Are Canadians Ready for Democracy?
Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau caused quite the stir when he promised that the most recent general election would be the last to use the first-past-the-post voting method. A method where the entire country is divided into 338 electoral districts and a single deputy is elected in each district by whomever garners the most votes.
Ironically, it was the vagaries of first-past-the post that brought the Trudeau-led liberals to power, giving them a majority government although they only received 39% of the popular vote. Will Trudeau make a substantive change to the way Canadians elect their representatives, or will he simply tinker at the edges and keep in place the system of governance that has been in place for nearly 150 years?
Come to think of it, 150 years is a long time, which raises the question why did it take this long? There must be something about the present system that most Canadians really like. Otherwise, it should have been sent packing a long time ago.
As for me, I am a democrat, so first-past-the-post with all its obvious limitations, giving the power of a majority to a political party that only has the support of the minority of the electorate, systemic under representation of third parties, and rendering most of the votes cast by Canadians to be totally useless, has got to go. The sooner, the better.
So what gives? Why has it stuck around for such a long time?
I ask this question because of the recent flurry of articles in the national media that have been published in response to the prospects of changing the electoral system. Those in the political class and those who make use of politics for financial gain are very cognizant that changing the electoral system could result in a change in the way Canada is governed and, as a result, the way business, amongst other things, is conducted. In other words, the stakes are high.
Surprisingly for those of us that has been active over the years to change the voting system, it has become a hot issue. In fact, the leader of the opposition in the interim, Rona Ambrose, declared in Parliament that in order to change the voting system the proposed change would need to be ratified by the people in a nation-wide referendum. Considering that Canada goes to war without putting the question to a national plebiscite, "methinks the lady doth protest too much."
Nevertheless, it is an very interesting proposition since it raises the democratic legitimacy of making political choices: who makes them and on whose behalf? In this case, why does the decision to go to war not require a decision made by the entire electorate, yet changing the manner in which we choose how we elect our representatives does?
At this point, we need to make the difference between the idea of "democracy" as a political concept, especially in the North American context, and the practice of democracy as a feature of a particular culture. Some cultures are more democratic than others, meaning that the norms of allowing political decisions to be made on a consensual basis, in other words, the will of the majority, and to allow for widespread meaningful participation in the electoral process are stronger than others. For example, the Germanic and Scandinavian nations embrace the fundamental principles of democracy much more so than the English speaking nations with the exception of New Zealand.
As we could expect, nations that embrace the principles of democracy create political institutions that reflect democracy's core value of equality: political status, treatment by the laws of the land, and the rights ascribed to citizens. Consequently, rather than trying to design a political system that confers advantage or privilege of one group over another, democratic cultures create democratic political institutions. For instance, in democratic electoral systems each and every vote carries equal weight and is effective in the formula that determines how the votes are transformed into the manner in which the people are represented in their National Assemblies. In short, in democratic cultures people accept the constraints that majority rule can often impose upon the individual and seek to create political institutions that bring forward the rule of, for, and by the people, especially when it comes to the challenge of how the diverse beliefs and interests of the people are to be represented in the political decision making process.
Before we embark on changing our electoral system we as Canadians need to ask ourselves are our political institutions fundamentally democratic. Afterwards, we will need to decide whether we are good with the things as they are or do we want to embrace democracy in a more meaningful way.
As you can tell by the way I have framed the decision making process, I take it as a given that Canada's political system is not fundamentally democratic.
It may be argued that the Westminster parliamentary system, which we inherited from the British, provides good and effective government. However, it cannot be argued that it is fundamentally democratic. First, the presence of an upper chamber in which seats are reserved for the aristocracy in the UK and appointed by the Prime Minister in Canada, meaning that each assembly is unelected but has the power to modify or veto legislation arising from the elected lower house, is clearly undemocratic. Moreover, using an electoral system that distorts the popular in order to give the power of a majority to a political party that only has the support of a minority is an affront to fundamental democratic principles.
When our politicians speak of our "democratic" political institutions, they are appropriating the term from a much different political context and applying it to the electoral politics that exist in Canada, a political system designed to assign or transfer the responsibility of governing the nation to a very small group of people, the Prime Minister and his cabinet of Ministers. Our only truly democratic moment is when we cast our ballots, but that moment ends when the votes are tabulated and political power has been effectively outsourced from the citizenry to the ruling party.
