Making democracies relevant: An interview with Mark Coffin

American businessman and independent politician, Ross Perot once said, “The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river.”

By this description, Halifax resident Mark Coffin is an activist through and through. Like many of us, Mark has experienced deep frustration and discontent with the current state of politics in his home province. However, instead of just complaining that the system is flawed and out of touch, he decided to do something about it. Back in Fall 2012, with the help of some friends, Mark started a new educational charity, called the Springtide Collective, to help make the political system in Nova Scotia more meaningful to people’s lives.

While in Halifax, I spoke with Mark about the Springtide Collective, and his work to build a more democratic, more participatory and more engaged Nova Scotia.

Mark, can you tell us a little about the Springtide Collective?

MC: A springtide is a set of extreme tides. At high tide, rising waters reach points usually untouched by ocean waves – sometimes powerful enough to move boulders and things previously undisturbed by normal high tides. At low tide, a springtide exposes elements that are usually unseen.

What an ocean springtide does for shorelines, the Springtide Collective aims to do for politics in Nova Scotia. We’re an educational charity, so the metaphor speaks to the power that education, research and transparency around politics can have on improving the way politics can work in our corner of the country.

In more direct terms, we’re dedicated to bridging the gap between Nova Scotians and our democratic institutions, and imagining ways of doing politics differently.

What compelled you to start the Springtide Collective?

MC: Frustration. There was no single light-bulb moment, but rather a series of experiences with politics, most of which left me lacking confidence that our political system and culture is up to the challenges that we need them to resolve.

I was very involved in the student movement in Nova Scotia for close to five years. I spent three years leading an organization now called Students Nova Scotia. I was the primary spokesperson for that organization and the liaison between the students we represented and the government we wanted to influence.

Firstly, I struggled with knowing the best way to influence decision-making. I’d read everything I could get my hands on, talked to people who had experience in advocacy, but still ended up feeling that trying to influence policy in government was like trying to find your way out of a labyrinth.

When we were meeting with officials on “the inside” it was clear that our problems weren’t unique; that backbenchers, public servants, and even some cabinet members were no further ahead at understanding how change in government policy can happen.

Finally, you reach the conclusion that most decisions happening in government are made in places that you cannot observe. That all of politics is a game, and that to get your issues on the public agenda, you need to play the game. Then you realize that to play the game you need resources (which we had), but also that many people who are losing the game have no resources, and their inability to play the game will lead them to having even fewer resources.

Success in this system isn’t about who had the greatest need, or the best values, or the best ideas. It’s about who can play the political game the best.

Having come to this realization, it was clear to me that there are really only two options: play the game, or change the rules.

Myself, and others, created the Springtide Collective out of an interest in changing the rules of the game. We don’t necessarily have all the answers for what the alternatives are, and I’m not convinced anyone does. But that gives us plenty of work to do, to explore and research ways of doing politics differently.

We’re building educational programming that will help others trying to do politics differently, whether those people are everyday citizens, active politicians, community advocates, or public servants.

Mark Coffin is an educator, a philosopher, and an advocate for democratic renewal. The order of those things is important to him.
Mark Coffin is an educator, a philosopher, and an advocate for democratic renewal. The order of those things is important to him.


How do you think your work with the Springtide Collective has impacted people in Nova Scotia?

MC: We’ve spent the last year running a project called Make Democracy Better. The first two goals of the project were to find people who like the idea of democracy but think it can be done better, and to get those people talking to one another — in their own communities, and across the province. Before we launched this program, there wasn’t a clear channel or organization through which Nova Scotians could register their optimism for the notion that democracy can be done better than it is. You read the cynical comments in news articles about the brokenness of politics. Having a place where people can be involved in co-creating alternatives to the way things are is a big step forward. Our next step is to build an action plan for a better democracy.


In your experience, what are the biggest problems with the current democratic system in Nova Scotia?

MC: The democratic system doesn’t actually need any of us. It’s unsustainable. The only logical trend we should expect is for participation to continue to decline. Let’s contrast that with a system we are all much more active in, the market. The market absolutely needs us. The less we participate, the harder it gets for people who sell things. The fewer of us who participate in politics, the easier it gets for politicians. The more of us who participate in politics, the harder it gets for politicians. Because the market needs us, it reaches out to us in ways very different from how our politicians reach out to us. Because our political system doesn’t rely on citizens, like the market does, politicians have no incentive to improve participation.

What do you think it will take to make the current system better?

MC: We need to build a system where there are incentives for politicians to act in ways that encourage participation amongst the citizenry. The politicians and parties who act this way now do so benevolently, at their own risk. They have a greater chance of success if they play the political game.

We need to build systems that not only reward politicians for appealing to the majority, but to reward the ones who go further and focus on consensus building. When politicians only need 51% to turn a bill into law, there’s little incentive to work with the other 49%. There are some practical ways to do this. Voting systems that use proportional representation promote consensus building, and power sharing among parties and lawmakers. Thoughtful, deliberative public engagement with citizens on important issues can help make good policy great policy. Proposals like MP Michael Chong’s reform act can give lawmakers the protection they need to follow their conscience and constituents instead of towing the often competitive and combative party line.

People have lost faith in the political system. How would you sell someone who has tuned out of politics on the benefits on getting more engaged?

MC: I wouldn’t. I have a friend who teaches an introductory course in politics at Dalhousie University. She once told me, “The biggest challenge I face is that it’s my job for students to leave my classroom knowing more about politics than when they came in.” Then she added, “The problem is, I can’t do that without making them more cynical about the whole system by the time I’m finished.”

Nobody gets involved in politics first. I encourage people to get active in their communities on issues they care about, that’s easier to get motivated about. Perhaps those issues will be something they can resolve on their own, but there’s a good chance they will discover those are political issues. If they continue to work on them, they’ll figure out for themselves that the political system is imperfect and needs to change.

If you had to choose one thing, whats the biggest lesson youve learned from your work with the Springtide Collective?

MC: Change is slow. Patience is hard.

Starting a movement is hard work. What advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for creating a positive change in their own community, and wants to make it a reality?

MC: Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I like this quote, but it’s incomplete. She forgot to mention the group must also be unqualified.

Any movement that is working for real change is trying to do something that’s never been done before. That movement is automatically the best and the worst in the world at creating that change. Sometimes it’s easier to focus on the latter, more than the former.

There are always critics. Sometimes they’re worth listening to and sometimes they’re not. In either case, they’re not in the hot seat, and you’ve got to trust your own judgement and the judgement of the team you’re doing the work with and make the decisions that feel right. The information at your fingertips is imperfect, and the people who inspire you might not be any better prepared to make the impact you’re hoping to have. Everything is an experiment. Make your long-term goals about making change. Make your short-term goals about learning the best way to make that change happen.

How can people get involved with or help support the Springtide Collective?

MC: We plan to welcome on new volunteers in Fall 2015. We’ll notify people about that opportunity through our mailing list, and Facebook and Twitter pages. Of course, it takes money to make change. That is the most direct way people can contribute to our work. They can do that on our website.

Mark Coffin is an educator, a philosopher, and an advocate for democratic renewal. With the help of friends and now-colleagues, Mark started the Springtide Collective to bridge a growing gap between citizens and our democratic institutions. Mark also serves on the boards of Credit Union Atlantic and Engage Nova Scotia.