A democracy should reflect the views of its citizens and be a direct connection between government and those that it serves, right? Why, more than ever, does it seem as if our government exists in its own bubble? Detached from us, its own citizens. Its left many people fed up with the system they no longer trust. Saqib Qureshi, in his new book, The Broken Contract, points out a lot of the problems with our current democracy, including the fact that there is no incentive for politicians to make government more accountable, efficient, or representative.

Fortunately for us, Saqib provides many different approachable solutions we can implement to turn it around. After decades of working in government, management consulting, and investment banking, as well as experiencing the dysfunctionality of democracies in different parts of the world, Saqib began a journey beyond the surface of democracy and into its roots.

In todays episode, he shares with us what democracy is, how weve gotten away from it, and how we, as a people, can reclaim it.

Miles Rote: Hey everyone, my name is Miles Rote and I am excited to be here today with Saqib Qureshi, author of The Broken Contract: Making Our Democracies Accountable, Representative, and Less Wasteful. I like the sound of that. I think we need that in todays world. Saqib, Im excited youre here, welcome to the Author Hour podcast.

Saqib Qureshi: Thank you, Miles, Im excited to be here too.

Miles Rote: I want to jump in and start talking about everything but first, lets start by giving everyone a little bit of background on who you are.

Saqib Qureshi: I now live in Toronto with my wife and three kids. I had quite an eclectic background in terms of experience and the geographies that I have lived in. I spent six years in Dubai prior to my decade here in Toronto. I was born in London, where I lived most of my life, so geographically, I have lived around a fair bit. Ive had stints in investment banking, management, consulting, and working with the government. Now, I work as an entrepreneur. I have my own business that we started back in 2011 developing real estate.

I kind of look at things from a wide range of viewpoints and perspectives and I find that quite useful, actually.

Miles Rote: Yeah, so with that eclectic background and thinking about things from that level, what inspired you to write this book specifically?

Saqib Qureshi: I think what really got to me was the realization that we as citizens are no longer, or were not at the center of our government. Kind of the realization that democracy is so much more than the simple act of voting. I came to the conclusion that you have, essentially in the west, youve got systems of governance which are called democracy, but you dont really gravitate around the people. Theres almost a kind of a game being played out well away from us.

We are pawns in that game but were not really the center of our own political process. As a result of that, there are a whole host of injustices that take place. Economic injustice is just one example but there are others as well because the people really arent the center of their political fate, whatever transpires is really up to the politicians and civil servants that want to do what they want to do, by and large.

Democracy is People Power

Miles Rote: Before we jump into all of the different ways that are happening, lets start by just defining democracies so we have a solid foundation going forward as we have this conversation. How would you define democracy?

Saqib Qureshi: Yeah, thats the big question. To me, democracy is people power. Political power belonging to the people. By definition, what Im saying is that you can have democracy and have no elections. You cant have elections and yet have no democracy. Elections, people treat us anonymously with democracy. I think thats a mistake because elections are a means too. Theyre a particular path that you could take to achieving the rule of the people.

The rule of the people, yes, we can have a debate as to what that might look and feel like but in essence, the citizens of a state or a province or a country being very much at the center of their political future.

They must have political power and not subordinate that power or delegate that power or give it away to an unelected civil service and a bunch of career politicians. Democracy, as I say, is not necessarily tied to the act of voting. I think thats the big mistake weve made or that we are making is that weve said, well, we vote, therefore were democratic.

Thats part of the reason why youve got countries like North Korea who quite openly say, Were democratic.” And part of the reason weve got other countries in the western liberal framework who say the same thing. But you know, theyre kind of missing the woods through the trees here because the act of voting, and I say this again, is not the same thing as having political control.

Miles Rote: One way of thinking of it too is just because you have a democracy, doesnt necessarily mean that its a functioning democracy. What would it take to then have a functioning democracy? If it were people-centric, what does it take to be functional?

Saqib Qureshi: This is a huge debate and I dont think its particularly practical to go back to the ancient Athenian model. Granted, in the Athenian definition, citizens excluded women. It excluded a bunch of other people. Slaves, being another example. But I dont think its practical to have the entire government fabric being daily administered by ordinary people. We have our lives to lead. But what it does mean, I think for us, particularly in the western liberal framework, is that when we talk about democracy, we really kind of boil it down to accountability, representation, and essentially, not wasting our tax dollars.

