example of melding the old and the new is the now-accepted practice of televising legislative proceedings. That step serves a public purpose. Such electronic attendance allows interested tax-payers to be present during important debates and is thereby a worthwhile application of technology to the principle of open government.
But this is also a perfect example of what I am talking about--it is an unsatisfactory marriage of the old and new. No television producer would ever arrange his performers in rows reaching from here to eternity; and no director would really want to have to swing his cameras around to find randomly selected solo performers in a large chorus onstage. Of course, some players have quickly learned to pre-script their scene so that cameras can easily locate them as they move into the spotlight.
This is one very simple example of the questions we must face in the political communications field. How much should we change the institution in the hopes that better television will attract a wider audience? Assuming that having people watch parliamentary and legislative debates equals more involvement in the process, whose responsibility is it to nourish that involvement? Should the politician somehow be a better performer? Should we do as the television evangelists do and conduct our affairs in studios decorated to suggest the appropriate institution? Or, do we simply leave the activity untouched and let taxpayers themselves decide whether they want to bother tuning in? These questions are easily framed when we look at televising legislative debates, but what about the other aspects of the political process? Here is where it becomes complicated. In fact, the logical use of electronic technology to reach out to constituents is often not the answer sought by individual voters.
Consider that we are in an age where we are used to receiving much of our information through modern electronic hardware, whether it be home computers hooked up to the Toronto Stock Exchange by telephone or the common television--that statement in itself, "common television," shows how far we have come. We are living in an age when we are used to making judgements based on information coming through some kind of machine.
But is that where politics is headed? If so, why is it that successful politicians know that if you want to get votes you have to go out and stand physically on doorsteps and ask in person for that vote? From my personal point of view, that situation is ideal--it happens to be my style of campaigning and it will not change.
If you think about it, the efficiency of reaching out electronically is clear. In any election, it would be possible to carry more ideas into homes by television than by walking around knocking on doors. But I will tell you that in this province, certainly in the riding of Ottawa South, the average person says, "Efficiency be damned. If you want my vote, then you had better be prepared to come and ask me for it personally." People want to know that their elected leaders care about them. They want a demonstration that human considerations remain important in the democratic process.
In Ontario, we are undertaking some major activities designed to make people, rather than systems, more readily accountable. In my own ministry for example, we have, after the longest, most public-responsive process we know of anywhere, introduced a new planning act. The new act forces more planning decisions to be made at the level of the individual municipality. It means decisions will be made closer to home, presumably with at least a touch more sensitivity to local needs than is often the case when final decisions are made in what seems to be "far-off" Queen's Park. That is a trend you can expect to see continue in many facets of this government.
The senior levels of government are saying that decisions such as those in planning should be taken back as close to the public as possible, and those decisions should be attached, as much as possible, to a local, elected person who can be held responsible. The Planning Act, as I have said, is illustrative of a trend in government to shorten the communications line between the taxpayer and the politician responsible for a specific decision. It is a healthy attempt to move the mountain to Mohammed.
Now, if we ask elected leaders at the municipal level to make more decisions in a society which grows daily more complex, we must make other changes as well. We must encourage local leaders to be far-seeing--in other words, to be community futurists. It is with this in mind that the length of term for Ontario municipal leaders was expanded to three years. I believe the longer period will give local officials time and political will to make their views known and their promises come true.
The political process can be adjusted with the changing times, and can be adjusted further to work with changing technology. But it is imperative that before we insert a piece of electronic hardware into the communications system, we take great care. We must ensure that we are adding something useful rather than increasing the buffer zone between the politician and the voter. As an example, a few days ago some of my staff attended a meeting consisting of several electronic media people and municipal clerks. The subject was to look at ways of speeding up the municipal election returns using the newest innovations in computer technology. A presentation by that industry clearly pointed out that computerized ballot boxes could be produced; a voter would simply fill out a computercard ballot and watch the machine swallow it up. If each polling station were hooked up centrally, within minutes after the polls closed complete results would be available to the public. Very efficient, very expensive of course, and very impersonal. Whether it would be good or bad is a matter for conjecture and debate.
What else can we expect in the decades ahead in the political world? One thing for sure, the public and the media will tire of the endless publicity stunts staged for cameramen by special interest groups. Already, in order to get the camera's attention,
demonstrators are becoming more and more unruly. The closer to the edge of the law a group pushes, the more newsworthy it seems to be. That trend will change soon.
It will change because viewers are getting bored watching people who grab a sign and run in front of the camera as their very first method of communication with any authority. When viewers become uninterested, the news directors will stop showing protest groups and will find other visuals to illustrate the news. When that happens, the use of the camera as bully will end. Then the protest groups can pack away their signs, fire their publicity directors, and start to talk at a normal volume--much like the vast majority of us.
And this brings me to what I believe will be the greatest change in our political society in the next two decades. It will be the quiet, insistent demand of the majority for reason and decency. Some years ago, we were all familiar with the term "the silent majority." That was a group whose opinions one didn't know until voting day. A hard group to predict. That was "the silent majority."
I believe there is, in our country, a group which I call "the patient majority." They are the women and men, I know there are many in the audience today, who say, "I've been patient long enough. My country may not be perfect but it's pretty damn fine. And my political system is the best that's been invented yet. And I'm not going to let the radical edge of any cause or movement violate what I stand for."
