Tag Archives: democracy

Heroes of our own lives


Tens of millions of people on this third rock from the sun, this only place in the universe where free will is at least possible, live under the yoke of tyranny. Those who do not, share one thing in common: Periodically, they get to vote.

Today, Canadians get to vote for the government they believe will, on balance, reflect their values, protect their civil rights and deliver a minimum standard of social equity and fairness.

Is the system here in the Great White North perfect?

One of Britain’s great prime ministers, Winston Churchill, is alleged to have said: “Many forms of gov­ern­ment have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pre­tends that democ­racy is. . .all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democ­racy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Canada’s system is, by and large, Winston’s. Again, is it perfect?

We might prefer some form of proportional representation, in which pluralities of votes in individual constituencies truly represent the will of the people. We might expect those we elect to advocate our interests vigorously and without fear of back-benching themselves into political oblivion. We might want partisan bickering to dissolve, replaced by cross-party negotiation on the most important issues that concern Canadians: jobs, education, health care.

To quote an artist, “we don’t always get what we want, but sometimes we get what we need”.

So, then, what do we need?

Is it a government that panders to an ideologically calcified segment of our society, or one that listens to everyone?

Is it a government that prescribes political fixes for problems that don’t actually exist, or one that recognizes trials and tribulations as they emerge in the towns and cities where people actually live, raise families, work and die?

Is it a government that, in the end, believes in, and cherishes, the people it purports to represent, or one that rests contemptuously on its talking points?

These are the big questions that politicians are forbidden to answer, the queries that even their advocates and factotums are unequipped to address. These are the quandaries only we, the people, are permitted by our democracy, to resolve. We get to vote.

In recent years, New Brunswickers have been voting in droves. They’ve lined up at local Lions Centres, at kiosks in malls, at “hole-in-the-wall” outposts in small-town locations. In other words, we, and only we, get to (and do) vote.

The question is no longer how we vote today, but that we do. Those who choose to stay home and watch the latest episode of “Game of Thrones”, rather than engage in the “live-action-role-play” of their own existence on this benighted planet, are cheating themselves – and the rest of us.

Like it or not, we are all in this together. That’s what it means to belong to a democracy; and, surely, we belong to it as much as it belongs to us. For, if we don’t exercise our right to choose how we live and work, we abrogate our power to determine how our children live and work. We abandon them in the most irresponsible ways imaginable.

We become the heroes of our own lives simply by acknowledging that no one is coming to rescue us from inequity and despair – no one, that is, except us.

We vote to change the world. We vote to change the only universe we know. We vote to become better than we’ve ever been before.


Disproportionately misrepresented?


The problem with Canada’s electoral system can be summed up in four words: “first past the post”.

It means, simply, that those who win a plurality of votes (more than the other guys, but not enough to justify a true majority in any particular constituency) get to rule the rural and urban roosts of this country without further ado.

For our purposes now, in an election cycle, that could mean that 60 per cent of this country will collectively vote for the NDP and the Liberals.

Still, under our peculiar system of government – which we borrowed – that would not be enough weapons-grade determination to defeat the Conservatives, whose 40 per cent showing would almost certainly return their majority government for a fourth, historic time.

As Globe and Mail national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson pointed out last May, “Canada’s system is looking increasingly isolated. It’s a system inherited from Britain, but even in that country, the system no longer easily fits with a fractured electorate. It also no longer fits easily in Canada, where three of the last four elections produced minority governments.”

Indeed, Mr. Simpson writes, “In contrast to many other systems, the Canadian provides very few checks and balances on a prime minister with a majority. The unelected Senate is a wet noodle; the government backbenchers are yes-men; the cabinet members are appointed by the top dog. With a couple of exceptions, none would dare stand up to such a domineering leader and his controlling staff.”

In fact, the evolution of western democracies seems to favour some form of proportional representation, and NDP Leader Thomoas Mulcair is not wrong when, in his election platform, he claims, “Democracies such as Germany and New Zealand have embraced proportional representation and realized improvements since moving away from first-past-the-post. In a study that looked at 36 countries with proportional representation, countries that reformed their systems saw increased voter turnout, more women and minorities elected and an overall higher satisfaction with democracy.”