Those are three key buckets that when we are talking about democracy, we are talking about people power. We mean what is running our government for us has got to be accountable to us. Elected politicians as well as the bureaucrats. What were also saying is that the government, and particularly the influential end of government, needs to represent the people. Both in the sense of being representative of Joe public, but also representing constituents, actually advocating for them, and not being browbeaten by party whips and the political party system.

The third piece is around waste. You know, the amount of waste that takes place in government, both on big projects but also on an ongoing basis is catastrophic. We often lose sight of the fact that taxes arent just paid only by people who are rich and wealthy but taxes are paid by, in many cases, people who dont have a home to live in. Homeless people, believe it or not, pay tax–they pay tax on basic products that they purchase, sales tax. Theres a massive moral responsibility to make sure that the tax dollars that are put together are spent efficiently and effectively. There ought to be some kind of recourse, some kind of correction when that doesnt happen.

I dont think its feasible, lets say in the US, to have 380 million people or 350 million people whatever it is, go out there and decide every single piece of legislation. Even with the internet, IT era that we live in, I think its a bit impractical. But I certainly think, for instance, theres no reason why ordinary Americans dont define their federal budget. I dont think that’s a big ask and we can do it, everybody has a smartphone, you just type in what percentage of your total tax dollars need to go to defense and need to go to health and safety and need to go to law and order and all the rest of it and then that is a say. You have a very big say on a very simple point. Youve put your foot out.

As it is, most Americans think that 30% of their taxes go to foreign aid, theyre so removed from the reality of their government that they dont even know what the government is spending their taxes on. Thats ironic because its like 1% of taxes or 1% of the tax accumulated at the federal level goes to foreign aid, and a huge chunk of that is really about American exports, its not about really aiding the countries on their own terms or aiding the poorest end of humanity on its own terms.

That disconnect is just so profound that you have to ask yourself that if you dont even know what your government is spending your tax dollars on then do you really have anything comparable to whats people power?

Miles Rote: Yeah, I feel like the lack of transparency can be the thing that really makes it so hard for Americans, or even people of other countries, to have an understanding of these things. You offer a lot of great examples in the book about how we can reduce waste in government, as well as many other recommendations to help us get back to democracy. But before we jump into that, why do you think our democracy has failed us to begin with?

Saqib Qureshi: You see, the thing is that our democracy is better now than it was a hundred years ago. We have greater accountability, we probably have a more effective and efficient allocation of resources and almost definitely better representation in our legislatures, in our executives, in our judiciary, and in the broader civil service should I say, than weve had 100 years ago, 200 years ago. Weve improved, but I think, whats changed in the last 20 years is by virtue of the internet and information technology and social media, we are way more aware of the gaps than we were 20 or 30 years ago.

Lets say, in 1980, you sat on your seat and you really wanted to find out, how many legislators in Congress are women? You dont sit there on your computer typing 10 words and see a bunch of authoritative news sources. No, what you do is that you may run off to the library. You may go to the local federal government office and look through a bunch of bits and pieces. The entire exercise takes hours. Now, its instant. We are way more aware of a major government piece of waste. Were way more aware where theres a lack of accountability. Somebody spends a hundred million dollars in the project, the project gets canceled, taxpayers will have to pay. Now we know a hundred million dollars was wasted.

30 or 40 years ago, with a more compliant media, with less proliferation of technology, of social media, and information technology, we didnt know. Its an important point to make. We are no less democratic than we were a hundred years ago. Probably more.

But weve hit a point where not only are we aware of the deficiencies, but the deficiencies are costing us an awful lot. Were aware of what theyre costing us. For instance, the globalization and free trade agreement that took place in the 1980s would not have gone the route that they have in terms of generating wealth for the elite, had we had a political framework or a better democracy which involved more middle-class, and more middle-lower class people than we have.

You see, globalization has really benefited an elite, its done very little in terms of per capita real income growth for the vast majority of people in the west. And theres a reason for that because the people who ran the political mechanics during that globalization process thought like, and were, typically quite wealthy people from wealthy families with wealthy connections. I think we are now seeing that being played out.

