“A week is a long time in politics” is the popular aphorism that causes pundits to nod sagely and political operatives to reach deeper into their bag of tricks for manipulating the short attention spans and even shorter memories of the electorate.
Ample evidence demonstrates that political bloggers of all stripes are not immune.
Evidently, attention spans are getting shorter across the pond. Commentators such as George Monbiot and Andrew Rawnsley have noted that British PM Gordon Brown has become fond of quipping that “an hour is a long time in politics.”
Monbiot laments the inability of politicians to think beyond surviving the next election and proposes a solution: a new, independent Parliamentary committee — a Hundred Year Committee — whose purpose would be
to assess the likely impacts of current policy in 10, 20, 50 and 100 years’ time. Like any other select committee, it gathers evidence, publishes reports and makes recommendations to the government. It differs only in that it has no interest in the current political cycle. Its maximum timeframe is roughly the residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
This got me thinking. (Monbiot always gets me thinking!) I’ve heard this somewhere before. Buzz phrases stated rolling through my attentionally deficient mind: sustainable development, government watch dog, arms-length whoohaws, reports to Canada, sustainable development, hold their feet to the fire, annual reports — AHA, YES! AUDITOR GENERAL! SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT! WE’RE SAVED!
In Canada, we don’t need a Hundred Year Committee. We have the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, who annually reports to Parliament on the state of federal government management of our tax dollars. Included in their mandate is the responsibility to assess how effectively departments are fulfilling their “sustainable development plans.” When they find problems, they report them to Parliament and departments are supposed to respond with their strategies for remedying the deficiencies.
This year, after a decade of performing these audits (70 in total), the OAG decided to take a look at how well federal departments were doing in terms of fulfilling their commitments to comply with their own sustainable development plans. In their words, they “followed up on selected recommendations and findings from prior reports to determine if satisfactory progress has been made in addressing them.”
Bureaucratese is a deadening language. It rarely conveys the sense of urgency that it purports to describe. Commenting on governmental progress on the sustainable development front, they write
We found mixed progress by departments and agencies in addressing and resolving the recommendations and findings included in this Status Report. Of the fourteen chapters in the report, five show satisfactory progress and nine show unsatisfactory progress. Where satisfactory progress was made, four success factors were present—realistic objectives, strong commitment at senior levels, clear direction, and adequate resources. Where progress was unsatisfactory, some or all of these factors were absent.
Translation: Goverment — you have flunked! The last ten tears of Liberal and Tory administrations have been proven incapable of ensuring that federal departments meet their objectives for sustainable development. What’s the holdup? In the OAG’s cautious prose
Of particular concern is the poor performance by departments and agencies in conducting strategic environmental assessments when developing policy and program proposals. These assessments are required when proposals that are submitted to Cabinet have an environmental impact.
In addition to finding the last decade of governments guilty of failing to meet important environmental commitments, the OAG points to chronic, short-term thinking as an additional problem:
But as important as it is to address environmental challenges that exist today, it is equally important to anticipate new challenges and new opportunities that may arise tomorrow. Doing this would help the government get ahead of the curve and develop policies and programs to mitigate the challenges and exploit the opportunities. Strategic environmental assessments and sustainable development strategies are management tools put in place to get departments and agencies to do this. Unfortunately, both tools are broken; they need to be fixed. [my emphasis]
There you have it. Our government sufferes from attention deficit disorder; it can’t or won’t do proper environmental assessments, it can’t fix identified problems, it does not even try to anticipate what is on the horizon, much less beyond it.
In the unforgettable words of American writer Jim Kuntsler, our governments (and the folks who elected them) are “sleepwalking into the future.”
Nothing focuses one’s attention on the fate of future generations quite so effectively as the birth of one’s first grandchild. Mine was born last year and I alternate between the joy I derive from watching her grow and the despair I feel when I consider the world she will inhabit after I am gone.
I don’t imagine my feelings are unique. There may even be politicians who share these sentiments, but in the world of five-second sound-bytes and six-point platforms (each with three talking points, max) it is difficult to discern who these folks might be.
Among politically active friends and acquaintances, I think I am on firmer ground. I know more than a few who make a sustained effort to puzzle through what we need to do to create a sustainable world where my grandkid can raise her kids in peace and justice.
I extend my circle of folks I can count on in this way to the blogosphere, where there are many thoughtful, analytical voices for social justice. But we have to do better.
We’ve all guilty of publishing the smart-ass one liners that pass for political wisdom — the pithy denunciations of political rivals that prove we belong to the same club. We’ve all helped feed the rumour mills with less than rigorously researched facts at one time or another.
Somehow, we (and here I am talking to “progressive” political bloggers and others who visit here) have to wean ourselves off the steady diet of cheap thrills, hysterical language and gotcha sensationalism that pass for political analysis these days. We need to resist the urge to score easy points on the seemingly hapless fools who aspire to lead us. We need to become more thoughtful, deliberate and long-term in our own thinking and writing, and demand that our politicians do the same.
In other words, progressive political bloggers need to lead by example when we call on politicians to replace their short-term opportunism with planning and authentic concern for the well being of future generations.
End of rant — for now.