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by Phil Elder

One critique of the Occupy movement claims it is unnecessary because Democracy is very alive and very well in this country … (Letter to the Globe and Mail, November 19). I only wish it were true. In fact, Canadian democracy has big problems. Politics is in disrepute and citizen engagement in politics voter turnout, political party membership and the number volunteering for political campaigns – is way down.

Why, and what can be done about it? These complicated questions deserve a book, but I think that the present electoral system and the Conservative governments disdain for Parliament and the rule of law are major contributors.

1. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system grotesquely distorts election results in Canada, frustrating the will of the people and thereby discrediting democracy.

With FPTP, all votes for losing candidates are useless. In Albertas 2008 election, the Progressive Conservatives received 52.6 per cent of the votes, but won 87 per cent of the seats. Almost half the voters supported other parties but had to be content with only 13 per cent of the seats.

In New Brunswick in 1987, Frank McKennas provincial Liberals received 60 per cent of the vote, yet won all the seats. That means that 40 per cent of the voters supported parties which were totally excluded from the Legislature. These voters might as well have stayed home.

Under Kim Campbells leadership in the 1993 federal election, her Progressive Conservatives received 16 per cent of the vote, but won only two seats. Yet in the same election, the Reform party with about 19 per cent of the vote won 52 seats, 26 times more, because its support was heavily concentrated in one region, the west. No wonder voter turnout has declined (although bitter partisanship and posturing bluster by politicians have also contributed to our democratic malaise).

There is a remedy for these egregious distortions of the peoples will: change FPTP to some form of proportional representation (PR), so that each partys seat count corresponds more closely to the overall percentage of votes gained. This should greatly increase voter turnout, especially among supporters of smaller parties whose votes today are mostly symbolic, as all votes would be counted when calculating percentages to top up the number of constituency seats won.

2. The Harper government has repeatedly shown disdain for parliamentary tradition and the rule of law. For example, Mr. Harper told Conservative senators to refuse to debate a bill on climate change passed by the House of Commons, so it died. This breach of constitutional tradition showed contempt for elected MPs.

In 2009, Mr. Harper prorogued Parliament in mid-session, which killed all legislative bills in process. Then, he had the gall to accuse the opposition of refusing to pass this legislation. Part of the reason for proroguing was that the Conservatives were threatened with a potential contempt of parliament ruling from the Speaker of the House of Commons because of their refusal to provide documents ordered by the House of Commons concerning the treatment of Afghan detainees.

Consider Hon. Bev Odas decision to reverse the meaning of a CIDA policy recommendation AFTER officials had signed it, so that aid to church-backed aid organization KAIROS and its international relief work would not only be refused but it would seem that CIDA had so recommended. Reversing her earlier testimony at a Commons committee where she had claimed not to know who penned the extra word Oda revealed she had, in fact, directed an unnamed official to add the word not to the recommendation.

Yet the government backed her, even though she had apparently misled the House – traditionally grounds for a minister’s dismissal.

The Harper regime ignored a Commons motion demanding details about the costs of various plans to spend billions of tax dollars on corporate tax cuts, prison expansions and untendered stealth fighter jets. All expenditures are to be introduced into, debated and approved by the House of Commons. How can this be done if estimates are not provided?

Other examples exist, but the remedy seems obvious. Elect a different government. We had our chance (most of these examples preceded the last election), but elected a majority Conservative government anyway. Was the electorate asleep?

In fairness, other parties also have anti-democratic skeletons in the closet. But todays Conservatives consistently choose short-term partisan advantage over democracy, which is especially worrisome. It sometimes seems that were in the United States. Canadians are not alone in failing to perceive a gap between our democratic rhetoric and our politicians behaviour. For proof, see the powerful video pointing out the hypocrisy of American politicians who glorify the Arab Spring demonstrations, yet tell their own police to end the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Why have Canadian voters sloughed off these abuses of democracy? It seems cheap to suggest that we have just become fat and lazy. More probably, the increased pace of life and threats to our economic security have distracted us from our duties of citizenship.

It’s also partly because our educators don’t teach enough political history, so that students dont appreciate what it took to win our democratic system. Another reason is the shortened and increasingly superficial attention span of our communications media which rarely give sustained attention to serious issues. If the medium is the message, it seems that the message is that pretty visuals are worth more than a thousand thoughts.

Perhaps too, Canadians values have gone astray. Our former desire for social and distributive justice, and apparently the rule of law, has been warped by a neo-conservative con job about the glories of competitive individualism. But rugged individuals, untrammelled and free, never existed in the state of nature (or even in the state of Texas). In our original condition, we were a social and instinctively cooperative species. We must never forget this, in spite of the present sovereignty of greed.