That will be the most dramatic and exciting development in the near future, ladies and gentlemen. It will occur when the patient majority stops turning the other cheek. When you stop turning the other cheek, you find yourself looking your opponent straight in the eye. And beyond the opponent you see where you want to go. And if you are truly the majority, you go there. And you take your country along with you.
There will be other changes directly affecting the world of politics and government. One will be the further evolution of the "open government" concept. What we can expect is that as governments strive to satisfy the taxpayers' right to know, they will increasingly make use of the emerging technologies. So it won't be long before the taxpayer will expect to ring up government officials and have them pop up on their screen at home with answers or explanations or advice. This will be the logical extension of the present trend for public servants to respond more directly to the citizen. One could say that already, public servants are more public in their service.
We talk about a "one-window" approach in government in Ontario. That means, of course, a simplified access process; making government easier to talk to, if you will. It's inevitable, I think, that today's "one window" will be tomorrow's "one video screen." For all of us, our major window on the world, not just on government, will be a video screen. I suppose, human beings being what we are, in government as elsewhere, that we will quickly develop interministry rivalry over our relative viewer ratings.
The new technology will also work in both directions, of course. It will be easier to look in on government. It will also be easier for government to keep up to date on the activities of client groups, in my case, municipalities.
You will soon see, I believe, government grant and incentive programs operated and reported on by computers. Some of our programs are heavily computer-controlled now. Think how easy it would be to create a program in which the feedback was instantaneous. A simple example might be a housing or job creation program funded by the Province of Ontario and administered by municipalities under predetermined guidelines. By just sharing a data base with the municipalities and the banks and a few government offices in Toronto, we could do all the transactions at computer speed--scan applications, approve, transfer funds, and report. All this could be accomplished in seconds.
Such instant reaction will also provide immediate success or failure reports on programs. It would allow governments to make early adjustments in programs which seemed to fall below anticipated take-up. This leads us then to the point where we have the capacity to work with shorter life cycles for programs. In turn, programs could be more carefully customized to meet various seasonal or economic stimulus needs. And beyond that, customizing could be adapted to allow for regional differences and an endless variety of specific interests or needs.
In an increasingly complex world, the capacity to adjust quickly to assure spending efficiency is much to be desired. The new technology will help us in government to be even more efficient in utilizing tax dollars to improve the standard of life. And you know, ladies and gentlemen, the new technologies have so much to offer that they will make a place for themselves. It's just a question of how quickly. The real challenge isn't the new, it's the old. The old in this case is us--people. We are the part of the system which can't be programmed for instant, happy change. On the contrary, we tend to resist change.
The weight lifters and body-builders have an expression that guides their exertions. It is "no pain, no gain." What you and I have to decide is how much pain we wish to put our society through in order to build our technological muscles. Certainly, to remain abreast of the rest of the world we must make some progress. That means some changes. That means some discomfort or pain. Some will be specific such as job dislocation and variations in regional prosperity. Some pain will be personal and mental. We're human--a lot of what's happening is overwhelming and frightening to many of us.
That is the atmosphere in which politicians will perform and be judged in the years ahead. Elected leaders will be expected to point the way to a world that seizes every technical opportunity. At the same time, those leaders will have to provide constant assurances and demonstrations that people come first. We want, as people, to walk through a changing world hand in hand.
This challenge is presented to us coincident with a point in history when the security and stability provided by the traditional family unit is no longer available to many. More and more people are living alone. In this city, two out of five households comprise just one person. We can conclude that many of those people are looking to society to offer them some stability, some sense of belonging, some feeling of being wanted. We can't tell them to go and talk to a machine.
We have to do the opposite, in a way. As we give hardware . a larger place in our lives we have to make sure it does not displace human contact. That's easy to say--not quite so easy to do.
My instincts tell me that one of the touchstones people look to for stability is our political system. Individual politicians may come and go. But the system is based on respect for human values. It's not perfect but its checks and balances offer us a continuing sense of belonging. The free system we live under expects and demands that we be honest, for instance. Think how much dignity that one fact provides us.
Politicians are only part of the system. The concepts and the traditions are larger than any politician. People want it that way. People need it to be that way. It doesn't require much humility for any politician to recognize that. If he doesn't have that much humility to begin with, a close election or two will provide it.
It is also true that the system must be bigger than the new technology and the information revolution and all the other things that represent change in this era. The politician who would serve his or her community well is the one who will look first to the needs of the people. Then, with those needs firmly in mind, the elected leader will seek to make our new discoveries satisfy those needs. There is no satisfaction in progress that serves no one.
I want you to believe me when I say that I embrace happily much of what is new in science and technology today. Nevertheless, I urge you, as I urge myself, not to become so enamoured with the power and efficiency of the new that we forget the important old things--the human things. We must remember that machines and science serve people, not the other way around. Paradoxically, ladies and gentlemen, if you are to find leaders who will bring us the greatest benefits of technology, you must elect politicians who put people first. And if there are any potential politicians in the audience looking for advice from me, I can put it simply, "Don't push a button. Shake a hand."
The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Harry T. Seymour, incoming Second VicePresident of The Empire Club of Canada.