Nova Scotia’s Atlantica Party also makes a good point when it declares in its mission statement, “A party that gets 35 per cent of the vote should not get 60 per cent of the seats in the Legislature. Electoral reform is needed to give fair results while retaining the voter-representative link. Voting systems such as Single Transferable Vote provide this; making it easier for independents to run in elections.”

The party also wants to institute e-voting and “the direct election of the Premier (and of) Nova Scotia’s Senators. Everyone should have a say in picking our leadership. The ruling party should not have the unfair advantage of game-playing the date of an election. Election dates should be fixed every four years and be called Joseph Howe Day.”

What if, in a new mood of enlightened self-interest, local leaders decided to experiment with proportional representation in New Brunswick – indeed, across the Maritimes?

Would that make our democracy stronger, more able to sustain a wider variety of voices and opinions, more wiling to entertain unorthodox, yet workable, solutions to our shared problems?

Or would proportional representation only guarantee – as its opponents repeatedly point out – policy gridlock at every turn of the screws of government? You think it’s tough getting anything done now, they argue? Just wait until you add dozens more dissenting voices to the mix. See what happens then to the quicksand of political decision-making?

Still, I’m inclined to ignore “facts” that are not based on evidence. How do we know until we’ve tried?

We certainly know what “first past the post” has done for, and to, our democracy.

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Canadians chime in on ‘unfair’ Elections Act


Those habitues of the Ivory Tower who have, from time to time, harboured serious misgivings about the average Canadian’s commitment to democracy in this country need worry no longer.

Thanks to his Fair Elections Act – which purports to reduce the risk of voter fraud by eliminating “vouching” (in which a voter vouches for another if the latter lacks sufficient ID) and rewriting much of the rulebook to render Elections Canada more accountable, but also less independent – Pierre Poilievre, the federal government’s Minister of State for Democratic Reform, has done more in one year to light a fire under his fellow citizens’ butts than an invading army could in 10.

Having passed its second reading, Bill C-23 (officially saddled with the cumbersome descriptor, “An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts”) represents Mr. Poilievre’s earnest effort to fix what he and his political masters perceive is a seriously flawed system.

The problem is, the more time one spends examining the substance of the proposed legislation, the less one tends to agree with its sponsors and proponents. The most contentious issue is the attack on vouching, which would very likely undermine the democratic rights of First Nations citizens, students in transition and residents of old-folks homes, among others.

In fact, according to an Angus Reid Global poll last month, “Canadian support for changes to the Elections Act proposed by the Harper government is highest among those who aren’t aware of the issue. Among those who are familiar with the contents of the Fair Elections Act, 44 per cent say they support it and 56 per cent are opposed. However, among those who are only aware of the issue in passing or who are just not paying attention, that support rises to 53 per cent, while 47 per cent say they’re opposed.”

How this breaks down along party lines is instructive, of not especially unexpected. “When it comes to awareness and political affiliation,” the pollster reports, “awareness is highest among past Liberal and NDP voters (25 per cent and 24 per cent respectively) followed by past Conservative voters (18 per cent).”

Meanwhile, the survey indicates that Canadians, in general, are fed up with the Conservative government’s fetishistic tinkering with the cogs and gears of a system that is not, essentially, broken. Angus Reid Global interprets its poll results bluntly: “Canadians do not trust the motives of the Conservative government in introducing the proposed legislation, and do not feel the Harper government’s impact on the democratic process has been positive.”

Not that Mr. Poilievre hasn’t done his level best to knock some sense into our recalcitrant noodles. In an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail earlier this week, he decried his critics’ “hyperbolic” reaction to the Bill, which, he insists is “common sense. “Canadians instinctively understand that these changes are reasonable and fair. That is why they have not shared the critics’ hysteria.”

Again, though, that’s not entirely accurate.

Yes, a group of international scholars have grabbed headlines by claiming, in an open letter to national media, that “the governing party in Canada has proposed a set of wide-ranging changes, which if enacted, would. . .undermine the integrity of the Canadian electoral process.”

And, yes, an assemblage of Canadian academics recently echoed these sentiments when they publicly stated, “Beyond our specific concerns about the Bill’s provisions, we are alarmed at the lack of due process in drafting the Bill and in rushing it through Parliament.”

But, increasingly, what fills the letters and comment pages of print and online versions of major media are the grumblings of the the hoi polloi, i.e., the Great Unwashed. i.e., you and me.

