Our current democracy is nowhere near 'good enough'. Our democracy isn't working and it's high time we got it fixed.
By Ben Bull
Published November 08, 2007
I was arguing about the merits, or rather the de-merits, of Canada's democracy the other day, with an Italian friend. My friend was explaining how he pays 'way less taxes' in this country and how impressed he is with Canada's 'low levels of corruption'.
"You're expectations are too low," I lambasted him. "Our democracy is shit."
The conversation reminded me of the oft-cited excuse for voter apathy and low election turnouts.
"New immigrants come to Canada," someone explained it to me once, "and they are happy to be just left alone. There's no fighting, no notable corruption, no limitations on their freedom - is it any wonder they don't vote?"
I have a theory about our democracy: it doesn't work.
When I first became involved in activism a few years ago, I honestly felt that I could make a difference - and with just a moderate amount of effort too! A few well-placed letters here and there, and maybe the odd phone call to my MP and things would start to happen. Or so I thought.
But after several years, dozens of emails, letters, blogs and RTH articles up the ying-yang, I've realized that this is not the way our democracy goes.
Instead, it goes like this:
So it goes. The only tip of the hat to the 'ordinary citizen' is whatever scraps of policy the government feels it must add into the mix to give the impression they are dealing with the myriad of issues the pollsters tell them we all care about.
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat. Politics is about one thing and one thing only: getting elected. Anyone who can help get a politician elected is going to have their ear.
Why is it, do you think, that developers and other high profile business leaders are able to get municipal, provincial and federal politicians to do their bidding, even amidst the outcries of 'ordinary citizens'?
Why have towns like Hamilton, and cities all across Canada and the world, been covered in concrete and costly-to-manage single-family dwellings? Just take a look at the campaign records. Business people fund politicians' campaigns, and well-funded campaigns win elections.
Campaign financiers, in turn, are duly rewarded.
Conversely, why is it that little people like you and me have to try so hard to make ourselves heard? Because we don't matter. We don't fund campaigns and we can't exert any kind of consequence or influence on our elected officials. We're at the bottom of the pile.
Anti-MMP folks argued, prior to the recent Proportional Representation ballot in the last provincial election, that this new electoral system would create a slate of unaccountable politicians with no ridings to represent.
But how well represented are you now? (I'm generalizing here, of course; I know many politicians are serious about helping out their constituents in important matters, but this help is almost always limited to matters which don't conflict with their core values, or the policies of their party.)
Try contacting your local representative with a request to increase funding for transit, or, God-forbid, go against one of their campaign financers' proposed policies, and I guarantee you'll get a blank look in response.
Little people don't set policies, business leaders do.
As a little-guy, it's very difficult to influence government policy. At the municipal level, where there are no political parties (overtly) in play, you are up against two things:
At the provincial and federal level you are up against the heavy hand of the party leadership, and we all know how much independent thinking our Prime Minister allows in his caucus - right?
Quite simply, unless you start a major corporation and fund a campaign, you are not going to hold any sway when it comes to setting out a path.
Proponents of our current system argue that everything is fine because 'we vote for the party with the policies we like,' and, if they win, 'we get our policies implemented.'
But there is a big problem with this. The policies proposed by the major parties are - apart from being crafted at the behest of their major backers and always-iffy poll results - deliberately vague and narrow, and they have a tendency to change or be ignored once the party gets elected.
How then, to get your issue - be it affordable housing, an acceptable minimum wage or specific measures to preserve the environment, whatever - onto the agenda?
Well, that's not so easy. When I first set out to be an activist I remember comparing activism, the individual or modest group effort to get something changed, to pushing a rock uphill. I have yet to think of a better analogy.
The problem - the key, if you like - is that politicians, like all people, respond to consequences and rewards. As we have already mentioned, most of the 'rewards' associated with political office relate to the business of getting elected, something on which the ordinary citizen has little effect.
What then, about consequences? Well, here's another problem with our democracy: there are no consequences!
There is currently a dearth of inventiveness and energy exerted by our national and local media to uncover political misgivings, and there is almost no effort by the political parties themselves to lay open their books and let the public take a peek inside.
As a result it is virtually impossible to uncover any wrongdoings.
There can only be consequences, after all, when you set yourself an objective to fail against, or allow yourself to get caught. Is it any wonder that our elected officials never set clear, measurable targets or offer themselves up to scrutiny?
Better to muddle along in the murky waters of political obfuscation and avoid awkward questions than face the consequences of your actions.
I am not advocating a 'perfect' political system. I know no such thing exists. And I understand the so-called 'merits' of the status quo. Some folks might even argue that if we had no business funded election financing and too much transparency in our system, the existing political machinery would break down altogether.
Other people might say my opinion is all doom and gloom, that most politicians are honest folks who work very hard to make things better; that what we have is 'good enough'.
But that's not how it looks to me. That's not how it looks from the outside. When you contemplate our rapidly escalating rates of poverty, the squeezing out of the middle-classes (who pay for everything), the declining availability of affordable housing, the worsening state of road congestion, air pollution, water pollution and our dwindling contributions to our fiscal debt and foreign aid - you realize just how little progress we are making towards any meaningful goals. In the face of this, it's hard to be positive about the current state of play.
I don't know what our new democracy should look like. MMP would probably have been a good step in the right direction, but there's more to tweak than that. There's no easy solution. I do know we have to do a damn sight better than we are doing today. Our current democracy is nowhere near 'good enough'. Our democracy isn't working and it's high time we got it fixed.
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