The people are getting frustrated but look, you know what? The entire system doesnt feel as if were at the center of it. And were not really, financially, doing too well. Were kind of just scraping by from where we were from 10, 20 years ago. Whereas, a bunch of people are out there hitting close to a trillion dollars. Well, not a bunch, but at least a few of them are now knocking on the door for a trillion dollars.

All of that kind of compounds the frustration that I think the average citizen now has. Hence we are seeing a real collapse in the last 10 years, 15 years with respect to our appetite for the system that we call democracy, but is not really.

Penalties for Nonperformance

Miles Rote: I think you bring up such a good point with technology. There are so many aspects to it and I guess thats part of living in a very exponentially technological world. But one of those things is, as you mentioned, its so easy to get access to information, but one thing you talk about in your book is in 1992, there were 130 websites and today, there are more than 1.5 billion.

When people do go to find their news, how do we know whats right and whats not, and how is their perception of government even formed?

Saqib Qureshi: Yeah, this is a real cows mess because every election cycle, we see the same polemic, we see each candidate making up things, twisting information. Youll see a bunch of complete falsehoods, youll see a bunch of semi-truths, a bunch of truths, as well. Its not as if theyre completely lying but theres an awful lot of firehose detail which is thrown out to Joe citizen, upon which, that person is supposed to make a coherent decision.

I think, you really have to ask yourself that given the proliferation of information sources and within that proliferation, Im really referring to the proliferation of false news or news that doesnt really care about if its accurate or not.

The politicians are doing the same thing because lets face it, there is no downside now for lying. Politicians can lie publically and face no consequences. We are in that reality right now.

Youve got to ask yourself, if thats possible, then what is the point of having an election process where you really are just making stuff up and getting away with it? It doesnt really seem to stack up. I think you have to start penalizing. You actually do have to start penalizing for nonperformance.

I mean, the UK has a prime minister who had been sacked several times for lying. And I dont really have the appetite to employ people who have been sacked several times for lying. How is it that we have allowed for this? And I think weve got to raise our game as citizens and say look, you know what? I dont know if it happened, if this happened centuries ago or not but I can tell you that I dont really want to have a political system, a democracy, where all of the information is just a mess and politicians can lie without consequence, weve got to change this.

Otherwise, were going to end up in a worse situation where well have even less effective politicians, even less trustworthy politicians, dragging our political system down. An awfully bad sewerage system, you know?

Then, we will just counter-react, there will be extremities of responses. The likes of Hitler don’t come forward in an environment of peace and stability. This is an important point to make. Your lunatic fringes dont do well when things are good and proper, they do remarkably well when things are a shambles.

That is, I think, what were seeing–elements, at least in the fringes–now of those extremities.  People who are just letting their frustration out, taking extreme positions, appealing to angry emotions, irrespective of the underlying realities, and pushing the agenda towards more and more difficult and uncompromising situations.

Miles Rote: Yeah, everything youre describing right now feels like a very good description of America. Now is this something that youre seeing globally? You mentioned in the UK, they would get sacked for lying and there would be actions taken, so do you feel as though this is something systematically happening globally? Or is this more of an American problem?

Saqib Qureshi: I focused in my book on five countries, the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. I think the two countries where its happening more are the UK and the US. A lot less so in New Zealand and a lot less so in Australia and Canada. I think Brexit is really a wonderful manifestation of that–“Lets shoot ourselves in the foot because it makes us feel good” reaction. The people who campaigned for Brexit made up a pack of lies. We know that. Now, theyve made those lies up, they communicated those lies, and theyve literally gone to the pub all cheery, happy, and all the rest of it.

It will be for the British people to carry that can. They will carry that can and they will be a heck of a lot worse off for it. Youre kind of seeing this movement towards angry–I dont want to say, removed from reality, but certainly kind of, We dont care what the facts are but were just going to get angry and annoyed and were frustrated because our incomes havent gone up and were frustrated by the foreigner, frustrated by not having a voice.” We are several steps down the road from that in the UK and the US.

Donald Trump–I mean he, according to the Toronto Star, lies 8.6 times a day on average since his first day of office. Now, that is just an incredible statistic. You really have to ask yourself, how? If the Founding Fathers of the US, if they had been forewarned that one of your next presidents is going to end up lying 8.6 times a day, I think they might have collapsed. Really, honestly. Theres no way. We are the check and balance to it. Who is stopping it?

