A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
Contact us at democracyunderfire@gmail.com

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Canada is a corporate plutocracy

I want to state what I believe is the main reason why we don't have a democracy anymore. It's because Big Business has established themselves as the policy makers in this country. We do not elect them. They are not accountable to us. However, they have the ear of probably at least 95% of our elected officials. They are, in effect, the puppet masters. Their involvement in Canadian politics (all levels of Canadian politics) is not all that transparent, although in some ways it is blatant. It's hard to believe perhaps - and that is why their control has slipped by us. I will share what I have learned so far in order to get the ball rolling. It will hopefully help us start understanding why politicians do what they do; make decisions that benefit the filthy rich corporate players and undermine the rest of us, and especially the environment and the poor. And another question; why do politicians these days come from and return to the business world instead of the legal world or whereever they used to come from? Once you start thinking about it, the government's strict adherence to right-wing corporate ideology, which is totally un-patriotic, only makes sense in light of the fact that they and the business elite are one and the same.

There is a group in Canada called the BCNI: Business Council on National Issues (Now renamed CCCE). I think most of us don’t know about this group; I only recently found out about them. Here are some main points (all quotes are taken from Tony Clarke’s 1997 book, Silent Coup):
-The BCNI was formed in April, 1977, by Canada’s top business leaders (lead by W.O. Taits, CEO of Imperial Oil and Alf Powis, CEO of Noranda Mines) to act as a streamlined, effective business lobby with the purpose of essentially wresting power away from the government in favour of a free-market system in which corporations would no longer be held in check. Its contempory in the US was the Business Round Table, out to accomplish the same goals.

-After exerting pressure onto Pierre Trudeau and winning a few battles with him, the BCNI became firmly entrenched in Canadian politics with the 1984 election of Brian Mulroney. Mulroney opened up the door to the Corporate Market after having been given hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations.

-To the BCNI, there was too much democracy in Canada and that had to change. They lobbied for tax cuts and then suggested revenues be made up for with the GST – they wrote the policy for this, presented it to Brian Mulroney’s Tory government, and it was made into law. The GST is a corporate subsidy paid by us, suggested by corporate CEO's and approved by our elected government.

-It was the BCNI that lobbied in the early 80’s for the focus of the government to change from unemployment to fighting inflation.

-p. 29 "Canada’s major banks and investment houses wanted to secure greater control over the country’s fiscal and monetary policy. Historically, the federal government was responsible for managing monetary policy through its agency, the Bank of Canada. But, throughout the 1980’s, both the BCNI and the Howe Institute called for substantial changes in the central banks’ mandate and greater independence from the cabinet and elected officials. At the same time, they urged Ottawa to depend more on private financial markets. In the past, when the government needed extra funds to finance its debt load, it traditionally relied on interest-free loans from the Bank of Canada. In 1977, for example, the Bank of Canada held 21 per cent of the federal debt. When the Mulroney government took office in 1984, the Bank held only 10.5 per cent of the federal debt, and this portion dwindled to 6 per cent by 1993. Moreover, Ottawa not only agreed to borrow more from private banks at much higher interest rates, but it also abolished the requirement that private banks hold non-interest paying cash reserves with the Bank of Canada, thereby allowing them to pile up many millions more in interest and profits. In turn, these new monetary policies served to multiply Ottawa’s mounting debts."

-In this way, the BCNI engineered a Canadian panic about paying off debts rather than attending to unemployment or other social programs. Keeping people unstable was in their best interests; they could keep wages lower and unions weak. People all through the 1980’s, 90’s and up until today still believe that we can not afford strong social programs for our most vulnerable citizens, while the corporations walk away with millions of dollars of profit each year and who knows how much environmental damage which they will never pay for. They have purposefully eroded our health and education systems as well. Their goal has been a weak, disenfranchised, struggling society with no political power of their own; this is what best serves their needs to make more money. On the other hand, huge expenditures which serve big business are readily made all the time - just look through the daily news to find examples of this.

-In 2008, the top 10 CEO’s in Canada earned between them a record-breaking 1 billion dollars(this statistic comes from the Canadian Council on Policy Alternatives).

-All the major political parties are influenced heavily by the BCNI. In Clarke's book he outlines various amounts of money donated to both the Conservative and Liberal parties by various member corporations of the BCNI or other business groups. I didn't write down the details (and I had to return the book to the library) but the sums were extremely large...anywhere from $25 000 to more than $100 000, over and over again. This information is available through the freedom of information act.

“Ultimately, what counts for the big business barons is not which party forms the government but whether they can maintain their stranglehold over the levers of power and policy-making in the nation’s capital and the provinces. As long as the BCNI, through its member corporations, had the ability to buy parties and elections, it would retain the power to steer the ship of state.” p. 37 The laws have changed about campaign donations, but if you think that big business can’t find ways to circumnavigate the laws, guess again. They can hide money in Swiss bank accounts; surely they can hide campaign donations too.

This influence of the government by big business is true at all levels of government. The recent meat legislation in BC, for example, was almost certainly a campaign spearheaded by a couple of powerful factory farms as an attempt to squeeze out small producers. The claim that it was motivated by a desire to protect people’s health is ridiculous when we know that tainted meat comes from the factory farm system, not from small, local farms. There is no scientific or common sense basis for this law and intense lobbying by farmers and consumers has not been able to change it to date.

When it comes down to it, all environmental battles that are pitched in this country are a fight between people trying to save environments and/or people and corporations trying to make a profit. It doesn’t matter what issue you look at – it can be traced to corporate greed and governmental support of that greed.

A flawed economic theory has been driving globalization and Canadian politics for 30 years now. The experiment is failing. The gap between the rich and the poor has grown. The environment is being destroyed, species being lost at an accelerated pace. We are putting too much carbon needlessly into the air; farming practices alone are releasing carbon through mis-management of both soil and livestock. Humans are just cogs in a machine in this way of viewing the world. We need to live under a different paradigm, one where the dollar is not the bottom line. We need to become educated about civic life and re-gain our voices as a free and democratic people. We need to do it now.

