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To Lead or to Serve
22 November 2011, 20h45 EST (GMT-5)

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Waves of rebellions and revolutions are washing over the world, as long-repressed peoples from a vast array of cultures choose to risk their lives for freedom, rather than continue dwelling quietly under tyranny. Yet simultaneously, established democracies are drowning in cynicism and popular disengagement from our own political insitutions. In my broadcast essay for TVOntario's The Agenda with Steve Paikin, I make the case that active participation in the political process is the price that each of us must stand prepared to pay if we wish to be citizens rather than merely subjects. The broadcast is available via streaming video through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text is below.

* * *

It has always been my conviction that public service is the secular reply to the yearning each of us feels to be part of something greater than ourselves, to live life in pursuit of ideals more noble than the satisfaction of personal appetites.

And yet, there is no denying that there is a crisis of cynicism in our country, about politics, politicians, and even the ideal of public service. While this would be a misfortune for any country, it is a catastrophe for ours.

Unlike Old World states, Canada was not created by accidents of history or the determinism of geography; indeed, with the vastness of the land and the sparseness of the population, our very existence is a triumph of hope over reason. Canada exists because, and only because, we have willed ourselves into being as single nation bound together by a set of shared political values. In this context, Canadians’ loss of faith in the political process imperils the national enterprise itself.

Why are Canadians turning an increasingly sceptical eye and deaf ear to the politics? I find it difficult to believe that it is because politicians of the past were any more noble, or those of the present any more corrupt.

Instead, I believe that a great chasm has opened between the governors and the governed in our respective understandings of the meaning of leadership in a modern democracy.

Over the past quarter century, political parties have too often lurched away from being mass movements of individual Canadians sharing a common vision of the public good, and towards being backdrops for individual party leaders who speak the language of democracy while wielding near-absolute power over their elected caucuses.

At the same time, Canadians have lost any appetite to huddle in the shadow of one great man who would carry us to the Promised Land. Instead, we crave an opportunity to exercise leadership in our own lives, to share in the authorship of the social contract that binds us together and defines us as a nation.

Canadians instinctively remember what the machinery of politics appears to have forgotten: that election to office is a contract to serve us, not a licence to rule us; that the wisdom of society lies in the many, not the few; that if it is to be real, democracy must be a way of governing ourselves, not just a way of choosing governments.

But the chasm can be bridged.

In our recent federal, provincial, and municipal elections, a surprising number of younger Canadians and Canadians from other fields of public service have stepped into the political fray. Most of them have come seeking to change politics, though doubtlessly, many will instead be changed by politics. But not all.

For those of us outside Parliament, we must have the courage to live out the creed of our age: that the greatest guarantor of the public interest is an engaged and watchful population standing between its leaders and the levers of power.

Ultimately, active participation in the political process is the price that each of us must stand prepared to pay if we wish to be citizens rather than merely subjects. Because in a democracy, we never receive the nation we deserve; we only receive the nation we demand, and the nation we dare to create.


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