The shambles of Canada’s democracy, and paralysis in the face of existential economic, environmental and civil threats to the country I call home, drove me from being a lifelong, carefully non-participatory journalist observer of politics, into activism during this federal election. I signed, for the first time in my career, public petitions: with other artists and writers and also with other journalists against Canada’s draconian Bill C-51, which threatens the freedom of expression on which our work depends. There’s a sign outside my house urging Canadians to elect a government that will save our dying public broadcaster. And, because journalism’s mission is democratic, I am volunteering in Canada’s Oct. 19 election — with a local, non-partisan Leadnow “vote together” campaign. Leadnow is among several groups, including most of Canada’s unions, war veterans, scientists, artists, democracy activists, and academics, so dismayed with partisan bickering that we’ve organized a campaign to vote strategically. Our first goal is to remove the ruling Conservatives. The end goal is to force whomever wins power to reform the electoral system. It is a nation-wide experiment in democracy.
By DEBORAH JONES: FREE RANGE
October 19, 2015
“The barbarians are at the gate,” quipped a speaker at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver this month. He was not speaking only about the gutting of Canada’s education system. He was speaking about Canada.
And, he was wrong.
The barbarians are not at the gate — they are inside, waging dangerous wars on everything that makes us different from barbarians: science, education, arts, the information media, the economy, the public service, public infrastructure, the independent judiciary, the rule of law over the rule of man, democracy itself.
How are Canadians not outraged? How are we not marching in the streets? How, in the agonizing campaign leading to today’s election — as the Canadian dollar lags at recently-historic lows and the federal debt soars and the economy tanks and our physical habitat alternately burns, floods, freezes and cooks — do the barbarians who have done this to our country still have a shot at staying in power?
Canadians vote at a crossroads today, with two options — Barbarian, and Other. But the choice is not as clear as it looks, because our first-past-the-post democracy is broken.
On one side this time is the Conservative party, which has ruled since 2006 with, at most, support from 25 per cent of the overall population and 39 per cent of those who bothered to vote. On the other side is mass confusion. The four significant “progressive” parties share similar goals — but are so bitterly partisan they’ve divided Canadians and scattered our votes. Repeatedly, that split has allowed one party to impose its platform on all, under Canada’s winner-take-all system.
This election things may be different: Hundreds of thousands of us have pledged is to vote strategically. In key swing ridings, non-partisan organizations asked Canadians to vote together for one non-Conservative candidate recommended in each ridings. Our aim is to oust Conservatives, the only party that refuses to promise to fix the system.
Then, if strategic voters prevail over the Conservative juggernaut, we will push elected Members of Parliament to make good on their promise for some form of proportional representation, before the next election.
Strategic voters have turned Canada into a giant social laboratory, an experiment in democracy. Will enough of us honour our voting pledges for it to work? Will the elected politicians honour their promise for reform? It’s a national numbers game — and everyone knows it’s a horrible way to run a democracy. But, echoing Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy being the least bad system of government, we strategic voters have decided this is the least bad of the terrible options before us.
Many Canadians are heartsick at the state of the country — and not just because 70 per cent want change from the Conservative government. Extreme partisanship of our political parties has led to increasing abuses of power by successive Liberal or Conservative governments. The winner-take all system crushes new ideas from outside the winner’s circles. It encourages corruption, as the winners hand lucrative contracts and public appointments to partisan friends.
The harms do not stop there. The power struggle and party control system effectively neuters Members of Parliament. Question Period in Parliament is a clown show. And arguably, our broken democracy discourages citizens from running for office, or even voting.
What has sparked change this election is the excesses of the barbarians who flourish in the ranks of Canada’s (neo-) Conservatives, which captured the traditional Progressive Conservative party from the old guard, who despise them.
This Conservative hard-right mission is to profoundly change a soft-socialist country. I think most of the problems we face, from climate change to re-tooling our economy, require cooperation instead of individualism. Still, Conservative ideas are matters for legitimate debate, a debate that Canada has neglected. But it’s the Conservatives’ means of achieving their ends that go beyond politics into something else, something many critics have called fascist.