For More Information See:
The work of Ed Finn, John Ralston Saul, Tony Clarke, Maude Barlow, Naomi Klein,
I strongly recommend reading Tony Clarke's Silent Coup
Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Friday, March 27, 2009

Democracy and Accountability

Can we have one without the other? I would say NO, for without accountability the democratic process as is should be practiced within the HoC will, some say has, degenerate into something more resembling an oligarchy. If governments cannot be held accountable, and they cannot if their actions are not open to scrutiny, and there are not consequences for undemocratic or dictatorial decisions, the old adage “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” becomes all too true.

What then are the mechanisms in place to ensure accountability? Very few it would seem, and those that are in place are constantly being eroded, blocked and ignored.

My blogger colleague recently posted a piece about the influence that “Big Business” has upon our governments decisions, perhaps the best example of this are the “Trade Agreements” and “Partnerships” known as NAFTA and SPP. Both of these “agreements” affect our citizens in a very meaningful way and yet they have, and indeed still are, being negotiated behind closed doors, without parliamentary oversight. There is no accountability for those that make these agreements, the “harmonizing” of regulations is agreed to without even consulting parliamentarians let alone citizens affected. This in my view is undemocratic and clearly shows why accountability an essential part of democracy.

Some will say that a government is held accountable during the next election, I say not usually, for the electorate is often unaware of many of the wrong doings or questionable actions of governments until long after the fact. Even brought to light such actions are quickly forgotten, buried in spin, or otherwise negated by the powerful in government. Rarely if ever are individuals in government actually taken to task for even clearly wrongful actions and even then such inquires are dragged out for years or set aside for “political” reasons. The only recourse it would seem is increased knowledge of, and accessibility to, information about government decisions and proposals, so that the public can vote from a position of knowing the facts not the spin shoveled out just before an election.

Whilst writing this post I discovered the web site VisibleGovernment.ca a citizens attempt to “Improve civic participation and government accountability in Canada by promoting online tools for government transparency.” I think they are on the right track here, whist we here may rant about what is wrong these folks are actually doing something very positive to improve our access to information and thus our democracy. They highlight the link between accountability and democratic government on their Mission page in these statements:-
“Well-functioning governments are a corner stone of a well-functioning society.
More accessible information will lead to greater government accountability and greater citizen involvement, resulting in a more representative and effective government
Citizens have a responsibility to hold their government accountable.
Governments have a responsibility to publish the data that allows citizens to hold them accountable and provide effective oversight of government activities.”

This project has already met with some success in collaborating with some of our public servants who are also seeking better ways to communicate both within government and with the general public using internet tools. This initiative has great potential to both keep citizens “in the loop” and to keep governments “open and accountable”, a promise oft made but rarely acted upon.

It is also clear that accountability cannot take place without openness within government, if the public does not know what is going on, either through lack of unbiased reporting by our MSM, secrecy by the government of the day or simply not knowing where to look for the information, then how can they judge. If they do manage to “keep up” then what recourse do they have when they see abuses or deliberate misinformation from those that we elect?

I wish I could point to an occasion where a sitting MP or government appointed official has received a meaningful penalty for lying to the public, stealing from the public purse, interfering with arms length crown corporations or commissions, or similar wrongdoings, but I cannot. It seems that a scapegoat can always be found or the matter buried in legal limbo for years. That’s not accountability in my mind.

Finally we have at this time one very important civil servant whose department is keeping both our MPs and the general public informed of the FACTS regarding the downturn and the governments response to it. The Parliamentary Budget officer Kevin Page is under intense pressure due to budget restraints upon his office. Two weeks ago Mr. Page issued a public plea for help, asking the Prime Minister and opposition to rescue his office as it confronts a funding shortfall and threats to its independence. The office has been dogged by pressures that could cut its profile. Ottawa has failed to deliver the full $2.8-million in promised funding, giving him less than two-thirds of that. Yesterday he told MPs that he's also having difficulty getting the federal Finance Department to provide him the raw financial data he needs for his analysis and forecasting.

Whether this is politically motivated I cannot say, but support him we must an independent analysis of government spending forecasts is essential. Lets make Open and Accountable and Accessible government more than just a failed election promise.

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

MP or Party, Which comes first?

My last two posts have focused upon our electoral system and some aspects of the role of political parties, particularly up and coming ones and how they work within our current democracy.
I would like to examine how these two basics currently interact and how perhaps we should change the interaction to improve the accountability of the latter by changing the former.
The respondents to the forum on Public Consultations on Canada’s Democratic Institutions and Practices were of the opinion political parties are generally perceived as non-accountable, as neither good nor especially honest in communicating. Aspersions were cast on the quality, clarity, and ethical integrity of party platforms. At the same time they thought that that the Canadian electoral system,( how votes are counted and transformed into seats) is not sufficiently problematic to require fundamental change.

I beg to differ, in my view it is the lack of a system of selecting MP’s that holds them more accountable personally (as opposed to the party that they purport to represent) that is part of the whole lack of faith in the party system. This is made even worse by the power which the party hierarchy (it would seem) has over the individual Member, often instructing them how to vote on an issue on pain of expulsion from the party. The whole issue comes down to the question as to whom do we vote for, the person or the party. It is perhaps one of the most difficult questions to answer as with the ever increasing power of the political party (at least those currently with members in the HoC) the days of voting for the best man or woman for the job of representing your area is pretty much gone by the wayside. It has become a race to see who can regurgitate his or her’s party promises or “talking points” best, coupled with which party can spend the most on (often misleading) advertisements to “persuade” the public to vote for their party. Not you will note for a particular candidate.

So although it is the candidates name on that ballot I submit that as it stands now, in most cases, if the ballot simply listed the party little difference would be seen. This in my view is not democracy, or at least is a perversion that needs to be stopped, and soon, before the system evolves into a vote for the single dictator of your choice. The question then becomes how do we do this? I believe to only way is through the ballot box by changing the voting system to make the individual MP more important and more accountable to their constituents. One way to do this is to separate the MP’s vote from the Party vote so that citizens can vote for the best man or woman AND the party of their choice. Such a system was proposed in Ontario and failed miserably, mostly in my view due to a lack of understanding of the proposal and the existing partys, with their better access to news media, protecting their own interests and advocating against it.