“The Harper government’s latest assault on democratic ideals and practices with its proposed Fair Elections Act, while roundly criticized, is at least consistent in its semantic tactics with earlier attacks, notably in the 2006 Federal Accountability Act,” writes Neil Burk of Nepean, Ontario. “As the fair Elections Act has nothing to do with fairness principles, the Accountability Act is unaccountably silent on accountability principles.”

His screed appeared in the Globe’s letters section on one of two days this week during which the newspaper published nine archly critical, and well-written, letters from readers.

No, no, all you professor of political science, fear not.

From the recent evidence you may deduce that the condition of democracy in Canada is just fine, after all, thank you very much.

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How to build a just society in no easy lessons


Unless we surrender to the increasingly strong suspicion that our North American democracies are shams – that the institutions we support to protect our rights and freedoms in Canada and the United States are hopelessly compromised by money and power – we must believe, somewhere in our souls, that the right men and women can still change the states of our respective unions for the better.

For me, and millions of others, one of those men was once Barack Obama, the 44th president of the stars and stripes. In fact, flickers of his former greatness were on display during his annual address earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

“What I believe unites the people of this nation,” he said, “regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.”

Candor, thy name was Barack:

“Let’s face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.”

Meanwhile, he continued, “after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.  But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

Finally, he said, “our job is to reverse these trends. . .But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still  – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Bully for him. Now, if we could only believe him. And not just him; if we could only believe every messenger of prosperity and ambassador of hope who comes along in a great while to lift the polity’s flagging spirit.

Still, if we really think about it we must concede that, ultimately, the

the failure is not in them, but in us. After all, if we don’t expect excellence in ourselves, how can we expect it in our elected officials or even recognize it when we see it?

What we do expect, of course, is voluminous: our appetite for material things to be sated; our thirst for comfort and ease to be slaked; our opinions to be revered; our attitudes to be certified; our privacy to be protected even as our personal lives are publicly acknowledged as utterly, absorbingly fascinating.

That’s us in the peanut galleries of the continent: John and Jane Q. Public both having and eating their cakes

We demand a clean environment, but not if it means leaving the car in the driveway once in a while.

We require good health and long life, but not if it means laying off the sugar and  taking a little exercise from time to time.

If successful politicians pander to us, it’s only because, despite growing joblessness and social inequities, we in the new west remain eminently, adorably pander-able. (So do the Europeans, though their triggers are different).

On the other, if we are are genuinely interested in improving the condition of our respective democracies then we should begin by admitting that we are addicted to the short-term habits of mind bequeathed to us by several generations of rampant consumerism and disposable values, fungible for cash in any money market.

Fair and just societies endure when their citizens take the long view and embrace  qualities and virtues common to most, if not always all: compassion, courage, honesty, intelligence, discipline, and even erudition.

In every election we designate certain people to reflect our values in the public square. But more than this, we select a specific culture of service to democracy. In this respect, the right men and women do change our systems of government, for better or worse, every day.

And they are us.

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Running our democracy on auto-pilot


On both sides of the 49th parallel, citizens pause, if only for a frigid winter’s moment, to reflect on the political bargains they’ve made and the consequences of disenchantment.

In the American Capital last night, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union Address, a show the pundits unanimously panned in their previews.

This lame-duck Commander in Chief, they declared, has dropped the ball in practically every zone of the playing field. Now, even his once-ardent admirers have turned their backs on him.

What could he possibly say that would reduce the bitter partisan bickering and undo the gridlock in Congress?

In Ottawa on Monday, after one of the longest recesses in some time, Parliament reassembled just in time to receive the federal government’s 2014 budget. And oh, political observers clucked, what a deliberately dull, strategically boring, document that will be when the nation gets a look at on February 11, a month ahead of schedule.

But, then, what else would it be in the run-up to an election?

“It’s an opportunity to just get going early out of the gate and set the tone,” Michele Austin, a former Conservative operative and a top flack at Summa Strategies in Ottawa, told the Globe and Mail. “I’m not convinced that the Olympics has a lot to do with it (the budget’s early release). . .This is a bridge budget. It’s taking people to a surplus budget.”

