This week, Elizabeth May, member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party of Canada, is in Warsaw, Poland, attending the 19th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aka “COP19”. For the third year in a row, May is there not as an elected representative of Canada – the nation in whose parliament she sits as a legislator. This year, after seeking accreditation to join Canada's delegation (and receiving a letter from Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq refusing accreditation - 4 days after the start of the conference) May sought and received accreditation from another nation – this time, Afghanistan – whose small delegation she will assist at the COP19 climate talks. The reason that a Canadian parliamentarian is attending these talks on behalf of another nation has everything to do with the rise of populist partisan politics in Canada, specifically, and throughout western democracies generally.
It used to be that democratically elected governments governed in order to look out for the welfare of citizens. That’s really no longer the case. Successful political parties have learned that they do not need to appeal to the public in general terms, but only to specific segments of the public. In Canada, the success of this kind of populist narrowcasting is assisted by our archaic First Past the Post electoral system, in which a candidate is elected simply by receiving the most votes cast.
Populism and Canada's Old Line Political Parties
The lessons successful political parties have learned over the past several decades are very problematic for the continued health of Canada’s democracy. Political parties have learned that they don’t need to appeal to a majority of electors, but instead only to a simple majority of voters in a small number of key swing ridings. When power is obtained in such a manner, the results can be very disturbing. In Canada today, we have a circumstance where candidates from one political party were elected to a clear majority of ridings without receiving a majority of votes cast. Although this approach isn’t uncommon in our electoral system, it certainly raises questions about the legitimacy of our governance structure.
The pursuit of populist politics has largely replaced good public policy initiatives in all 3 of Canada’s largest political parties. As a result, all three political parties have engaged in retail populism in an effort to capture votes which they perceive to be at the “centre” of mainstream politics. The NDP has shifted to the right on issues of social justice, while the Conservatives have shifted to the left. The Liberals try to stake out ground in the centre, while making minor incursions into both flanks. Rather than bold policy positions, Canadians are subjected to a salad bar of political choice – which might be fine for what it is, but it’s still just an appetizer.
In this political environment, however, political parties can’t afford to be bold or even particularly innovative. The success of the Conservative Party has come about largely as a result of the iron-fisted will of its Leader, Stephen Harper, who has silenced social conservatives at every turn. Had those social conservatives started to raise issues about abortion or gay marriage, rest assured that those hand full of mostly suburban swing ridings in Ontario and British Columbia would have be lost to the Conservatives.
Likewise, the NDP has shed its socialist roots, and now talks about cutting corporate taxes and building pipelines across the nation, while remaining silent on the climate crisis. It’s elected Members of Parliament have their freedom of expression stifled by the heavy hand of the caucus whip. Under Leader Thomas Mulcair, the NDP seems to want to be the new Progressive Conservative Party – which must continue to surprise long-time NDP members and supporters. But Mulcair appears content to move forward based on the past success of Tony Blair’s new Labour party in the United Kingdom, with just enough pandering to soft separatists in Quebec to pry votes away from the Bloc in key swing ridings there.
The Liberals, of course, continue to want to be everything to everyone, choosing once again to put all of its eggs into the leadership basket. Justin Trudeau promises pipelines and “kinder, gentler” runaway tar sands development with the one hand, and tries to recruit young voters to his cause with the other (those very same young voters whose future success he is putting at risk through runaway fossil fuel development). Trudeau’s simple vision of “change” may be appealing to many Canadians who have suffered long enough under Stephen Harper’s rule, but really the Liberals appear to be content at offering more of the same, but with nicer packaging – and legalized pot.
Demoracy in Limbo: How Low Can We Go?
Recent events have shown just how far we have sunk as a society. Politicians appear to be largely free to lie to the public on a continual basis, and even when their lies are exposed, they don’t miss a beat, and continue to lie again, revising history in its wake if they have to. None have been better at this than Prime Minister Stephen Harper (ok, maybe Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has been better – more on that in a moment), whose evasions of difficult questions and changing tune on the Senate Expense Scandal has been on display now since May, when it was revealed that his former Chief of Staff, Nigel Wright, cut Senator Mike Duffy a $90 thousand cheque to repay improperly claimed housing expenses. At first, Harper praised Wright as a hero, but then Harper accepted his resignation. Later, Harper claims to have fired Wright, but now it’s not clear just how Wright left the PMO’s employ.