Miles Rote: Part of the problem is, there is such distrust in our democracy that people dont even have the confidence to vote. That is part of the issue.

Saqib Qureshi: Yeah, there is a lot of distrust in our democracy and I totally agree with you. I think the fact that politicians, the career politicians, have mastered the art of being elected, of re-electing and being re-elected for the 5thtime, for the 6th time, does our democracy no favors. You know we are–fed up is the right word–with our political situation. Sort of with our governance. We rightly think that our politicians, by and large–I dont want to use the word useless. But their track records and their previous existences and their previous professions arent much to brag about by and large.

And we are also set out with them lying, spinning, not accepting responsibilities for when things go wrong. It is a very unfair state of affairs. If I was running a business and it had the characteristics of the democracy that we have in Canada or the one that I have experienced in other parts of the world, that would be–you know what? This doesnt stack up. It is just morally wrong, it is ineffective.

One of the things that hit me quite often is this piece around, look, there are many, many people out there living in poverty in the US, in the UK, in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. They end up subsidizing, they end up financing this mess because they still have to pay sales tax, if not income tax. They still have to cough up to the politicians and to the civil servant irrespective of their own personal wellbeing. And thats a tragedy, I think, that is often overlooked.

The fact that I think in the British parliament, only one person out of 600 odd MPs has ever been homeless and that was the individual who spent a week voluntarily. There may be a second person also I think in the US congress, as well in the senate and the house. I think it has been one person who has been homeless.

And it gives you a flavor as to okay, you know what? How are you going to understand the problem of the homeless beyond an academic textbook exercise, if you havent any lived knowledge, any visceral knowledge of these issues? The homeless and those in poverty, that community, really, I feel for them because they take the full weight. They take more of the weight than the upper economic end of western democracies in shouldering and financing our pseudo-democracy.

Money in American Politics

Miles Rote: So now that weve identified a lot of the problems and we can see that other countries are doing things better, lets get into some of the ways that we can improve this democracy and take it out of the realm of pseudo-democracy. What are these other countries doing better? You mentioned the UK and the US struggling but other countries arent as much. Why are they doing better than we are as far as being more representative and more democratic?

Saqib Qureshi: So, I think with the US, money talks. The way that the US Supreme Court has defined it, is that money within the political system is a function of freedom of speech. In Canada for instance, it is actually very, very hard for an individual to donate. I think it is more like five or $6,000 per year into the federal political process. I think it is a bit lower than that actually.

So, whereas in the States, you can just pay whatever you want and obviously get your ambassadorship afterward. You could pay whatever you want, and you could buy all the airtime. And by definition, if you have contributed a million dollars or $20 million, you will have way more sway on policy than 100 other citizens who are ordinary middle-class earners.

The amount of money that is swirling in the American system, in particular, is simply alarming. And what is interesting is that no politician is incentivized to challenge that. Why? Because elected politicians, by definition, have a massive advantage in further fund raising.

So, if you turn up to your elected politician and say, Hey look, guys, we want to put a cap on the amount of money that goes into our political system because it is quite corrosive,” what you are saying is, Hey guys, we want to reduce the one big huge advantage you have at every election time.” Youve got to be nuts as a member of the legislature to sign up for that. Your party, for instance, is going to blow you out of the water.

We know, for instance, that Americans want to see spending caps within their political parties. We know that from survey after survey after survey and there is a profoundly obvious reason why that is not affected. Why that very simple democratic will of the people is not put into play–its because the people who are already in a position to make that piece of regulatory or legislative change, its not in their interest to do that. They absolutely have a huge advantage in fundraising and therefore outspending in the next election simply because theyre in the hot seat at this particular moment.

So that is a huge piece in terms of you have got to put caps on spending. You have got to put caps on how much individual citizens can put into the political process. I would go so far that Id actually ban organizations–any non-human being individuals from donating anything. I dont see a good enough case that it overrides freedom of speech.

This is where we have a very interesting challenge because you have to ask yourself, what are we protecting? Are you protecting people power or are we protecting the ability to finance whatever they want to finance? It is a very interesting clash here and I think I would protect the democracy. I would protect that, in this particular instance, because I think what you now have with the democracy, at least in the US, is really a function of who writes the biggest checks.

Miles Rote: This is a fairly new thing in the United States, isnt that right? Weren’t there limits on this before?