Top down control is extreme: even election campaigns are tightly scripted; supporters are screened before being admitted into Conservative rallies. Despite some few slip-ups* when supporters went off script, most every Conservative excepting Prime Minister Stephen Harper is muzzled and hidden. Conservative candidates have even refused local debates.
During its reign, Conservatives tried to rename the Government of Canada to the Harper Government. They divided Canadians into friends and foes. They issued “enemy lists” and recently promised a “snitch line” to report our neighbour’s “barbaric cultural practices.” They drove wedges through the election campaign: repeated exaggerated threats of “terrorists,” of women wearing face coverings, of Liberals or NDPers squandering taxpayers’ money, a bogus claim that Liberals would allow neighbourhood brothels, and constant allegations that non Conservatives are soft on drugs and crime — even as Harper campaigned alongside the crack-smoking, criminally-associated clown Rob Ford, who embarrassed himself and his country as the bozo Conservative mayor of Canada’s largest city. I could go on — as many of my colleagues do, apoplectically, at book length. But I will wrap up this pained list with the one item I think most proves Conservative — and our own — barbarism: the dry fact that the last time Stephen Harper went to the polls, in 2011, his then-minority government had been booted out for Contempt of Parliament. Then, in the following election, Canadians awarded him a majority, to rule the government Conservatives find contemptible.
See-sawing opinion polls in the current campaign show Conservative support hovering at about 30 per cent. But this minority is fiercely determined: Conservative officials are decisive strongmen and a few women out to win at all costs (including by breaking the rules in each of the last elections). Conservative supporters are rock-solid loyal. And up against them are other 70 per cent of Canadians, equivocating non-stop, aligned in shifting allegiances between the Liberals and the NDPers — the cores of which hate each other too much to cooperate. And complicating this mix is the lip service paid to the Greens and, in Quebec, the separatist Bloc Quebecois. (In the past, the vote captured by the latter two is small but significant.)
Canada’s is a badly fractured democratic system. Canadians failed to unite to fix it, and divided we fell, far. Today might see a change: while the October 19 election campaign was waged on various party platforms, the only real issue, in my opinion, is that all non-Conservatives have pledged electoral reform.
Canada inherited its first past the post, anti-democratic political system from its original British colonists. Over the last generation successive Canadian rulers — who differ from statesmen and women who govern — concentrated power in our own creation, the Prime Minister’s Office. These strongmen, notably previous Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien and now Stephen Harper, fostered a system with very few checks and balances; Canada’s prime minister has more power, relatively, than America’s president. in recent years Conservatives chipped at the last constraints on PMO power: they attacked the courts that uphold the constitution, sent trial balloons about over-riding the constitution, stacked public offices with partisan appointments, and castrated agencies overseeing key institutions, llike the Parliamentary Budget Office and the spy service.
The majority of Canadians bridled under this show of power. Some complained it’s illegitimate, noting how few Canadians voted for this. But they’re wrong: the government may be reprehensible, but its rule was legitimized by our own complacency.
What are Canadians thinking?
Some may not “think” at all, in the truly political sense of thinking and judging. Almost half of all Canadians age 16 and older fall below level 3 in internationally accepted standards of basic literacy, says a report done for Canada’s Parliament. Fully 82 per cent of people aged 66 and older are functionally illiterate in today’s complex world. Experts say a level 4 of literacy is needed “to process and analyze complex information.” Add to this the fact that the older Canadians are, the more likely we are to vote at all: Elections Canada data shows 75 per cent of seniors voted in 2011, compared to about 45 per cent of the 26-35 year olds, the group with the highest literacy level. Plus, the older we are, the more likely we are to vote Conservative.
The Conservatives who are literate like to quote Ayn Rand and Margaret Thatcher, who in her zeal for individualism and deregulation famously said, “There’s no such thing as society.” These fellow travellers are also prone, and evidently unaware of the inherit contradictions, to quoting radically different kinds of books: the bible upheld by evangelical Christians, and any of the tomes of America’s political hard-right, such as are explained in “Our Convictions” by the U.S. National Review magazine.