So let our educators, and immigration officials, teach our rich democratic tradition and the rule of law and the protests and deep commitment which created them. Let the media stop dumbing things down and feeding a celebrity-obsessed popular culture. Let them resume fair but critical investigation and commentary about our collective project to live together more harmoniously and fairly. And let us all follow the golden rule, as politicians, leaders and citizens.

An edited version of this article appeared on troymedia on Nov. 21.

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I suspect most members of the Alberta Democratic Renewal Project were

happy to see Alison Redford, rather than one of the party establishment,

win the Progressive Conservatives’ leadership.  She was the pick of the

bunch – smart, articulate, bold and female to boot.  All of these

characteristics mark a refreshing change.

At the same time, her victory will make the DRP’s job harder: remember

our desire to end perpetual one-party rule in Alberta and get a new

government with progressive policies and support for proportional

representation?  The popular take on Redford is that she’s a progressive,

so apparently malcontents like us can relax and be assured that we now

live in the best of all possible worlds.

I’m not so sure.  I’m not going to make cheap comments about the

Premier’s early mis-steps – confusion about cancelling certain electrical

transmission lines, or changing her mind about a fall sitting of the

legislature.  Inevitably there’s a steep learning curve for a new

incumbent and we should give her some breathing room.

I’m more worried about the same old bunch who helped Ed Stelmach

under-perform being included in the inner circle and indeed, about the

general party membership.  With friends like these, and a civil service

comfortable with the status quo, we can look forward to a great deal of

“Yes, Premier” kow-towing, followed by in-fighting, foot-dragging and

subtle sabotage of Redford’s initiatives.

Having read a bit of history (I’m thinking of President Kennedy’s

experience), and having been on Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s staff, I

know that moving a bureaucracy is harder than throwing a rhinoceros by

the tail.  Someone asked Trudeau how he was doing and he said he’d never

realized how hard it would be to get anything done.

It’s also possible that the Premier herself is not quite as progressive

as she appears.  If she were, one would think that she’d have joined a

more progressive party, not the same old gang with mothballs between

their ears.

Admittedly, in a perpetual one-party state, ambitious people tend to

flock toward the party in power, so they can “get things done”, or

“change the system from within.”  And how’s that worked out in the last

forty years?  Good intentions disappear without trace, as toeing the line

is necessary to advance one’s career.  Displeasing a well-entrenched

premier with strong party support led to Guy Boutilier or Raj Sherman

being kicked out of caucus.

So DRP’s job isn’t finished yet.  Odds are the “new” government won’t be

much better than the old.  For example, why couldn’t the two-day sitting

of the legislature have been three or four days, so as to pass the

premier’s intended increase in allowances for the severely handicapped?

Drafting the bill could have been done in half a day!

So how do we get rid of the same-olds in the next election?  We think

that strategic voting is the answer.  Remember when Joe Clark ran against

the Alliance in Calgary Centre?  Few people gave him a chance.  The

pundits thought that in Calgary, the home of the most conservative of

electorates, the Alliance would retain the seat.

But that’s not what happened.  Instead, nearly every friend of ours

(okay, that’s a small sample) crossed party lines to elect Joe, on an

“anybody but the Alliance” theory.  Apparently, many other people did

too.

The same thing could happen in the next provincial election.  We plan to

set up a website which will identify the non-conservative candidate in

forty or more electoral districts (constituencies) who seems to have the

best chance.  If centre-left voters accept our recommendation and vote

for this “winnable” candidate, even if that party is not their first

choice, non-conservatives (note the small “c”) could become the biggest

or second-biggest bloc in the legislature.  Think of the legislative heft

we would have.

Now purists might say that, with recent re-positioning, none of the

existing parties in Alberta is  “truly progressive.”  But in this

province, relative, not true, progressiveness may be all we’re going to

get.  We have to be pragmatic enough to accept this.  In any case, the

DRP has decided to identify individual winnable candidates from

Evergreen, Liberal, NDP, and maybe the Alberta Party, not to issue a

general stamp of approval on any party as such.  Maybe we will identify

acceptable candidates by their stands on environment/climate change,

medical and education policies (I’d also put in a plug for a guaranteed

annual income).

Another point on this slippery word “progressive.”  Given the

mainstream’s use of the word to describe Premier Redford and by extension

her government, we may have to find another descriptor to differentiate

our perspective from the PCs (and Wildrose).

Of course, the above may be just my opinion. There is a range of ideas in

the DRP about our best strategy and all ideas on this subject are

welcome.

Please comment!

Phil Elder

 

 

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