Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Grassroots Politics and a Healthy Democracy

This morning I read Samara Canada’s latest report on the wide dissatisfaction Canadians feel towards their political representatives. The report, titled Who’s the Boss?, shows that Canadians feel increasingly detached from their Members of Parliament. More importantly, a majority of Canadians view MPs as primarily serving the interests of their political parties rather than constituents. The most telling lines from the report come from former MPs in Samara’s Exit Interviews. These anonymous former MPs decry the fact that instead of taking their constituents’ message to Ottawa, they were taking Ottawa’s message back to their constituencies.

It is a common refrain, “MPs are powerless against the leadership, if only something could be done.” Well, something can very easily be done. Our Members of Parliament could develop a spine and be less worried about their future political careers. There is no formal restriction of a MP’s power, only informal custom and threats to disobedience. There’s no reason that a backbencher on the government side could not vote against the government in principle, and the opposite is true for a member of the opposition. But they don’t. That spot on a committee they covet, or the parliamentary secretary slot, or maybe, if all goes to plan, that shiny cabinet post will all be out of reach if they vote against the leader’s will.  

However, I cannot simply harp on the MPs and call them gutless. The leadership of each party has a tremendous amount of power in one regard. For a candidate to run for any political party in Canada he or she must have the signature of the party leader on the nomination forms. Local riding associations select candidates, that is true, but all the parties’ leaders have a form of veto over them. Elizabeth May, among many others, has identified this particular problem. Therefore, she has introduced a private member’s bill to end central approval of local candidates. What would this mean? It would mean that local politicians, with good connections to their community and supporters could buck against the central party and still be re-elected.

For example, imagine somewhere in the Conservative backbenches there was an MP who was furious over the state of the budget. The cuts are not aggressive enough, and the deficit needs to be eliminated yesterday. She holds town hall meetings in his riding in, say, Manitoba and her constituents support her criticism of the government. So on budget day she delivers a harsh criticism stating the budget does not go far enough and when the time comes, she votes against it. The Prime Minister’s Office is enraged, but, for the most part, her constituents support her choice. When the next election rolls around she might be challenged by a more stalwart candidate, but she wins the nomination again and is returned with a bigger majority of the vote. Voters reward independence and principle.

In short, the power to approve nominations has muzzled Members of Parliament to a great extent. It is a sword of Damocles that hangs over all of their heads. Therefore backbenchers are good little boys and girls, hoping they can return to parliament and continue to be toothless. It is an odd strategy when laid out. Why are they there if not to represent their constituents, and hold the government to account?

Let no one be fooled that this is a Conservative issue. The Chrétien Liberals exercised brutal control over its MPs, and, sadly, I have no doubt that if the NDP win a government the same will apply to them as well. One merely has to look to the provincial governments across the country to see the exact same patterns.

Politics in Canada seems too much of a top-down affair. Centralized, one-size-fits-all messages come down from on high to the local constituencies. Political party memberships are in a decline, along with riding associations. The formal partisan grassroots of this country, and province, seem to be having a very difficult time. I think this is one of the reasons alternative political movements seem to have all the energy behind them. A case in point is the Ontario Liberal Party. It has a total membership in the thousands, not tens of thousands. It has been in government for nearly 10 years. One would think there would be great incentive to join and participate. The Liberals and New Democrats have shadow riding associations across the country. If I recall correctly the Liberals had 80 or so ridings where they essentially had no presence at all out of 308.

I joined a political party in 2011 because I believe it is one of the best ways to have my voice heard and to shape my country and province’s democracies. A majority of the population does not see it that way. On Sunday I attended a meeting in a union hall in Oakville to discuss how to build a stronger NDP in what has been termed the Central West region (extending from Peel to Halton, Brant, Hamilton and Niagara). Many of the riding associations in Peel are quite small, as far as I can tell. I am getting more involved with mine in Brampton West, but a lot of work needs to be done to build the Ontario NDP in the area. Many of the organizers from across the region kept saying the same thing though, “Strong riding associations, strong party.” They wanted the tools and resources to build the party locally and make the party stronger across the province (and country). Increased central control stifles local democracy. Activists and party regulars feel powerless and therefore disengage.

As Samara’s report states, Canadians want to feel their voices are heard in the political process. Strengthening the grassroots and ending central approval of candidates seems like a good first step.  

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