Saqib Qureshi: I am not aware of when the limits were removed. I know the spending patterns in the last 20 years have gone a bit like the kind of revenue curve that a dot-com winner would like to see, frankly. And every year, I am just amazed at the amount not only that the presidents office, for instance, or the challenger to the president will spend, but senators as well. Senators, in some cases, spend 90 odd million dollars. I think in Texas, was in the last election. And that person as it happens got beat. But, you know, $90 million on a senatorial campaign. Youve got to ask yourself, Are you spending that kind of money, or are people giving that kind of money out of the goodness of your heart or their hearts?” Well no, they obviously want something back from it. Something that corrupts may be too strong a word but that may not be the worst word to use. The will of the people, what the people would want.

I think thats a huge piece in the US around money but there are things we can do you know. It is not all doom and gloom. We can put caps on political spending and we can actually begin to track what our elected and unelected government officials do. I mean why cant I see the daily diary of my MP? Why cant I just see what he is up to or shes up to? Actually, in this case, in my particular case, it would be a she. So why cant I just see by double-clicking on her diary? Okay, so shes got meetings today. Oh, that is interesting, shes got a meeting with this PR company, and actually got a meeting with that potential big fat donor. Oh, she actually got another meeting with another spin doctor. Okay, well that is nice to know.” Why cant I just see what her Monday to Friday, what her agenda is? Granted, some of those meetings in some very specific cases, maybe, are very sensitive and confidential, particularly with National Security issues, for instance, and you can block those.

If an MP has a very specific sensitive role then bits and pieces can be blocked but I dont see any reason why I cant get online and double click that MP or senators agenda and see, Okay yeah you know that is interesting this is what theyve got in their diary.” And maybe even further, what did they actually achieve at the end of each meeting.

Miles Rote: There is an excerpt in your book that I wanted to read part of. You opened it up by talking about, first of all, that there is so much when it comes to democracy” that is untouchable that we dont actually elect, but even the small percent that we are able to elect, they serve their terms and then they come back for re-election and we have no idea what they actually did or didnt do the entire time they were there except for what they choose to share.

Then of course, even that fails to recognize that most of our representatives have almost no resources to actually follow through on the commitments that they wanted to do once theyre elected. So, it just seems like this lose-lose situation and especially when you talk about money and politics, I feel like so many citizens are realizing and waking up to the fact that corporations have more say than they actually do as a part of their own government. But there is outrage and we can see some outrage, but not as much as you would think with these things going on. Or at least that is my perception of it.

Someone can cut you off in traffic and you can lose your mind over it but someone can contribute 20 million dollars versus your 10 dollars and really, do we have that same outrage? Why do you think we arent more up and arms about some of these things?

Saqib Qureshi: You know, I think a lot of it has to do with the wool being pulled over our eyes and not in a conspiratorial-conscious way but, I mean, for instance, we seemed very comfortable that we have a democracy. Okay, so yes, no, its all tickety-boo, were a democracy and those dictators are somewhere in some foreign territory dont you know. We are so used to kind of just that–we are so used to just telling ourselves that we dont actually question, okay what is democracy and what do we have?

So, there is a real, not historical luggage, but it is just the way we have become accustomed to seeing the reality that we live in. We think we have a democracy so therefore it should be good. But in actual fact when you probe a bit further is that democracy, is that people power? Do we really have people power? The answer is obviously no, you dont have it. And you can argue until the cows come home about alternative systems but right now we do not have people power.

So, in answer to your question, you know, how have we allowed this and why didnt we have outrage? Its because I dont think we are seeing it. I dont think we are actually seeing the disconnection point. What we are seeing is evidence of anger and frustration and apathy about the system that we have. So, democracy as an ideal or as a political system, should I say, has lost its luster for an entire generation of young western citizens.

The 20s and 30s group does not have that attachment to democracy that I think elder generations had. And I think that needs to start worrying, on a quite existential level, anybody who cares for our country, as opposed to anybody who sat there twiddling their thumbs trying to win re-election.

