Saturday, May 11, 2013

On Our Democratic Deficit

These Star readers, whether you agree with them or not, have some interesting perspectives to offer:

Re: Growing disconnect between Canadians and Parliament, May 2

Democracy is just a mirage, Letter May 5

Al Dunn is essentially correct in his characterization of democracy as it is generally practised today. But the fact that democracy is clearly the ultimate bait-and-switch trick pulled on us by the elites — keeping up the illusion of a fair say whilst actually holding us at arm’s length from the levers that could operate our share of the balance of power — doesn’t mean there is no hope for us or for democracy. It doesn’t have to be this way. The funny thing about democracy is that behind that veneer is an institution that can be reconfigured to actually work as advertised. The trick wouldn’t have worked otherwise.

Democracy can be a true and substantive system for the rest of us but only when each and every representative in our parliaments owes their seat and their allegiance to their electorate more than to their party and every voter gets a rep insofar as the number of seats in the House permits. This is achievable; it only needs a properly designed electoral system.

When voters are truly empowered to truly empower their representatives, democracy will no longer be an illusion. That is the “paradigm shift” our democracy needs.

And while our party elites have (unsurprisingly) seen fit to reject calls to cooperate for meaningful electoral reform the door is still open for individual candidates to respond to the challenge. What do you say, chaps: will you cooperate with us to empower each other or are you content in your role in maintaining the pretense in the face of our dire need?

Mark Henschel, Toronto

Growing disconnect between Canadians and Parliament, May 2

Over the past few weeks there have been numerous opinion pieces in your paper discussing the “disconnect” between Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and the general public. This is by no means an unplanned occurrence. Governments in general — Conservative ones in particular — have been changing the way that governments and the governed interact. They have done it through simple changes to the lexicon.

The most notable change is the words that governments use to describe those who are governed. We are no longer referred to by politicians as “residents” or “voters,” “citizens” or even “Canadians.” We are referred to as “taxpayers,” even by your newspaper and the media as a whole. To be fair, everyone pays taxes, whether it is on one’s salary, real estate holdings or a $2 bag of candy at the corner store. But being referred to primarily as a “taxpayer” by the government carries with it a certain understanding.

Taxpayers pay for goods and services provided by the government for personal use. It is a consumer transaction. As long as you get your money’s worth, there is no reason to expect more or to know how it got to you, as long as you received value for your dollar. If someone else cannot access these goods and services, it is because they cannot contribute as much as you can, not because the government won’t provide.

Moreover, your responsibility ends the moment you sign the cheque. There is no need for any additional input or concern. You can’t question Walmart’s foreign policy, environmental track record or how it deals with dissent from within or without either. After all, your only decision is whether you will purchase or not.

“Citizens.” on the other hand have both rights and responsibilities. Yes, they pay taxes, but their duties go beyond the financial transaction. They are expected to engage in public debate, care for those who need to be cared for, and concern themselves for the community at large. They often put the good of society before themselves. Unfortunately, from the government’s perspective, “citizens” tend to question agendas, complain on grounds of principle, and worst of all, vote … sometimes for other parties.

Many “taxpayers” are content to simply give up their rights as citizens if it means they pay their taxes and not be bothered beyond that; after all, the government has everything in hand, right?

Being a “citizen” is a lot of work, requires you to be passionate about mundane things and pay attention, but the citizenry develops the political power necessary to steer public discussion. Is it any wonder that these two aspects define the difference between a dictatorship and a democracy?

Neil McClung, Brampton

Your editorial and the excellent article a few days earlier by Bob Hepburn on the disconnect between Canada’s parliament and its people accurately indicates that something here does not work well.

I am familiar with the governance structures of both Germany and Sweden and both have far more involved and informed electorates and a far better relationship between their people and their governments, and what their governments do. They both have an electoral system based on proportional representation, where every vote counts.

Our system gave Mr. Harper a strong mandate to govern although only 24 per cent of the electorate voted for him, 76 per cent did not. If we had had PR at the last election we would have since had a Liberal-NDP coalition probably supported by the Greens and an overwhelming majority of the voters. I am sure they would have done many things differently than Mr. Harper, things both you and I would have supported.

The Star has always strongly opposed proportional representation and consequently we must thank you for giving us the current Conservative majority. It would be wonderful and a great blessing for Canada to fix our mess on Parliament Hill.

In your case it might be useful to fix your attitude toward what is a far superior and more democratic electoral system. We can really only fix ourselves.

Chris Smith, Toronto


  1. Chris Smith's comments about proportional representation go to the heart of the matter, Lorne.

    In the last election, 60% 0f the votes did not affect the outcome.

  2. The fact that none of the three major parties is willing to entertain any serious discussion of electoral reform suggests they like the status quo just fine, Owen. Any version of proportional representation would force them to pay real attention instead of lip service to the notion of accountability.

  3. Thanks for republishing those letters, Lorne. I suppose the Canadian public is disconnecting from a political apparatus that had already withdrawn from them.

    We are an emerging plutocracy, the political model best suited to a western petro-state. Our political classes do not want the headaches that an informed, engaged electorate would pose. That goes for the Liberals as much as the Conservatives and I'm not sure the NDP is far behind.

    We are at a point where some party should be breaking away and championing the restoration of Canadian democracy. That means rebuilding the ties between the political process and the public. As I see it, there are two principle elements to beginning this process.

    One is the dismantling of our corporate media cartel. The public cannot be informed if it is hearing the same message from two or three corporate news organizations. Concentration of ownership and media cross-ownership of the sort that plagues us today is self-corrupting. It transforms the mass media into a highly lucrative lapdog of government instead of its vigilant watch dog. The media monopoly gets out of the business of delivering information and into the business of marketing messaging disguised as information. This is a vehicle for the powerful, the political classes, to prey on the public.

    Show me a party that is willing to campaign for the restoration of a vibrant, diverse and free press and you'll be pointing to a party determined to rebuild democracy.

    The second key element is inequality. Inequality of income, inequality of wealth, inequality of opportunity - they're inseparable and indispensable to a healthy democracy. This spreading and cancerous inequality enfeebles the middle class that is, of itself, the anchor of a healthy, robust democracy.

    A broad-based middle class is the beating heart of citizenship. It is the ladder to lift people out of poverty and into economic security. It is the vehicle that allows the ambitious to reach the strata of prosperity. More than that, it is the backbone of social cohesion and political stability. It serves as a buffer against extremism from the left and the right. It is the keel of democracy.

    Through our neglect of inequality, our sophomoric embrace of the myths of globalization, our abandonment of industrialism in favour of a finance-driven economy, and imprudent tax policies largely influenced from abroad, we have eroded the foundations of our middle class for the better party of thirty years.

    What party do you hear beating the drums of a war on this destructive inequality in all its forms? I must be deaf, I don't hear any.

  4. Thanks for your analysis, Mound. The decimation of the middle class and the reduced opportunity to become part of that class is especially worrying; once hope is gone, the poorer part of our society has nothing to aspire to, which in turns makes the democratic deficit even worse, which of course serves the corporate agenda just fine.

    As people lose themselves in the anodyne of consumerism, they become increasingly isolated from their fellow citizens; resentment builds, making the right wing's job of destroying unions and good-paying jobs even easier. A vicious circle.


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