Canadian democracy in peril

First published: December 15, 2008

There is a reason to be concerned about the state of Canadian democracy over the past two weeks.

As the Liberal Party of Canada scrambles to find a new leader to replace Stephane Dion, it is critical the process is not taken away from the grassroots. There seems to be a big push to get things done in haste rather than making sure someone is democratically elected with the full participation of all members.

However, this is all very minor to the major assault by the Tories.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper emerged from the Governor-General’s office late last week to announce proroguing of the House of Commons, he said his party had listened to Canadians and his actions based on this public outcry.

The question is: who is he listening to?

First, there is no way Harper has listened to Canadians. He listened to the people he agrees with and nobody else. It is something we all do. It helps us reinforce our own ideas.

Let’s face it; Harper is not a good listener. Look at the number of staffers he has fired from the Prime Minister’s Office as only one of many examples of his distain for dissent. A story in the weekend Toronto Star talking to Conservative insiders clearly shows how he crushes opposition and surrounds himself with “yes-men”.

In Canada, we have a representative democracy, meaning we vote for our political leaders, who are then suppose to make decision in our best interest.

But, the problem with this system is that we only get a say in our own affairs during an election. The rest of the time, there is absolutely no obligation by any politician to listen. Sure, the rhetoric is there. It always will be. But, under any real scrutiny, people are barely heard at all at all levels of governance. The public consultations, rallies, letters to the editor, faxes and emails are merely props used when needed to provide a false legitimacy.

One unprecedented way Canadians are being heard is on the Internet. In particular, mainstream news organizations – print, radio and television – have seen incredible numbers of people sending comments on stories as they appear. People are expressing themselves in record numbers

But probing beyond the superficial nature of this kind of participation is a concern that all the media are doing is providing a soapbox, and little else. In certain circles, the assumption is news media influences politicians, decision-makers, community leaders and the like. But now this is not the case anymore.

Just look at how the Conservative Party was prepared to stomp on its opponents and the media. Transport Minister John Baird suggested last week that the party’s strategy over the next few weeks is to go beyond elected members of Parliament and the Governor General and ask the Canadian public to decide who’s right in the current political crisis. It sounds like grassroots democracy, but one thing is certain, nobody will be looking at the comments under news stories or the Internet websites or anyone who opposes them.

There must be ways to turn this over. Elections cannot be the only time citizens are taken seriously. In a representative democracy, there must be times when politicians run the show. Citizens cannot be asked to pitch in for everything. With 33 million people living in Canada, if each of them were given two minutes to speak on an issue, it would take 125 years to listen to everyone.

The other problem is getting good information. As we saw last week, the Conservative Party thought nothing to misrepresent many facts, a list far too long to place here. Everything from the opposition’s constitutional right form a coalition through to flags behind the party leaders at the agreement signing was passed off as fact.

Then, there is the political rhetoric. Pushing buttons of division, Harper has created a national unity crisis on top of a political crisis in the face of an economic crisis. All this is done to achieve power at any expense.

We must be concerned. If Canadian’s voices cannot be heard then we could face consequences beyond reckoning. Harper has already shown he cares little for the unity of this country by the way he treated Bloc Quebecois and Quebecers. He was willing to financially cripple his political opponents. He called those who disagreed with him unpatriotic. Meanwhile, nothing is being done to stimulate the economy.

Even locally, when coalition supporters at Victoria Hall called a press conference last week, efforts by MP Rick Norlock’s staff to gain entry were blocked. It was a political stunt to undermine the coalition supporters and demonstrates how this poisonous tone has found its way to Northumberland. If Norlock was serious about hearing all sides, he could have easily invited all his opponents to meet with him and express their views. And, now that there is time, they could organize a series of forums across the county to hear what citizens have to say. Together all parties could seek a resolution through building a consensus.

In spite of the cynicism created over the past week, citizens cannot give up. Americans found hope in a single man who was able to put aside all political partisanship and deliver a vision for his country that mobilized people in an incredible way, shooting down the tired old neoconservative ideology.

This must happen in Canada. The events of the past few weeks must mobilize us to bring politicians in all parties to heel. Our economy is in dire straits, our democratic system is seriously wounded and our nation is about to tear itself apart. If Canadians do not step up over the next few weeks, we may lose far more than anyone bargained for.

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