Meanwhile, Kul Bhatia, an economist at Western, told the CBC, “The indications are that the fiscal situation is better than they’ve let it be known. This is based on some information that they have that is not in the public domain – that’s my hunch.”

Increasingly, we are told, the people we elect ostensibly to safeguard our system of government think of us as customers. That would make them used car salesmen and women, kicking the tires of democracy and pronouncing them sound.

The customer, of course, is never wrong, but sometimes he doesn’t read the fine print – the exceptions to the warranty, the nullifications to the contract we figuratively sign when we dare to vote.

Just like the pre-owned auto we drive off the lot, the government we get is often only just good enough. What qualities it lacks won’t bring it to a grinding halt. But neither will the absence of certain cherished virtues stave off a creeping sense of buyers’ remorse in the living rooms of the nation.

On this score, recent public opinion polls tell a convincing tale.

“Just 21 per cent of likely U.S. voters believe the federal government today has the consent of the governed.” That’s according to a Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. “Sixty-three percent  do not believe the federal government has the consent of the governed today; 16 per cent per cent are not sure.”

Here in Canada, we’re not much happier with our elected lot. In a piece published online earlier this month entitled, “Democracy and the death of trust,” EKOS Research Associates founder Frank Graves declared, “The rise of mass education, along with more critical media and a more cynical pop culture, has produced a more aware and less trusting public – a shift which poses huge challenges to governments and democratic institutions.”

That may, indeed, be true. But it is also true that we, the unelected drivers of our democracy, must shoulder most of the blame, for it is we who routinely install public servants demonstrating only the profoundest gaps in imagination, only the most thorough absence of courage.

Do we limit ourselves and the well-being of our society by deliberately curbing our expectations of the political class?

What do we actually want? Is it a tax free bank account with the twice the allowable contribution level? Is it a topped-up child tax credit? Is it a national budget surplus of $4 billion?

Or is it better, more open-handed cooperation among political parties – and levels of government – on matters that actually resonate with all Canadians: education, health care, infrastructure?

In the end, all the truly hard decisions fall to us. That is our part of the bargain we keep for posterity.

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Tinker, tailor, techie, spy


Amidst the swirl of revelations this summer about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) prying eyes and ears, a quote stands out to neatly summarize the hoi polloi’s rising sense of panic and paranoia.

The NSA’s intelligence “capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.”

In the wrong hands, this might even “enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.”

This sounds like the sort of thing a civil liberties advocate, an apologist for the Julian Assanges and Edward Snowdons of the world, or even a Tea-Party Republican might utter in these nervous tween years of the 21st century. But the words aren’t theirs. They belong to a Democratic senator from Idaho by the name of Frank Church, who issued them in 1975 after he had concluded an investigation of the agency.

I came across them in a 2005 New York Times story whose author made his own observations about the NSA. “At the time (of Sen. Church’s scrutiny), the agency had the ability to listen to only what people said over the telephone or wrote in an occasional telegram; they had no access to private letters,” wrote James Bamford. “But today, with people expressing their innermost thoughts in e-mail messages, exposing their medical and financial records to the Internet, and chatting constantly on cellphones, the agency virtually has the ability to get inside a person’s mind. . .Originally created to spy on foreign adversaries. . .The NSA s original target had been the Communist bloc. . .(it) was never supposed to be turned inward.”

All of which proves, if nothing else, that people’s memories truly are short. Experts and activists have been broadcasting warnings about the NSA and other supposedly super-secret spy masters for decades. Apart from a few Internet-enabled advances in the field of information gathering, the abuses – or potential for abuses – they worried about then are the ones they worry about today. That’s because while technology may change, human nature does not.

Still, technology can stack the deck and up the ante. Somebody writing on wiki.answers.com once ruminated that the Internet might contain one yottabyte of data. That’s roughly 1,208,925,819,614,629,174,706,176 bytes of increasingly worthless chum and chatter. But unlike an old-school telegram or piece of reel-to-reel audio tape, it never decays, never goes away. It just sits there in mines located around the world waiting for some government-empowered slob to make some other slob’s life sheer hell.

Technology is also an irresistible force for mischief. The NSA, for example, is prohibited by law from spying on the UN. And yet, according to Reuters this week, “The (agency) has bugged the United Nations’ New York headquarters, Germany’s Der Spiegel weekly said on Sunday in a report on American spying that could further strain relations between Washington and its allies. . .Der Spiegel said the files showed how the United States systematically spied on other states and institutions. . .Der Spiegel said the European Union and the UN’s Vienna-based nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, were among those targeted by U.S. intelligence agents.”