We have seen in recent time how, when an MP votes or speaks out against his party in support of his constituents he or she is censured by that party, often to the point of expulsion. As an independent they have even less resources and influence available to them to do their job and, if trying to get reelected without the resources of a party hierarchy behind them, are headed for oblivion. This is clearly wrong, the funding available should have little bearing on who gets elected but this is clearly not the case. The per vote funding, the attack upon which recently was at least part of the cause for our “constitutional crisis”, goes a small way to even things out but does little to encourage “independent” MP’s, so it seems under the present system it is essential to belong to an established party. However a MP, who having been kicked out of one party joins another, is usually castigated for “crossing the floor” when trying to do the best for his constituents, with many saying that they voted for an MP of this party or that party and not the individual. If we are to ever return to a more democratic form of parliamentary representation then the power of the Party must be kerbed, it seems to me that the best way to do this is for the public to start voting for the person not the party and that any change in our electoral system that encourages that is a good thing.

Unfortunately a change to more proportional voting will not, in and off itself, make the day to day decisions made in our parliament more democratic. It may well make the selection of our representatives more democratic but that is of little use if those representatives follow like sheep the party line. One of the dangers of representation by population we must be aware of is that minorities cannot be overwhelmed by the majority. My own particular concern is that rural concerns will be ignored by the urban majority or for that matter that an under-populated province will be ignored more populous ones. But that whole issue is fodder for another post.

Expecting the political partys now in power or in opposition to press for parliamentary or electoral reform and to change the way in which they use their power over our elected representatives is akin to expecting the Fox to hatch the Hens eggs!! Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Thursday, March 19, 2009

First Democracy

Here are the tools of First Democracy as explained by Paul Woodruff (Darrel K. Royal Professor in Ethics and American Society and Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin) who wrote First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea, published in 2005. I find his thinking very illuminative in looking at how and why democracy developed, what gave it strength, and how it failed at times. I highly recommend his book. This list of tools offers us a background with which to consider and critique our own democracy. Looking at democracy in other countries would likely be illuminating as well, and we welcome any input of this sort.

In his introduction, Woodruff says:

Democracy is a beautiful idea - government by and for the people. Democracy promises us the freedom to exercise our highest capacities while it protects us from our own worst tendencies. In democracy as it ought to be, all adults are free to chime in, to join the conversation on how they should arrange their life together. And no one is left free to enjoy the unchecked power that leads to arrogance and abuse.

Like many beautiful ideas, however, democracy travels though our minds shadowed by its doubles - bad ideas that are close enough to be easily mistaken for the real thing. Democracy has many doubles, but the most seductive is majority rule, and this is not democracy. It is merely government by and for the majority. The ancient Athenians who invented democracy learned this lesson the hard way. After several bouts with class warfare, they took practical steps to make government involve all citizens and serve the general interest.

He talks about the democratic tools the Athenians used for almost 2 centuries (keep in mind that "citizens" excluded women, slaves and immigrants), and I will quote from him directly (although not in full in some sections).

1. Legal system. No professional judges or prosecutors. Any citizen could bring charges against another, and any citizen could serve on the panels of judges that correspond to both our judges and our juries. The panels were large enough that no one could afford to win them over by bribery; 501 men served on the panel that convicted Socrates. Service on a panel was paid, and for this reason it was truly open to people of the lower class....The panel was formed on the day of the trial, by means of a lottery, in order that no one could tamper with the jury. Judging from speeches made in these popular courts, the juries represented a cross section of Athenians, because we do not hear of speakers making appeal to class interests.

2. Governing Body. The Assembly normally consisted of the first 6 000 men to arrive at the Pnyx (a hillside not far from the Acropolis), but this number was not always achieved. Any adult male citizen could take part, and if numbers were wanting, the magistrates ordered a sweep of public places with a scarlet rope, which brought in enough people for business to be transacted. Pay for assembly duty was introduced early in the fourth century, and after that they used the red rope the other way around - to keep people out when the meeting area was full....Any adult male citizen could speak; the right to speak in Assembly, known as parrhesia, was the most precious of all privileges of Athenians. Nevertheless, ordinary citizens rarely used the privilege, leaving it to those active in politics to speak in the Assembly. Such speakers were known as rhetors; they were able to exert special influence without holding public office, simply in virtue of their speaking abilities. (Our word, "rhetoric" derives from their name.)

3. Checks on majority rule. The powers of the Assembly came increasingly to be limited by law. In all periods of Athenian democracy, the Assembly could not vote on any proposal that had not passed through the Council, which corresponds to our legislative committees. The Council was appointed annually by lot, equally from the ten tribes. It represented a cross section of Athenians, and it would normally keep illegal proposals from coming to a vote.

The mature, fourth-centruy democracy distinguished between legislation and policy decisions - between making or revising law and what the Athenians simply called "voting matters" (usually translated "decrees"). Proposals on voting matters had to be consistent with basic law - with what we would call the constitution of Athens. If you put an unconstitutional proposal to the vote, you could be brought to court under an accusation known as graphe paranomon (indictment for violating law). Any citizen could block your proposal from taking effect by making such an accusation. The matter would then be adjudicated in court between you and your accuser. If you were guilty, you would pay a fine; if the accuser was found frivolous, he would be penalized.

Legislation could be framed only by a representative body that was chosen by lot; this legislative panel was known as the Nomothetai. If the Assembly wished to modify the laws, it would have to refer the matter to this body. If the legislative panel approved a modification to the laws, that would then come to the Assembly for a vote.

4. Lottery. The lottery was used to select citizens from panels, selected each year from the ten tribes. The selection process ensured that every tribe was equally represented. The lottery was used for juries, for the Council of 500, and for the legislative panel. The lottery depended on the assumption that anyone who had passed scrutiny and taken the appropriate oath would know enough to exercise power appropriately in these settings, where more time was set aside for discussion and debate than in the Assembly.

5. Elections. Some important positions were filled by election, especially those that required expert knowledge in military or financial affairs. The ten generals were elected mainly to lead military expeditions, but some of them had influence on foreign affairs and domestic matters. The generals commanded obedience in the field, but they could be recalled by vote of the Assembly at any time, and they could pay heavily for failure. The Assembly was capable of condemning them to exile and even death.

