Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Parliamentary Democracy, If You Can Keep It

In a Globe and Mail piece I shared out in a recent Worth Reading that shared disturbing poll results. According to the poll 17% of Canadians believe that in "difficult times" the Prime Minister can dissolve the Supreme Court and 23% say he/she could dismiss Parliament and rule alone. Not even 'in a time of crisis', just difficult times. Now could be defined as difficult, any time could if a government wanted it to be. If you are anything like me and care about the things I care about those numbers cause a chill to go down your spine.

I heard a history professor remark once that one of our great delusions is that democracy is permanent. That it is a natural outgrowth of progress and that one day, inevitably, all societies will embrace this perfect form of being. But the truth is that democracy is incredibly fragile and we've seen liberal democracies crumble and fall more often than we care to remember. In fact many of the dictatorships of the twentieth century emerged from democracies, not some other form of government. I think this permanence has deluded us. The notion is that somehow the current situation will perpetuate itself in some sort of natural order.

As a hand-wringing democrat I have spent a great deal of time worrying over the state of affairs in this country: the abuses of Parliament by Prime Minister Stephen Harper; the increasing absenteeism of the provincial legislatures; the flagrant corruption (moral, ethical and fiscal) that has polluted municipal politics. Canadians may be perfectly justified in their growing cynicism and disengagement.

The changing demographics of who votes nowadays is an ironic return to the former status quo. Wealthier, older, whiter people, disproportionately rural, fill voting booths and make important political decisions. It is not difficult to see how these changes are and will affect political discourse and policy in this country. If politicians can afford to ignore a group of voters, they will.

It would be easy to read something like this and presume that I fear that one day jackbooted thugs will patrol the streets of Canada and silence opposition. I do not believe that to be the case. What I envision is that one day it will be harder and harder to look at our country and say that we have a robust democracy. Presently roughly 20% of our voting age population supported the party of the current Prime Minister in the 2011 federal election. As has been documented innumerable times in the media, academia and this blog our Prime Minister exerts incredible amounts of power. Party discipline is spectacularly high. Even whispers of dissent are eliminated immediately. A bloated appointment system for the Senate, public service, judiciary and Cabinet keep eager and ambitious politicians in line far more effectively than oppression. This is to say nothing of the growing issue of domestic spying or other increased police powers. 

More and more I fear that the evidence that is most damning is that political parties are breaking the law and seemingly paying not legal or political consequence for it. The federal Conservatives broke their fixed-date election and election spending law, the collapse of opposition in Alberta, and more recently are the debacles in Ontario. The provincial Liberals are accused of breaching election law by offering a position to a former candidate, Andrew Olivier, so he would not run again. The Liberals have argued that no concrete offer was made and therefore the law wasn't broken. This sort of fragrant disregard, and it is hardly unique, definitely undermines the notion that the rule of law governs those in power.

More and more our parliaments do not resemble centres of democratic action but stage managed public relations events. Debates are staged and meaningless, votes are predetermined, opposition is marginalized, time for debate is curtailed, omnibus legislation limits scrutiny, election laws increasingly exclude citizens, our appointed senate continues to exercise legal authority, and the government increasingly uses public funds to run partisan ads which sometimes do not align with actual programs.

If I were to describe what Canada's institutions of government are rather than what they are supposed to be you would think I was talking about a country in the former Soviet Union or developing world that can only tangentially be called a democracy. There are no simple fixes; rules for parliaments must be made explicit and enshrined, laws must be changed, electoral systems reformed, political parties and political culture must change and that would just be a start.  As we glide towards an illiberal democracy and politics becomes a hobby for elites and partisans will Canadians notice? Will they care?

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