Frankly, my take is unless the citizen body begins to connect the dots, I think we are going to end up with more volatile and more extreme politics over the next 10 to 15 years in the US and in the UK. Maybe in Canada, but I think Canada has smartly put together some measures. Its not totally immune by any means, but for instance funding caps, Canada has put in a few measures which insulate it from some of the stuff that is happening. But again, I dont want to put Canada out there as being a great beacon for this model going forward. I mean, our MP listens to Justin Trudeau. Our MP in priority does not prioritize individual constituents or the constituents. Its the party whip that tells our MP what to vote on and when to vote.

Suggestions for Improvement 

Miles Rote: As you mentioned before, it is not all doom and gloom. Even though we do have a very interesting road ahead of us, it doesnt mean things cant get better or arent getting better in some ways. But something I really like in your book is, we are awake for 16 hours a day and if we just spent 2% of that day exercising, then we can make a big difference for our health and wellbeing.

And even when it comes to the government, it doesnt necessarily have to be these big things that we think of that change everything. But sometimes its just that efficient, consistent, everyday change that can make all the difference.

You offer quite a few things in your book about ways to improve government and one of them that I really liked is the idea of parallel competitive government departments. One thing about the government is because it is monopolized, it doesnt have a lot of competition. What is an example of that and what do you mean by that–a parallel competitive government department?

Saqib Qureshi: Okay, so our starting position is that monopolies are not good in the private sector. Our tolerance for monopolies is practically zero, okay? We have seen this time and time again–this is a cultural position that we have that monopolies in the private sector are bad news. Now I dont see any good reason why monopolies in the public sector arent also bad news. I think any uncompetitive or non-competitive environment does little to bring out the best performance in an individual or an organization.

So that is my starting point. And so, the next point is why has there been so little thinking done in this? Why have we spent so little time in figuring out how to instill a competitive spirit within the public sector? There is no reason why we cant do it. If we can have a competitive spirit brought into play in the private sector, there is no intellectual reason I can think of that we cant have it in the public sector.

The example of public sector work that we may consider, with respect to competition would be, lets say, the regulation of food and drugs. So, you break the regulatory body into two, three, or four competing bodies and those two, three, or four competing bodies compete at all levels including sourcing talent, including the health and safety of citizens, of residents. The organization that does well, is rewarded you and the organization that doesnt do well, well it is not rewarded.

I dont really see why we dont make the effort to put some thinking into this and experimenting with it because it is no open secret that the private sector is so much weaker. I mean the number of sick days that you see in the public sector compared to the private sector in any western democracy, there is no comparison. The federal government in Canada, I think the average employee takes off 18, 16 days per year because there are sick.” I dont know the exact number but that is three or four weeks.

Thats an awful lot of time to be taking off sick. Whereas in the private sector, if the average private-sector employee was that sick, I would imagine that a huge chunk of private modern businesses would collapse. You wouldnt be able to cope with that kind of absenteeism but apparently the public sector obviously recruits people who are a little bit more ill, who have the worst access to healthcare, the worst access to a good diet and exercises and all the rest of it. I get that.

Obviously not, but the point that I am making is that I dont really see why you could not instill a competitive culture between organizations and break up these huge monopolies. Give them very tightly governed objectives or indicators or kind of KPIs to get them to do better. Again, the people that they really owe this effort to are the people who are struggling to make ends meet yet are still paying taxes.

Miles Rote: Thank you for writing this book. I think it is very timely with everything going on right now. I feel like the coronavirus has really put a spotlight on all the cracks and faults within our democracy–or at least continues to highlight those. So, it is a wonderful, timely book that I really recommend for people. Writing a book is no joke–congratulations. If readers could take away one or two things from your book what would they be?

Saqib Qureshi: I think the two things would be, number one, we think we have a democracy and we dont. And number two, that we as citizens owe it to ourselves to step up to the plate and help fix that. It is our civic responsibility to step up a bit and demand that we have a democracy.

Miles Rote: I love that. Saqib, this has been such a pleasure and I am so excited for people to check the book out. Everyone, the book is called The Broken Contract: Making Our Democracies Accountable, Representative, and Less Wasteful and you can find it on Amazon. Besides checking out the book Saqib, where can people find you?

Saqib Qureshi: I have a blog, drsq.com and a blog goes up typically every week and the details of the book are on that blog as well.

Miles Rote: I love it. I encourage everyone to check that out as well as the book and youll find many different ways to start thinking about democracy differently. Saqib thank you again.

Saqib Qureshi: Thank you very much. Thank you, Miles.