In the second phase of democracy, elections were used more often for critical functions - such as the management of funds - that were not wisely left to amateurs.

6. Accountability. On leaving office, a magistrate would have his record examined in a process called euthunai (setting things straight).

If a leader had committed an indictable offense, anyone could take him to court at any time. The only limitation was that the accuser would have to put up a substantial deposit, which he would lose if the case was determined to be frivolous.

If one person appeared to be gaining too much power or to be polarizing the city, the citizens could vote to exile him for ten years. The process was called ostracism.

Woodruff goes on to identify 7 key requirements of democracy in his opinion. They are:

1. Freedom from tyranny
2. Harmony
3. The Rule of Law

4. Natural Equality

5. Citizen Wisdom

6. Reasoning without Knowledge

7. Education

I will describe each of these in a subsequent post. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Political Parties & Vigilance

It is not necessary for me to rewrite all that has been said about this subject and how it affects our democracy, there are many and varied opinions available for those prepared to go looking. On this occasion I will just republish a portion of an Op-ed by Catherine Whelan Costen, the former Canadian Action Party President, called Political Parties and Democracy in Canada first published November 19,2006.

The Canadian public continually admonishes politicians because they feel the system is undemocratic or not accountable to the people. I assert that the system was founded with the ability to become more democratic as the country matured, but has not evolved into a more interactive system, in part because those who hold power are reluctant to share that power with the people they serve. Power is given not taken. Democracy is meant to involve the people. The word ‘politics’ was derived from the Greek root ’politeia’ meaning, ‘gathering of citizens’. Oxford Dictionary definition: ‘ORIGIN late Middle English : from Old French politique ‘political,’ via Latin from Greek politikos, from polit?s ‘citizen,’ from polis ‘city.’

It is time politicians understood this and the people gathered to involve themselves in the democracy of our nation, while we still can. Democracy ought to reflect the values, morals and aspirations of the people. As the word political becomes associated with corruption, and high powered games, the people naturally recoil in disgust, leaving a democratic deficit. Through my position with the Canadian Action Party I have witnessed first hand the desperate attempts of the empire builders to block the people from their Constitutional Right to self-government.
Canada is a federal constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy. Comprising ten provinces and three territories, Canada has 308 federal ridings represented by 4 political parties voted into power by the people of Canada. Results of the 39th General Election show that of the 308 ridings, consisting of 30,007,094 citizens, and 23,054,615 eligible voters only 14,908,703 actually voted. That is 64.7% voter turnout, but only 36.3 % of voters voted for the voice represented by the present minority Conservative government. (23.5% of eligible voters voted for the present government) This means that 15,098,391 people in Canada do not have their voice heard, either because they did not qualify to vote or because they voted for another party. 35.3 % of eligible voters have a representative from another party, but the remainder has no voice. 820,875 eligible voters voted for a point of view that is not represented in Parliament. There are 15 registered federal political parties in Canada, Canadian Action Party is one. Everyone of these 15 parties must comply with Elections Canada rules and has the same structure as the others, the only difference is some hold seats in Parliament.

Parties holding seats in Parliament have historically fought against the rights of those parties who do not hold seats. This is a very real form of discrimination against the people of Canada who do not support the elected parties. It is displayed in their conduct during elections when established parties control candidate forums. Candidates (without party seats) are often prevented from offering the public another point of view in ‘all’ candidate debates/forums, either by totally banning other candidates or through biased, moderator-controlled events. Established parties (including the NDP) fight against fair distribution of Canadian tax dollars to the other parties, as is demonstrated with the recent appeal by the Attorney General of the lawsuit fought and won for $1.75 per vote regardless of party size or number of votes. No party with seats has spoken out on the people’s behalf!

‘An Ontario judge has struck down an electoral law that permitted large federal political parties to fill their coffers with public money at the expense of smaller parties.’ But the large political parties do not want competition. They do not want the truth to be exposed or for the people of Canada to have options in this democratic process otherwise they would not be appealing. Yet…

‘The federal government has appealed an Ontario ruling striking down a law that permitted large federal political parties to fill their coffers with public money at the expense of smaller parties.
In a brief filed with the Ontario Court of Appeal, federal lawyers maintain that the small parties should never have been granted legal standing to mount their Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge against the electoral law in the first place… The federal brief also claims that the government was perfectly justified in drafting a law that requires small parties to prove they have achieved a certain level of public popularity before they can receive taxpayers' money.’Superior Court Judge Ted Matlow said it was undemocratic, unequal and stunts the growth of small parties for no valid reason.

The most popular kids in school weren’t always the brightest, and popularity is not the most prudent manner to run the country. Popularity is often dependent on visibility, and if those who do not want a view to be heard can block it, then democracy is blocked by popularity. Blocking of funding prevents alternative parties from ever getting their message to the public. Democracy works best with an informed electorate. Dictatorships, on the other hand, control free speech. Media broadcasting is another area which is dominated by parties with seats in the House.

We are not talking about a child’s game here, we are talking about our the ability as Canadians to make informed decisions regarding how we wish to live in our own country! If the only people allowed to speak are those who actively deny the rights and freedoms of other points of view, then Canadians do not have a real, living democracy. Small political parties, acting in the best interest of the people, are forced to fund their own legal challenges to this grossly unfair system, while the government of the day uses public money to fight against rights that should be guaranteed under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms!

Undemocratic practices include legislation, or changes to existing legislation, that tip the scales in their favour. This is contrary to the best interests of the people of Canada. Our Supreme Court of Canada sanctioned the importance of small parties in Figueroa v Canada (Attorney General) 2003 SCC 37 it said in part…

"The ability of a party to make a valuable contribution is not dependent upon its capacity to offer the electorate a genuine government option. Political parties… act as a vehicle for the participation of individual citizens in the political life of the country. …Marginal or regional parties tend to raise issues not adopted by national parties. Political parties provide individual citizens with an opportunity to express an opinion on the policy and functioning of government.”
So while our democratic rights are enshrined within our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Constitution is a solid document and tool for Canadians, they will remain simple historical documents unless the people of Canada breath life into them by actively using them and insisting that our Parliamentary system involve all the people of Canada. Full transparent, accountability cannot be gained without our vigilance and dedication to demanding it

Catherine is not the only one to press for vigilance, David Kilgour MP (retired) said:-
“All too often in Canada and elsewhere there has been a tendency to equate democracy with the holding of elections, forgetting that democracy must be continuously nurtured – not just once every four or five years. Democracy demands vigilance, and a willingness to pose difficult questions and to take risks. I do not mean by that only taking to the streets to complain about what is wrong, but also advocating constructive alternatives.”

