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Power, Politics and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy
By Elizabeth May
McClelland & Stewart
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
From the Introduction
It was in early May 2006 that I first watched An Inconvenient Truth, the now famous Oscar-winning documentary about the climate crisis. The Sierra Club of Canada had organized an advance screening in Toronto to which media, politicians and various opinion leaders had been invited. Al Gore was there to make his pitch for a word-of-mouth movement to increase attention for the documentary.
I was on my way out of my role as executive director of Sierra Club of Canada. After seventeen years, I had given notice a few months earlier, and although most of my staff did not know it, I had decided to toss my hat in the ring for the leadership of the Green Party of Canada. So, while I served as MC as Al Gore fielded questions, I was on the verge of moving in the opposite direction. He had left politics and embraced a life as an environmental advocate, and I was preparing to do the reverse.
A question was posed to Gore at that session and his answer stayed with me and has shaped my thinking over the last few years. In talking about the climate crisis, Gore said that it was one aspect of the crisis in Western democracies. He mentioned that the democracy crisis in Canada did not seem as extreme as in the U.S. (a point thatneeded no explanation given the theft of the U.S. election in 2000), but that every modern democracy was in crisis. And he believed that without fully functioning democracies, we could not escape the worst outcomes of global warming.
I had come to the same conclusion. We had just emerged from a federal election in which the old-line party I had once thought cared most about the climate crisis, the NDP, took pains to avoid climate change as an issue. [. . .] Later I was convinced that the Conservative minority of Stephen Harper had been elected by accident. Forty per cent of the 36 percent who voted Conservative said they had done so to punish the Liberals. While overall voter turn out improved only slightly over the 2004 historic lows, with only 64.7 percent of Canadians voting. Meanwhile some commentators noted with dismay that it was only due to the archaic “first past the post” system, a method of elections developed 1,100 years ago, that so many votes had not helped their party of choice. The House ended up not reflecting the will of the people as expressed through their votes.
So, it was hard to argue with the notion that democracy in Canada was in crisis. In entering politics, I felt that I could bring something different to the situation. At least, if I succeeded in becoming leader of the Green Party, I could draw attention to critical issues in the next election campaign. I wanted to identify what was wrong with Canadian politics: the marketing and selling of politicians like consumer goods; the failure to raise important issues and do so in respectful discourse. I wanted to help change the culture of politics from a confrontational and competitive field to one where greater cooperation and respect would be possible. If I could, I wanted to end the sports metaphors for politics as a “game” and see it for what it is and must be: the exercise by a free and responsible people of the democratic right to choose their own future.
Since then, the crisis has intensified. For the first time in Canadian political life, attack ads have been launched outside an election cycle. The Conservative “Not a Leader” tag line for Stéphane Dion was drummed into voters’ heads in January 2007 — mere weeks after Stéphane Dion won the Liberal leadership.
The increasing prominence of a presidential-style prime minister is steadily denigrating the traditions and institutions of Canadian democracy. Although the trend toward expanding prime ministerial powers began under Prime Minister Trudeau, the exercise of total control under Stephen Harper is unlike anything in Canadian tradition. The House of Commons has experienced an unprecedented increase of filibusters to block work in that chamber — instigated by Conservative MPs following a handbook produced by the PMO to ensure unfavourable witnesses could not speak in committees and unwanted bills could not pass in the House.
Question Period has sunk to the lowest levels of rudeness and incivility in living memory. Loud rounds of booing from government benches greet certain opposition members before they can even form a question. And the Speaker fails to rein them in. Every question to the prime minister is treated as an excuse to attack the questioner — or someone else. Once from my perch in the front row of the diplomatic gallery, I watched the leader of the official opposition ask about treatment of Afghan prisoners. The prime minister used this question to attack me, distorting a comment I had made on an unrelated subject beyond recognition. Politics has been referred to as a “blood sport.” It is rapidly becoming a take-no-prisoners war — both in and out of elections.
Public policy is no longer being developed through a process of consensus reflecting the public will. Nor is it being developed based on what the country needs in response to issues of concern — whether it’s the economic downturn borne of the credit crisis, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the persistent weaknesses in our health care system, or the environmental crisis. Issues are dealt with solely with an eye on the next election. Policies are not designed with the broad public interest in mind, but with a narrow segmentation of Canadian voter attitudes, sliced and diced down to a level of manipulation that can win seats, if not the hearts and minds of the majority. The precision of targeted bad policy with the aim of winning seats is being brought to the level of high art under the current government.
We are increasingly observing all the levers of power of government — and governance — being appropriated from even a semblance of serving the public good in order to serve the Conservative Party’s fortunes in the next election.
The problem is that so few people seem to remember it was not always like this.
Jane Jacobs commented on this aspect of modern society in her last book, Dark Age Ahead. As pillars of our civilization crumble, Jacobs noted, we suffer from a collective amnesia. We seem to readjust rapidly without noticing what is being lost.
A full, free, and functioning democracy is not something we should lose without a fight. We must not be driven by fear or seduced by creature comforts into allowing democracy to slip between our fingers.
[. . .]
Despite the parliamentary crisis of November 2008, Canadians are not particularly aware that the essence of our democracy is at risk. The essential elements of a functional democracy are a free and independent media, a well-informed and engaged electorate, and high levels of participation on voting day.
We could have greater levels of participation in elections. We need to set aside aggressive, combative politics to allow the public to believe there are people and policies worth voting for. We could reform our voting system to allow proportional representation. We could jolt our news media out of their stupor to actually cover issues and solutions, and not allow the political process to be further dumbed down through inane commentary masquerading as journalism. We could engage in a respectful discourse. And, fundamentally, we could reverse the dangerous trends that are allowing our parliamentary democracy to warp into the worst of all worlds — an imperial prime ministerial rule in the absence of the checks and balances placed on U.S. presidential powers.
Our democracy is precious. It is worth fighting for.
Excerpted from Losing Confidence by Elizabeth May Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth May. Excerpted by permission.
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