Now, a great number of Canadians really don't have a problem with the political system as it exists in its present form. As a democrat, I hate to say this but I understand that the Westminster system does have a certain appeal to a great many. For example, the business and financial class prefer to have a political system in which there exists a direct correlation between a political party's ability to raise funds and its representation in Parliament. As a result, when money can influence electoral results, in return for its financial support the business and financial class can expect a favourable business and financial environment in which to conduct its affairs. Moreover, its interests can take precedence over the interest of the common good when need be. From this perspective, an arm's length approach to the economy for the most part and favourable intervention when called for leads to supposedly superior economic performance which can then generate the revenues to finance the social programs to advance the common good.
As well, in this mindset, for the vast majority of Canadians there exists the advantage of allowing their elected officials to be pretty much autonomous once elected thereby freeing individuals to pursue other activities. The practice of democracy requires informed and engaged citizens of which there are many in Canada, but far too few to date to make a significant change in the way politics are done. Let's face it, keeping informed on the issues affecting the nation and participating meaningfully in the political process other than voting takes time and energy. I think the vast majority of Canadians prefer to have that work performed by someone else while still retaining the possibility of being able to get rid of ruling party when the time arises. Essentially, Canadians participate meaningfully only in the process of choosing which of the two ruling options receives the social contract to govern. Once that decision is made, they can return to pursue their other interests unencumbered by the demands of being an informed and engaged citizen.
Finally, the political system in Canada makes life relatively easy for the political parties. In a purely adversarial system like our own, where political power is an all or nothing proposition, a political party spends little of its time working collaboratively with the other parties and most of its energy, with regard to the political debate, criticizing everything it can about what the ruling party says and does while being very vague on how it would do things differently. After a few years of hearing this tiresome discourse, Canadians want to change the channel and watch a new political spectacle, so they vote the ruling party out, vote in the government in waiting, and life continues pretty much as before. Essentially, over the long-term, the real question in Canadian politics is when do we make the switch from the Liberals to the Conservatives and then back again. It's been that way for almost 150 years.
So, why change?
Perhaps, it would be better to continue living the lie in thinking we live in a democracy, a consensual hallucination that makes life better for some. Democracy, after all, is messy. No more heroes in white hats and villains in black. It isn't easy to be thoughtful and sympathetic towards others that do not share your beliefs and interests. It's much simpler to cheer for either the blue or the red team. Finding workable solutions to complex problems in a changing environment requires everyone to put water in their wine instead of feigning to know the truth and berating those who disagree.
But I think the greatest change confronting Canadians facing the possibility of embracing democracy is that it requires a fundamental shift in the culture. It has often been said by those who observe Canadian culture from the outside is that we prefer to defer to authority. Although we have made great strides forward towards equality in the relationships between men and women, in the workplace and in the political sphere we still cling to our authoritarian power structures. Certainly, most workplaces in Canada are structured on the basis of hierarchy, orders are released from above and those below are expected to follow. There are other ways to organize. Also, the neoclassical economic discourse dominates the manner political debate is conducted in Canada, growing the economy is far more important than a more equitable distribution of the nation's wealth. There are other perspectives that could come into play.
I think the important question that needs to be addressed is whether Canadians are ready to accept the diversity of opinions and interests that their fellow citizens hold and to accept a political process that does not attempt to impose the primacy of one particular mindset. When many conceptions of what constitutes the good society need to be taken into consideration when making political decisions, the process requires much more effort and different skill sets as well as a much greater level of sustained participation from the citizenry and its politicians. Are Canadians ready to embark on such a path? I'm not so sure. I would like to see our political system move in such a direction, but it has been my experience to date that I am part of a minority.
In my mind, before deciding on which voting system to adopt, Canadians must first decide upon what kind of society do they want to live in. Adopting a more democratic electoral system will inevitably create a more egalitarian society. Maintaining the present system or modifying first-past-the-post so that the fundamental authoritative power structure remains in place will only exacerbate inequality over time.
It will be interesting to see how the debate unfolds and what changes will be proposed in the legislation to be tabled that could put an end to what is truly an archaic electoral practice.
Who knows, an opportunity like this might not come around for another 150 years.