This is a quote you will see on these pages on a regular basis for it encompasses my own opinion exactly. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Saturday, March 14, 2009

8 Principals of Electoral Systems

This post is a generalized look at electoral systems and based upon extracts from the
8 Principals of Electoral Systems as provided to Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform a couple of years ago. It is, I believe just as legitimate a discussion in regard to Federal systems.

An electoral system is legitimate when it reflects the values of the voting public. Even if you’re not happy with the outcome of an election, you can accept it as legitimate if the electoral system is based on principles that most people value.

In effect, legitimacy is the result or consequence of a good electoral system. If a system reflects the seven remaining principles, it is bound to be legitimate.

There are various ways to think about fairness of representation. {they include} demographic representation, proportionality, and representation by population.

Demographic representation means …..for example, in terms of gender, age, ethno-cultural identity and class

Proportionality is achieved when the share or proportion of seats a party wins is equal to the proportion of votes it receives in the election.

Representation by population means that each member of the Legislature represents roughly the same number of people. That’s why ridings in rural areas (with fewer people) cover large geographic areas and those in urban centers (with more people) cover smaller areas.

Quantity & Quality
Quantity of choice and quality of choice are both important features of an electoral system.

Quantity refers to the number of choices you have when you vote and the kind of preferences you can indicate for example, do you get to vote for individuals only, or can you also vote directly for political parties? With some systems, voters choose only one candidate. In others, voters rank the candidates in order of preference

Quality of choice means that you feel that you have a meaningful choice to make when you vote. In other words, you have the opportunity to select from among candidates or parties who represent genuinely different approaches to governing the province.

Political parties
Political parties play an essential role in democracies. Effective parties attract members who share basic beliefs about how the province should be governed. …Political parties are also shaped by the electoral system. A system can be designed to encourage more or fewer parties with seats in the Legislature.

Stable and effective government
“The electoral system should contribute to continuity of government, and governments should be able to develop and implement their agendas and take decisive action when required.”

An effective government can manage the affairs of the province {or Country} and achieve the policy platform set out in its election campaign. A government is also effective if it can make decisions and take action quickly when needed—for example, to deal with emergencies or challenging situations where it is hard to reach an agreement.

In our experience, we often associate stability with single-party majority governments, where one party has a majority of seats in the Legislature.

Other major democracies, including France and Germany, have experience with stable multi-party coalitions, where two or more parties agree to govern together. There are also examples of stable minority governments, which form partnerships or rely on more informal arrangements with other parties to be effective.

There are many elements besides the electoral system that contribute to stable and effective governments. These include the quality of leadership and, in minority or coalition governments, the success of negotiation and compromise.

The Legislature
The Legislature passes laws, votes on motions, and authorizes and oversees spending. Our elected members debate important issues in the Legislature. Discussions can involve argument or agreement, depending on the relationship between the government and the opposition, and the nature of the issues.

An effective Legislature has an effective government and an effective opposition. The opposition parties must be able to watch the government closely and present alternatives to the government’s positions. Question Period is the opposition’s opportunity to ask the Premier {or PM} and government Ministers questions about their policies and hold them accountable. It is a critical part of parliamentary democracy.

Electoral systems are primarily responsible for determining how parties make up the
Legislature. This, in turn, influences how the Legislature functions. Our system in Canada typically produces single-party majority governments and less frequently, minority governments. For example, the federal election on January 23, 2006 produced a minority Conservative government. In many other major democracies, minority or coalition governments are the norm.

Other factors, also affect the workings of the Legislature. These include the rules of the Legislature, party discipline (the party’s influence on how its members vote), and the role of Backbenchers

The Voters
People may be more likely to vote, or participate more generally in the political process, if they:

• have confidence in the electoral system;
• believe their vote will make a difference;
• feel the government cares about their concerns;
• believe that important issues are at stake; and
• feel that voting is part of being involved in civic or public life generally.

Political parties can play an important role in mobilizing people to vote. How well parties do this job may depend, in part, on how the electoral system motivates them. For example, in some systems, parties have an incentive to campaign for every available vote. In other systems, parties have an incentive to campaign strategically, focussing their efforts on the ridings they are most likely to win.

Majority or Minority
With a majority government, it’s easy to identify the party responsible for decisions. In minority or coalition governments, accountability may be a little more complicated. In coalition governments, two or more parties govern together and usually hold between them a majority of seats in the Legislature.

One way our system holds the government accountable is by requiring it to have the confidence or support of the Legislature. When the Legislature loses confidence in a minority government, it can try to defeat it with a motion of non-confidence. This happened at the federal level in November 2005 when the Conservatives, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois united to defeat the Liberal minority government. Parliament was dissolved and an election was called.

Voters can hold governments accountable by not re-electing them, but this may be easier said than done. Under some electoral systems, a party can win more seats from one election to the next, even though its share of the popular vote decreases.

In systems where you vote directly for your local candidate accountability is not always so straightforward. You may like your local member, but not the member’s party; or you may support a party, but not like the party’s local candidate.

Voting is not the only means of holding governments to account. For example, the opposition in the Legislature and the media also play important roles, especially between elections.

That’s the basics, feel free to comment upon what you think of the present system and whether it should be reformed. Those readers in BC will shortly have an opportunity to do just that, I do hope that the voters will do so with a clear idea of the options offered.
I will be expanding upon each of the “8 principals” in future posts. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why I am hung-up on Democracy

I’m going to take up from Rural’s post with this sentence: Canadians know far less about how our democratic system functions than they would like. Even a basic working definition of democracy is hard to come by. For example, the definition my Gage Canadian Dictionary gives is this:

1 a government that is periodically elected and thus controlled by the people who live under it. Under a democracy, the people rule either by direct vote at public meetings or indirectly through the election of certain representatives to govern them. 2 the ideals and principles of such a government, such as equality of rights and opportunities and the rule of the majority. 3 a country, state or community having such a government. 4 the treatment of others as one’s equals.