History demonstrates time and again that the tools we craft to make our lives easier or more interesting inevitably lead many of us into some kind of moral turpitude. Privacy may be a basic right. But if it’s easy to curtail and no one gets hurt (that we know of), then what’s the harm?

About the only recourse we who do not belong to the ironically termed “intelligence community” have is to bang our drums loudly. Consider U.S. Congressman Alan Grayson who intends to introduce his “Mind Your Own Business Act” in short order. The legislation, part tongue-in-cheek and part serious, demands that “none of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available to the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2014 or any succeeding fiscal year may be used to collect any information generated by a citizen of the United States while located in the United States.”

He and his Bill may be doomed. But, at least, he’s not going quietly.

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Is a change as good as a rest?


The mere fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is proroguing Parliament for the third time since assuming office in 2006 matters less than what he manages to divine after gazing squarely into his Conservative government’s naval during the forced retreat.

His two other legislative session-enders (in 2008 and 2009) were clear attempts to undermine political opposition from the Liberals and the NDP. That’s not so obviously the case in this instance, coming on the heels of a long, hot summer recess.

In this instance, Mr. Harper faces a growing malaise both within and outside his  ranks and a palpable, though not yet politically fatal, unease among the electorate. Taking a break from the legislative calendar to reboot the Tory agenda seems both strategically wise and timely. But is it already too late to make much of a change?

Few seriously doubt the Harper government’s competence in managing the economy. Canada was one of the few western economies that fared relatively well during the global, financial meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent recession. It can thank its federal shepherds – Jim Flaherty and Mark Carney, among them – for a good deal of the official probity at that time.

Still, jobs growth across the country remains inconsistent, up sharply in some months, down dramatically in others. At 7.2 per cent, the overall unemployment rate hasn’t budged in more than a year.

For economists, that’s not bad news, exactly. As BMO economist Doug Porter told CBC News earlier this month, “Aside from providing great sport and serving as an eternal source of embarrassment for forecasters, do the wild gyrations in monthly jobs actually mean anything for the economy? Not really. The big picture here is that the unemployment rate is virtually unchanged from a year ago, and total employment is up 1.3 per cent, both broadly reflective of an overall economy growing modestly.”

But for just about everyone else – tradespeople, professionals, entrepreneurs, working students – it feels like stagnation. Worse, perhaps, some evidence indicates that Canadians, overall, are growing skeptical about the government’s commitment to the issues that matter most to them, specifically the economy, healthcare and vital social programs.

“Our research suggests that Canadians aren’t seeing those issues reflected in politics,” Jane Hilderman of the think tank Samara said in an interview with news media earlier this year. “Canadians sense that MPs are doing a great job representing the interests of their party, but not doing such a good job on representing their constituents.”

In fact, the Samara study states that while 55 per cent of Canadians say they are satisfied with the system, that response was off from 75 per cent in 2004 – a factor which may help explain why the Conservative government, compared to its Liberal and NDP rivals, has been stumbling in opinion polls throughout most of this year.

Of more immediate concern to Mr. Harper are the effects on party and government morale of a Prime Minister’s Office that runs the tightest ship of state in decades.

“There has been predominantly informal discussion about what is, or what is not, our rights, and MPs have to decide what’s wrong and what’s right, and what our rights are,” a Conservative Member told the CBC anonymously in March. The piece continued: “A series of tactics seem to have led to the rebellion, including PMO staff denying MPs the right to make statements in the House of Commons, and a move by a three-member subcommittee to deny a Conservative MP the right to bring a non-binding motion on sex-selective abortion to the floor of the House for debate.”

Then, of course, there is the Senate expense scandal which has implicated two formerly Conservative appointees and further tarnished an institution that several polls say most Canadians want abolished. Mr. Harper has promised major reforms, but he hasn’t proceeded. And that deeply offends his mostly Western base of voters.

Whatever the Prime Minister expects to achieve during his prorogue – whatever feats of party-building and consensus-gathering he hopes to engineer – the issues he faces today will be there to greet him upon his return.

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