Clear and concise questions have been put to Harper by the media, and most effectively by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair in Question Period. Harper refuses to share his answers with Canadians, and instead uses his opportunities to mock the other parties and throw mud at their Leaders. When Harper does deign to answer questions, he more often than not contradicts his own earlier version of events, yet insists he has been “clear” all the while.
And then there’s Harper’s fishing buddy, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who is the “most honest” politician in Canada, at least according to his brother Doug. Ford continues to insist that he didn’t lie about his drug use for six months because he would have answered honestly had he been asked the right question. More problematic, Ford seems keen on rewriting historical facts to suit his own agenda (such as being elected with the largest number of votes in Canadian history, which isn’t true – former Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman holds that title). Through constant repetition, however, these talking points take on a certain truthiness which then enters the public mindset. Journalists seem to have completely given up their duty of calling out politicians on their bold-faced lies, and now seem content simply to report whatever nonsense they say, and let readers and viewers figure out the truth for themselves.
The Fact-Free Politics of the Right
I may be idealizing the past here, but it seems to me that political arguments used to be based on opinions – whose opinion on a certain issue was the best, or just the most popular. Generally speaking, there appeared to be fair agreement on what the facts of an issue were. Those days are long gone, and it seems now that the facts themselves have become a casualty of partisan politics. Having been involved in discussions related to climate change, I can tell you with great certainty that there remains a considerable disagreement on what a “fact” is. Having a political case made on the basis of opinion used to pose a pretty good challenge to voters, who in the past, may have turned to trusted media for assistance. Today, when the very foundational facts of an argument itself are in dispute, it’s almost impossible for informed debate to take place. And it’s not always our political parties who are confusing fiction with facts – increasingly, it’s been that formerly trusted mainstream media which has abrogated its responsibility to report the facts, and instead has chosen to embrace fact-free “infotainment”. The media has certainly provided significant cover to the Canada’s right-wing political parties by refusing to challenge them on the basis of their made-up facts.
And largely, it is right-wing political parties around the world which are operating in this fact-free environment. And largely, it is the same right-wing political parties which have taken our democracy to new lows. Here in Canada, we have numerous examples to go along with Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. In British Columbia, Christy Clarke’s Liberals engaged in a largely fact-free election campaign, and appeared to be making stuff up as they went along about the impacts of B.C.’s proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) initiative. In Ontario, former Premier Dalton McGuinty decided to retire before difficult questions were asked of him pertaining to the cancellation of gas plants. In New Brunswick, a Conservative Premier continues to insist that the public supports his fracking initiatives, even though poll after poll shows that this isn’t the case.
This denial of reality amongst right-wing politicos is becoming really problematic. And it’s leading to some really troubling situations.
In pursuit of tougher standards for criminals, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives enacted mandatory minimum laws, which have now been struck down by the courts as being unconstitutional. Here we have a parliament enacting laws which seek to strip away the Charter rights of Canadians. Of course, Harper wasn’t the first to engage in these sorts of exercises. Here in Ontario, to his cabinet’s constant discredit, Premier Dalton McGuinty enacted illegal laws in the lead up to the 2010 G20 conference in Toronto, which led to the arrest and detainment of hundreds of civilians, and the illegal seizure of property. All in violation of Canada’s Charter of Rights. For McGuinty’s efforts, he was re-elected by Ontario voters.
And that seems to be exactly what Stephen Harper and Rob Ford are counting on. Who cares about taking away the rights of Canadians, as long as you can be seen to be upholding a “law and order” agenda – nevermind that the very idea that passing illegal laws is a contradiction. Just give the people what they want, and things will be fine. Who cares that you lied and cheated and made up your own facts? Who cares that you slandered the good reputation of people who got in your way? Just lower those taxes (which raising user fees and/or slashing essential services): that’s the story!
The Rule of Law - Open to Interpretation
Opinions, truths, facts – they’re all open for discussion. So too, apparently, is the rule of law in Canada. And when the rule of law is suborned for partisan political activities, rest assured that we are headed to a very bad place – one where the notion of “democracy” becomes a sham. Yet that appears to be the road that we’re headed on. Take Harper’s new poster-child, the Canada-Europe Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which Liberal Justin Trudeau has also been fawning over. CETA’s investor state dispute resolution mechanisms will strip away the ability of democratically elected governments to enact laws which look out for their citizens. Instead, where disputes arise, rather than turn to courts for adjudication, as has been the practice for the past thousand or so years, shadowy trade resolution panels will make decisions based on…well, whatever criteria they want to use, really, because their decisions, while binding on our national, provincial and municipal governments, aren’t going to be made in public.