Quite frankly, that is a pretty bad definition, except maybe for number 4. Democracy is not the equivalent of “majority rule” for example. It is also not guaranteed simply because there are elections. We have elections, but we do not have democracy. I will explore the definitions and requirements of democracy and how it came to be that we no longer have a democracy in later posts. But for now, suffice it to say that it’s pretty bad when our own dictionary defines something as important as democracy so incorrectly. It is symptomatic of a much larger picture of the purposeful and systematic decay of democracy in this country by the proponents of unregulated and rampant market capitalism (the corporatists) and their puppet flunkies (the politicians); in short, of the few and the greedy. I will write much more about this later, and I will also talk about our role in this breakdown too; for indeed – we are all culpable, all responsible. We have all been too easily seduced. My writing on this blog is for the entry-level citizen into this topic; I’m sure I will bore my blog partner to death with such basic stuff – but someone has to write for people like me who are just now realizing that we ignore politics at our peril. I also recommend the writing of Ed Finn as a good introduction to what is going on in Canadian democracy (or rather, what is NOT going on).


The question I want to address now is this one: if democracy isn’t working right now, why keep clinging to it? Perhaps it is not the best system for Canada anymore. As one friend pointed out, democracy started in a city (Athens), not a country, and was the privilege of male citizens only (ie, no women, no slaves, no immigrants). Perhaps democracy can not be done properly in a country as huge as Canada. We have certainly not seen democracy work for our Southern neighbours either. Perhaps human beings are too selfish, as some say. Perhaps we have become too uneducated (which I will likely argue another time). Perhaps it is simply too late.

But as my research unfolds, I see some things that really catch hold of my imagination, some things that re-spark my idealism and my hope for the kind of world I want my children to grow up in. What is most compelling for me is the recognition that democracy is not a perfect system; that it does in fact suffer many flaws. Despite the flaws, however, it is the best system we have ever invented because it is the only one that takes human error into account. As Paul Woodruff wrote in his book First Democracy:

Human beings make mistakes, and human beings are prone to follow their personal interests at the expense of others. So it was for Athens, and so it is for us today. We had better work out a kind of politics that takes error and special interest into account. Democratic practices are the best defense against human weaknesses, and the most important of these is the liberal use of adversary debate. ( p 77) In democracy, there is always a critic around, always a competing leader with arguments for an alternative policy. More than that, democratic ways actually promote the kind of reasoning that we need to use when knowledge fails. (p 176)

Or, as Winston Churchill said even earlier:

Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect... Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." 1947

Democracy is the only system that provides average people like us the right and responsibility to be the directors of our own lives and to come together in a collaborative genius to solve the problems that affect us; to fulfill the basic human needs both for autonomy and for community. There has been a lot of research that shows that human beings experience a greater sense of overall well-being when they practice altruism and active concern for other people; being selfish and greedy is not good for us.* Furthermore, the current paradigm of individualism is destroying our planet, and yet we acknowledge that people suffer endlessly when not respected as individuals. We have to move into a new paradigm that respects that we are both members of a community and individuals in that community (and that the community includes the entire natural world in which we are a part). Democracy can bridge this span, allowing people to speak as individuals on matters that affect everyone – to feel pride and purpose in attending to or fighting for “the common good”, whichever the case may be. Maybe one day simply “attending to” will be enough, but right now, as this blog argues, we have to fight.

Kerans and Kearney, in their book Turning the World Right-Side Up, paraphrase and then quote Benjamin Barber (1984:xv): Individual autonomy is not where people start. They do not find themselves free people and then, on the basis of that freedom, decide to act together democratically. Quite the contrary: acting communally and democratically is how they forge their autonomy as adults:

“Without participating in the common life that defines them and in the decision- making that shapes their social habitat, people cannot become individuals.
Freedom, justice, equality, and autonomy are all products of common thinking and
common living: democracy creates them.” (p 123)

As a mother, and a person, these values are crucial to me; freedom, justice, equality and autonomy. They can only occur within a context of sustainability and community, and the best tool to give full life to all this is democracy. This starts with involvement in our civic lives; with an investment in our common spaces, both literally and figuratively, with the acceptance of our responsibility to let our collective genius do the work that needs to be done. Sustainable and equitable human living can not be forced; it must be created out of the collective will of a people.
Democracy, as practiced in Canada, has never been perfect and currently is close to non-existant as both Rural and I will elucidate in further posts. Massive change is needed. I don’t want to get into how parliament works or doesn’t work because I think it needs to be totally restructured (I question even having a Prime Minister – why not a Federal Council made up of members of each province/territory?), but if we can get the CEO’s (who we did not elect) out of parliament (which indeed we must), if we can address our antiquated electoral system and our tolerance for lying, ignorant and fearful politicians, if we can build a system in which everyone is represented and no majority is able to tyrannize a minority, if we can withstand any economic sanctions leveled at us by other nations while we change our rules of global conduct – then we can move onto building a future for all the generations yet to come. Either way, we can no longer continue to accept “business as usual”. It’s killing us, as Canadians and also as a species, slowly but surely.

We can – we must – become world leaders on this ever-dwindling stage that is our only home, our only planet, our only country. We can’t hide from this. We can no longer afford to be like the buffalo of long ago, blindly rushing toward the cliff in total ignorance, but in our case, taking a whole lot of other species along with us. We, the people, can clean up our act on this planet and build a good life (not an excessive life, not an over-extended life) for every living person, but not without a collective political will – not without democracy.

………but forgotten is the true meaning and purpose of politics, to create and sustain the conditions for community life. Politics was not intended to be the province of money, but the arena wherein individuals could collectively discuss and manage those elements of life that affected the whole of their town, city, or state. In other words, politics was very much about food, water, life, and death, and thus intimately concerned with the environmental conditions that supported the community. When business introduces money into the discourse, it will by its very nature corrupt the dialogue.
~Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce, p. 166

Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Report on Canada’s Democratic Institutions.

