How can we counter corporate capture of government?

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Skyscrapers. Photo: Tuxyso/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The SNC-Lavalin affair rips the veil off the hidden world of corporate influence on government decision-making. Ordinary Canadians have been offered a glimpse of the real Canada. 

The power centre in the Government of Canada is not focused on middle-class jobs, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, or even trade relations with our southern neighbour. 

As Maclean's writer Paul Wells brilliantly describes in a recent article, "all of that was absolutely going on, but it wasn't the whole story…  there was another show going on… somewhere behind bouncers and a rope line you didn't even know were there. "

Frank Iacobucci, one of SNC-Lavalin's defence lawyers, is a former Supreme Court justice. Kevin Lynch, their chairman of the board, is a former clerk of the Privy Council Office, Canada's top civil servant. And SNC's lobbyists have been breezing in and out of the office of the prime minister.

We Canadians are a trusting lot. We like to leave it to our governments to do the right thing, so we can get on with looking after our family and friends. We prefer to avert our gaze from corruption.

But the system is showing cracks. The middle class is getting harder to find. Federal and provincial governments are paralyzed by the apocalyptic predictions of climate change scientists. Infected by close ties to the U.S., our officials are acquiring an unhealthy tendency to meddle in the affairs of other nations through sanctions and regime change.

Every few years an election brings new elected officials promising to do politics differently. They ignore their campaign promises of change or just undo a tiny part of what a previous government put in place. Even worse, "populists" get elected with almost no platform or accountability whatever.

The Canadian electorate lapses into slumber. Corporations move in. Behind the scenes, the show goes on.  

We need a new way of doing government. How can we counter corporate capture of government, and reverse the trend of centralizing power in the Prime Minister's Office?

Transparency measures such as lobbying registries are helpful but do not get at the root of the problem. Banning lobbying altogether would only drive it underground. 

The problem is not unique to Canada. A new extensively documented European report details the pernicious influence of corporate lobbying in the banking, gas, pharmaceutical, arms, IT and auto sectors, as well as in taxation and trade policies. It calls on government institutions to end the "privileged access of corporate interests," and to "re-democratize the input process" by seeking "novel ways to gain input from citizens, SMEs [Small and medium-sized enterprises] and other, currently under-represented, interest groups."

How to go about this? Here are some ideas. Identify the big issues that need to be addressed (the UN Sustainable Development Goals are a good framework for this) and create task forces to address these issues. Give them a mandate to interact with each other. Include ordinary citizens as well as "experts." Make sure the "experts" don't all have commercial ties. 

As our Indigenous brothers and sisters say, everything is connected. But Canadians are becoming increasingly disconnected. Discourse has become privileged, polarized and unproductive. 

Let's meet and talk together -- about strengthening democracy and truly doing politics differently.

Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley.

Photo: Tuxyso/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

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