And I'm not even going to get into the numerous legal issues pertaining to First Nations - and how they are being ignored by most governments.
So much for the power of democracy.
Populism: Comfortable with Complacency
Yet, Canadians seem generally keen to shed cumbersome democratic processes for expediency. Have you ever heard anyone complaining about the cost of holding an election when the outcome seems to be predetermined? Rather than giving voters more of a change to exercise their democratic franchise, we Canadians seem to be keen on minimizing those opportunities. Recently, Ontario moved from a three year municipal election cycle to a four year. In the past, municipal officials had to stand for election every year, but this was judged to be too cumbersome, too expensive.
And judging by voter turnout, an increasing number of us seem to feel that even when an election has to be held, it just doesn’t matter. Canadians stay away from the polls in droves. And those of us that do vote often do so against our own interests.
In this political environment, is it really any wonder that Stephen Harper and Rob Ford think that they can get away with their behaviour? Is it any wonder that they believe that they’ll be re-elected at the very next opportunity? Do you really doubt Rob Ford’s sincerity when he said that he wanted to be Prime Minister one day?
We’ve allowed the democratic health of our nation to sink to an all-time low. It’s only going to get worse for us as long as we remain indifferent to the antics of our elected leaders, and the tactics used by political parties to gain and hold onto power. Real reform must start with our electoral system, as it appears extremely unlikely that Canada’s 3 large political parties are going to take any action to reform themselves. The Conservatives, Liberals and the NDP know how to achieve political success – why would they want to change? Nevermind that it would be for the good of Canadians – it’s not about us, after all – it’s about power.
Our Democracy on Life Support
One day, I fear we or our children might wake up and discover that what little shreds of democracy we thought we were clinging to have disintegrated altogether. Think I’m over-reacting? I hope you’re right – but when sitting parliamentarians can be removed from doing their jobs by their peers – parliamentarians I might add who have not been convicted of anything, much less charged – what does that bode for the future? Why stop with the Senate? Why not do the same with the House of Commons? Sure, those would be “elected” parliamentarians, but so what? The precedent is there now.
If our Prime Minister can shut down parliament to avoid a vote of confidence – well, that would be unheard of, right? What about parliamentary process, and the supremacy of parliament? They used to mean something, but largely now they don’t. The PMO and his cabinet keep financial records under lock and seal, denying elected officials the ability to do their jobs. Harper’s Conservatives silence any and all opposition through the use of numerous tools in the tool kit. That’s why Elizabeth May, Member of Parliament, couldn’t get credentialed by Canada, and instead had to turn to Afghanistan.
The Conservative Party engaged in wide-spread voter suppression tactics in the last general election (the robocalls fraud). Elected Conservatives exceeded legislated spending limits and committed other illegal acts during elections (the “in and out” scandal). Federal fixed-date election laws were broken by the Conservatives almost as soon as they were enacted. Parliament even voted the government in contempt – but Canadians rewarded the Conservatives with a false majority mandate, rather than punishing them. Maybe because the opposition appeared untested (the NDP) or inept (the Liberals).
Do you think for a moment that all of those unelected Senators appointed by Stephen Harper are going to let a hypothetical Liberal or NDP majority government push through their agenda? Or will we see more situations like what happened with Bill C-311 at play? Bill C-311, you may recall, was the NDP’s climate change bill, which was approved by a minority parliament with the support of the Liberals and Bloc, but ultimately killed in the Senate by a snap vote after a committee chair counted Liberal absences? So much for the will of elected members of parliament. Do you think for a moment that the Conservatives will fail to use appointed Senators to frustrate their political enemies?
When the truth is open to interpretation, and lying and cheating are successful electoral strategies, and when the rule of law is an intolerable, time-consuming, agenda-trumping inconvenience, do you think for one moment that the hinge of historic precedent is going to close the door on the out-of-control Conservative Party? Not a chance.
Am I over-reacting? Or are we really just kidding ourselves that we’re living in a democracy today?
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)
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