This post is based upon the report on “Public Consultations on Canada’s Democratic Institutions and Practices:” as commissioned by our “New” Conservative Government in January of 2007. Whilst the process was questionable, consisting of just 12 largely unpublished forums across the country and a “national survey”; and little new came out of it, it is perhaps worth reading. The 82 page (465kb) PDF report has seen little light of day but would seem to confirm what most of us know intuitively, namely that “there is a sense that politicians are not to be trusted.”

I have taken the time to copy and paste portions of the overview part of the report and post them here in that I believe this report must not gather dust on a shelf but needs to be the basis for change. (The extracts have been reformatted and contain major snips for ease of reading, and my bold highlights, please see the original article for the full unedited report)

The forums explored the engagement of citizens in their society and in democratic institutions, and the efforts of the federal government to consult and involve citizens in its decisions.

Forums Overview
All the forums were presented with essentially the same substantive introduction to the subject of the role of the citizen in democracy, as detailed in the Participants Workbook.
At all forums, participants saw much value in citizens participating in both voluntary organizations and in the democratic process but did not see much relation between the two.
At all forums, participants saw genuine government consultation as highly desirable but voiced unawareness that government actually consulted people.
To the extent that they perceived government consulting the public, participants did not perceive the consultation as genuine
Participants were frequently skeptical, occasionally cynical. They wanted governments to report back to the public on actions take or not taken following consultation exercises. They want to see results or feedback or both, and also more respect. To the extent that they were aware of MPs’ constituency offices, they tended to see potential for such offices to play a helpful role in consulting the public.

Apart from the recurring theme of better, more respectful consultation, another recurring theme was better education. The schools ought to make a stronger effort to teach young people how our democratic system works. This view emerged at every forum, usually eliciting much support.

The House of Commons Forum Overview
The general sense is that people tend to know more about the House of
Commons than the Senate and some other topics, and yet feel that they ought to know more. A desire for more civics instruction in school re-emerges as a theme. Media-reported Question Period figures prominently in what they know.
They have mixed feelings about how much priority Question Period should have among the roles played by MPs. On the one hand, some forum participants felt strongly that the open debate of Question Period is essential to democracy. On the other hand, quite a number of participants called for more decorum, substance, and to some extent cooperation among Members speaking in Question Period. Many participants wanted a stronger hand by the Speaker in ensuring decorum.
When discussing the House of Commons, forum participants placed special emphasis on Members, far more than on the Chamber as a whole or on its Committees. Mistrust of MPs and the House of Commons as a whole figures prominently in what forum participants said. A recurrent theme is that citizens do not always understand MPs, what they say, or the nature of their motives.
Another recurrent theme is skepticism about MPs’ willingness and ability to follow through on promises. MPs are often seen as powerless because of the importance of party lines or merely un-genuine. Quite a number of participants highlighted a conflict between Members’ obligations to their constituents and their obligations to their party line.
Crossing the floor—leaving one party for another— emerged as one of a number of factors arousing mistrust, especially in some of the Western forums.
Participants weighed the right or duty of Members to leave a party in principled disagreement vis-à-vis the desire of Members to leave a losing party for a winning for career-building considerations. One recommendation was to allow Members to become independent but require them to win in a general or byelection before joining another party.

The Senate Forum Overview
Forum discussions of the Senate represented a marked change from discussion of the Commons. The key difference is how much less forum participants felt that they knew about the Senate than about the Commons.
Participants’ previous lack of knowledge about the role and activities of the Senate led to some mixed feelings about the institution. Some misgivings about the utility of the Upper House were paralleled by separate misgivings about Senators being appointed by the Prime Minister instead of being elected. An underlying concern was apprehension about the patronage or partisan basis of selection.
In discussing the Senate, many participants nonetheless embraced the idea of the Upper House as a chamber of sober, second thought and hence as a counterpoint to the Commons.
A sizeable number of participants, especially in the West, were concerned less about the absence of Senate elections or the role of patronage in selection than about the numerical under-representation of the West. Many would like Western representation increased to reflect demographic changes. Many would also like to see parity of regional representation to the benefit of Western and less populated provinces or regions. Yet they were often reluctant to embrace a multilateral process entailing provincial consent for fear of opening a kind of Constitutional Pandora’s Box. “Moderate Senate reform or no Senate reform,” said one Newfoundland and Labrador forum participant, “we don’t want big constitutional change.”
Participants in the western forums tended to be uniform in advocating stronger provincial or regional representation, albeit sometimes with different justifications. Attendees at the forums in Alberta and B.C. were apt to justify greater representation in order to reflect the reality of their increased provincial populations. Attendees at the forums in Saskatchewan and Manitoba were apt to justify their desire for greater representation in terms of the need to have their voice heard.

Political Parties Forum Overview
The general image emerging from the forums is one of parties losing attention and respect from their potential clientele or members. They are generally perceived as non-accountable and, in some instances, as secret.
Parties were generally characterized as not immensely interested in recruiting members or hearing from ordinary citizens. They are perceived as neither good nor especially honest in communicating. Aspersions were cast on the quality, clarity, and ethical integrity of party platforms. Many participants wanted the parties to take the lead in galvanizing and integrating youth. Yet, participants remained doubtful of the integrity of parties.
In the spirit of their skeptical views of political parties, forum participants were unenthusiastic about public funding for party-affiliated foundations or think tanks that would undertake outreach programs to youth or other low participation segments in the electorate. As in the case of the other topics explored at the forums, participants saw a role for schooling and education to encourage an understanding of and participation in political parties.