If opinion polls are right, some 70 per cent of Canadians disagree with the Conservative mission, but they are so indecisive, irresolute and bitterly divided, the disliked Conservatives have a chance at holding on to power with a minority government.
Why do Canadians allow this situation? What are we thinking?
I conclude most Canadians are not thinking and judging, but.are swathed in a cult of complacency, so unaware of being citizens that without embarrassment we call ourselves “taxpayers.” It’s almost worse that those who are not complacent are locked in bitter rivalry over petty differences in the same “progressive” goals.
It is a long shot that electoral reform of our broken system will reduce the complaining, quibbling, bickering, and snivelling by taxpayers, awaken us from complacency, and turn Canadians into citizens. But it’s a shot I’m willing to try. Because while the outcome will surely not be perfect, it cannot be worse than the system we have.
Copyright Deborah Jones 2015
Originally published in Facts and Opinions, October 9, 2015
References, further information:
- Lead Now/Vote Together: https://www.votetogether.ca
- Canadian Campaign Blurs Party Lines to Thwart Conservatives, New York Times report on strategic voting in Canada: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/world/americas/canadian-campaign-blurs-party-lines-to-thwart-conservatives.html
- An Open Letter from Canadian Artists Against Bill C-51: https://killc51.ca/artists-letter
- CCLA and CJFE mount Charter challenge against Bill C-51: The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) Charter challenge against key sections of Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015. The legislation presents disturbing implications for free speech, privacy, the powers of government, including CSIS, and the protection of civil liberties in Canada. https://cjfe.org/resources/media_releases/ccla-and-cjfe-mount-charter-challenge-against-bill-c-51
- The Closing of the Canadian Mind, by Stephen Marche, New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/the-closing-of-the-canadian-mind.html
- Living dangerously, The next prime minister will have to deal with a shaky economy, The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21674713-next-prime-minister-will-have-deal-shaky-economy-living-dangerously
- Head of Canadian nuclear regulator is fired, New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/16/world/americas/16iht-16nuke.9266747.html?_r=0
- ICJ responds to concerns about interference with integrity and independence of the judiciary in Canada, International Commission of Jurists: http://www.icj.org/icj-responds-to-concerns-about-interference-with-integrity-and-independence-of-the-judiciary-in-canada/
- Canadian election spotlights scientists’ frustrations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has cut funding and limited researchers’ influence over policy. Nature science journal.
- PMO asked staff to supply ‘enemy’ lists to new ministers, CBC: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/pmo-asked-staff-to-supply-enemy-lists-to-new-ministers-1.1361102
- The Conservative prime minister prior to Stephen Harper is one of his harshest critics. Brian Mulroney gives Stephen Harper piece of his mind, Toronto Star: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/09/04/brian_mulroney_gives_stephen_harper_piece_of_his_mind.html
- Election observers needed in Canada to ensure fairness, report urges, CBC: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-election-2015-needs-outside-election-observers-1.3239470
- Literacy in Canada, Library of Parliament Research Publications http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/LOP/ResearchPublications/2012-46-e.htm
- Margaret Thatcher quotes, “There’s no such thing as society,” the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/apr/08/margaret-thatcher-quotes.
- National Review, About, scroll down to “Among our convictions http://www.nationalreview.com/about
- Party of One, by Michael Harris: Harris argues that Harper is more than a master of controlling information: he is a profoundly anti-democratic figure. https://www.michaeltharris.org/books/
- Former Budget Watchdog Kevin Page on Canada’s ‘Grotesquely Wrong Elites‘ — And how to re-democratize government spending. A the Tyee: http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2014/03/10/Kevin-Page-Elites/
- Nobel Prize winning author ALICE MUNRO SPEAKS OUT ABOUT CBC CUTS, Friends of the CBC: http://www.friends.ca/ad/13150
CSIS watchdog agency starved of staff, resources, CBC: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/csis-watchdog-agency-starved-of-staff-resources-1.2965276