Friday, January 28, 2011

Ending the Per-Vote Sudbsidy Detrimental to a Democracy in Crisis

I read with interest an article appearing in my local Sun Media paper today, from Brian Lilley. I didn’t have much hope for the article, “$2-per vote subsidy needs to be killed” based on its headline, so I was surprised to discover that Mr. Lilley advanced a decent argument, low on political rhetoric, as to why the $2 per vote subsidy should be terminated. Of course, this article is simply another voice in the Conservative Party’s echo-chamber. Sun Media ceased being non-partisan a long time ago, having replaced true journalism with infotainment. Sun Media isn’t a news source; it’s a soap box.

The latest tactic being used to convince voters that the per-vote subsidy needs to go is to go on the attack against the very argument being used by those in favour of maintaining the subsidy. And that’s whether or not the subsidy is actually beneficial for promoting the democratic health of our nation. Proponents of the subsidy have long relied (almost entirely) on the argument that removing the subsidy is bad for democracy in Canada. Opponents are now questioning this argument, which frankly was never the strongest or best argument for maintaining the subsidy, in my opinion.

Some of the reasons as to why I’ve personally been troubled by the per-vote subsidy are outlined effectively by Mr. Lilley in his article. But I can’t agree with the assertion that the per-vote subsidy harms our democratic process. In theory, it appears that giving money to political parties while not providing it to Independents is problematic for democracy. And if our democracy operated in practice as we would like it to in theory, perhaps there would be harm.

In practice, however, pretty much all of the aspects of the democratic process have become partisan in nature. With the centralization of true power first in the hands of Cabinet, and then in the Prime Minister’s Office, the de facto role of elected Members of Parliament have deteriorated over time to that of a chorus line, used only to enliven the key solo performance of the Party Leader or Prime Minister. For the most part, our elected MP’s have little influence on the direction of government, and much less than their counterparts did even 30 years ago.

While political parties are not mentioned in our nation’s Constitution, parties have evolved over time into influential components of our democratic system. Personally, I firmly believe that the Party system in this nation is an impediment to a healthy democracy – but it’s the system itself which is problematic, and not the per-vote subsidy. I believe the per-vote subsidy is helpful for the promotion of democracy in a deeply flawed democratic system.

Canadian democracy is in crisis mode. Recent attacks from the ruling party regarding the removal of the per-vote subsidy are simply one more component of the crisis, and if the per-vote subsidy is removed without our system undergoing transformational change, it will be yet another setback for democracy. Simply put, in our current system, money talks. And this is so quite literally.

Yesterday it was revealed that the government of Canada spent more on monitoring the media than it did on polling in order to ascertain the perspective of Canadians. Polling itself has always been a bit of a problematic (and expensive) way to judge Canada’s political will, as it took a “focus group” approach to policy development. Media scans and monitoring, however, is far inferior to even the focus group approach to policy development because of the concentration of media ownership in this nation.

Our mainstream media is not representative of mainstream Canadian sentiment, and that’s a fact born out again and again by pollsters who ask Canadians for their opinions on policy. One needs to look no further than the opinions of Canadians who demand real action to combat the climate crisis (which, in a recent poll, was identified as being just under 85%), versus the views of many “mainstream” media outlets, some of which have taken the editorial position that global warming has yet to be proven to exist by science. Just who is the mainstream media really speaking for? Certainly, the answer is often: not you or me. Which means that different media outlets clearly have their own agenda.

And since the government of Canada (not the Conservative Party, by the way; I’m talking about your tax dollars and my tax dollars here) are increasingly monitoring the media in order to develop policy to guide our nation, it’s no wonder that the government’s agenda is increasingly divergent from the real needs of Canadians. If the media isn’t representative of the opinions of Canadians, and if the media has increasing influence on policy development, it’s really no wonder that we get what we get. And it’s no wonder at all that our democracy is in crisis.

In an environment where the wealthy right-wing dominates the media, taxpayer-funded subsidies to political parties, whether they are based on votes or the more financially important subsidies which are provided through deferred taxation to Party contributors (in the form of tax receipts for three quarters of your donation to a Party), are one way of levelling the playing field. Certainly it’s not the best way, in my opinion, but at least we’re financing opportunities for other representative voices to be heard (albeit partisan ones).

It’s easy to say that political parties should be allowed to either flourish or die on their own. I don’t disagree with that sentiment in theory. If a political party can’t attract a critical mass of support, including financial support, perhaps there is a problem with its policies or message or leader or whatever which is holding it back. It might therefore deserve to die. More successful parties will be the ones which appeal to a broader base of support, and end up meriting financial contributions to further their own ends.

However, in the real world, it doesn’t work that way, and it all has to do with the concentration of wealth in this nation. Simply put, the minority rich can afford to drive the political agenda at the expense of the majority middle class. And they do so by following Marshall McLuhan’s advice by controlling the message through the media. How do you control the message? You prevent alternative messages from being heard.

All of which makes things that much harder for other representative organizations and groups (including political parties) to get their message out to Canadians. By shutting down the message, our media effectively severs opportunities to for Canadians to make connections with others who share their opinions and beliefs.

For political parties, the issue isn’t that their message doesn’t resonate with Canadians; it’s far more often the case that their message doesn’t resonate with media. In our sound-bite political world, discussion and debate about policy has devolved to name-calling and character assassination. Shooting the messenger has become a viable policy debating option to the point that it’s often the only aspect of the debate to be covered by the media.

Non-media friendly messages are forced to muscle their way into the media, and these efforts unfortunately cost money. Hence the importance of tax-payer funding.

My preference would be to do away with having taxpayers fund political parties, but only after we transform our current system into one which is truly representative of the political will of Canadians. Right now, our “first past the post” electoral system is the primary culprit responsible for the growing democratic deficit. When most votes cast by electors in this country simply do not matter, how can we expect to end up with a government which represents the will of Canadians?

The urban \ rural divide between the relative power of votes is another culprit. The effective weight of urban votes is almost one half less powerful than that of votes cast in rural ridings, because of the numbers of electors in different ridings.

The concentration of real power into the hands of an increasingly “Presidential” Prime Minister which effectively limits the power of all other elected MP’s, including those serving in Cabinet, is yet another blow to democracy in our nation.

And then there’s the unelected Senate, filled with political partisans, which has now started to position itself as a body which will thwart the will of our elected House. Here I’m talking about the recent defeat of Bill C-311 in the Senate; this Bill had been passed by parliament, but Conservatives in the unelected upper house killed it without so much as debating it. When unelected appointed political operatives can thwart the will of elected Members of Parliament who came together across party lines to approve legislation, it can no longer be argued that Canada isn’t in a democratic crisis.

Keep those things in mind when you head to the polls to cast your ballot. For all of its flaws, the per-vote subsidy is one small attempt at levelling the playing field so that issues important to the majority of middle-class Canadians can be heard above the monied right-wing cacophony of our mainstream media. Right now, your vote is worth real money to the Party you choose to support. Yes, it’s unfortunate that, as Brian Lilley points out, it isn’t worth anything to an Independent candidate who you may choose to support. But that flaw is not a reason to do away with the subsidy altogether, especially when so much is at stake for the health of our Canadian democratic system.

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