The Electoral System forum Overview
Given the broad scope of the consultations, participants were not asked to choose one electoral system. They were asked to focus on the broad principles that should underpin the federal electoral system and if there is a need for change. In practice, it was not always easy for participants to prioritize their values. Some participants valued fairness above all, others accountability, and still others effective or stable government, simplicity, or direct links between a Member and a local constituency or community. Some participants placed an equal importance on all of these values as well as on other potential values. Furthermore, participants did not always agree about what each value signified.
For some participants, accountability meant the accountability of governments; for others, it meant the accountability of individual MPs.
In practice, the key sentiment that emerged in the forums was a sense that the Canadian electoral system, defined narrowly as how votes are counted and transformed into seats, is not sufficiently problematic to require fundamental change. The general disinclination to change among forum participants is paralleled by evidence of strong satisfaction with the current system from the survey research, as reported in section 6.3.
Observers attending the forums would likely note tentativeness and mystification in the remarks of participants when discussing electoral systems. Forum participants’ thoughts on electoral systems and their principles seemed more inchoate or preliminary than on other topics. One might conclude either that the public has not yet formed opinions on the electoral reforms it would welcome or has concluded that our system is working well enough as it is.
The strongest case that the public is open to reform rests on comments made at the forums. Many participants said that they were open to change even if they were not currently calling for it. The strongest case that the public opposes change rests on the survey data. Survey respondents reported high levels of satisfaction with the electoral system. Furthermore, they tended to embrace values and principles that favour our current plurality electoral system rather than potential alternatives to it, as discussed in section

Research studies often produce a combination of clear conclusions and
uncertain ramifications. From this study, the clearest substantive conclusions are that Canadians know far less about how our democratic system functions than they would like, and call for greater efforts by provincial governments through Ministries of Education and the federal government through Parliamentary and departmental communications and program efforts to inform Canadians, especially young Canadians, how the system works;
Want to know a lot more about the roles of MPs in consulting the public and in their Committee roles, which the public values highly, than they do about MPs’ roles in Question Period, which Canadians value less and perceive as undermining respect for the House of Commons;
Desire a quantum leap in the quantity and quality of governmental efforts at consulting the public on prospective policies and bills with far greater effort at clear communication and genuine consultation;
Embrace elections to the Senate and are receptive to parity of representation by region while wishing to avoid Constitutional changes that would require provincial consent; express strong satisfaction with our first-past-the-post or plurality electoral system and the values it embodies while being open to considering options for change; and are mistrustful of federal politicians and political parties, whose promises they cannot often trust and whose communications they cannot often understand or identify with.

Participants in the forums arrived at the gatherings with a certain mistrust of politicians. Public mistrust and disrespect in the case of politicians represents an important challenge. In the view of forum participants, public misapprehensions about politicians are a factor driving the long-term decline in voter turnout, participation in parties, and public attentiveness to national issues.
Public misapprehensions about politicians are a major challenge because of the paucity of tools for turning around public sentiment. One tool, recommended by survey respondents and forum participants, is for the leadership in the Commons to exercise more discretion in the tone and demeanour of Question Period. It is unclear what other tools might become available.
The public wants more honest talk from politicians and fewer promises that are not kept.
Politicians can change their conduct to help enhance the public regard in which they are held. But changing the public image of politicians may require the efforts of more than politicians alone. As both the forum participants and the survey data showed, federal and provincial efforts at educating and informing citizens about the democratic process would help produce a more informed public. The media may also have a role to play, strengthening their reporting on the elements of the Parliamentary process that the public values and respects highly (e.g. Committees and public consultations) and downplaying elements that are valued less (Question Period). Canadians value their democratic institutions but want improvements. Too often, there is a sense that politicians are not to be trusted. The degree of public misapprehension is remarkable given that politicians are meant to represent the public interest and paradoxical given that politicians are often ordinary, nonelected citizens for years before embarking on Parliamentary service.

Looking to the future, the ability of Canadians to draw comfort, satisfaction, and pride from our democratic institutions will depend in no small measure on the country’s ability to strengthen bonds of trust between citizens and the people elected to serve them.


In short, our citizens do not trust our politicians, know little about our parliamentary system and do not believe that what little “public consultation” that takes place is genuine.
They do however want to know more, believe that our children must be taught more about our electoral and parliamentary system and want “a quantum leap” in the quantity and quality of governmental communication with the public.

This almost exactly mirrors our own feelings and is why this blog was started. The only surprise was that the participants did not see our electoral system as a major part of the problem. I will be exploring each of these issues further in future articles, meanwhile let us know what YOU think. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

About us & Submitting articles

We are a pair of concerned citizens from opposite sides of this country who are trying to highlight how fragile our democracy is and the need to protect what we have and build upon that. We both believe that for any positive change to take place it must be done within the democratic framework; however, as our rights and the public's participation are gradually eroded this is becoming harder and harder. This then is an effort to halt that erosion by education and open debate.

Part of our concern is, in our view, the ever increasing partisanship and internal lack of democracy of our political parties, and so we will endeavor to be as non-partisan as possible in our articles and commentary.
We intend to seek and re-publish articles and opinions about Canadian Democracy, voice our own opinions upon the dangers of doing nothing, and highlight the actions of those that are supporting or attacking it.

We will initially be concentrating upon the Federal scene, the what's and why's of Canadian Democracy and the need for all Canadians to be more educated about it, the actions of our MP's in the House of Commons and the The Senate, Federal electoral rules and reform, and items in the news that have a bearing on those subjects. If you feel you would like to join us in this endeavor please contact us at democracyunderfire@gmail.com.

Submission Guidelines

All posts, comments and articles must adhere to the principals of common human decency and be non-violent in that they are not discriminatory, inflammatory or disrespectful to individuals, other bloggers or groups of people in any way. We can all agree to disagree, but we must do it with good manners. We can also be critical of politicians and those that have the ear of government; indeed the scope of this blog demands it. That too, we can do with good manners (ie, not attacking anyone personally – just their actions, policies and agendas as they affect Canadians).

We ask that all posts or articles submitted reflect honest and accurate information. One of the purposes of this blog is to open up dialogue and debate about democracy in Canada, but we do have a specific purpose, which is to expose the reality that our democratic institutions are no longer working in the way that was originally intended, and we will not publish work that undermines this purpose. Our agenda is to educate ourselves and our fellow Canadians about what is really happening in parliament and politically in this country at this time. To this end, we will not knowingly propagate any mis-information.

Any and all submissions will be carefully considered. However we cannot guarantee that we will publish all articles submitted or invite all those interested to become a guest blogger. If we reject your submissions we will certainly take the time to tell you why. We are not anticipating doing much of this; we want to create an open space for re-claiming democracy in Canada and we really hope you will join us. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers