Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Canada's Eroding Democracy

The older I've gotten, the less faith I have in Canadian democracy.  In fact, I would contend that Canada may be the most undemocratic country in the industrialized, democratic world.  Why?  Well, where should I start?  How about our electoral system?

Canada is one of the few industrialized democracies that still uses the winner-take-all, first-past-the-post voting system.  This is a system that allows one party that wins less than half of the national vote to hold more than half of the seats in a legislature and 100% of the power.  It's like electing a one-party dictatorship for up to five years, or whenever the Prime Minister or provincial premier sees fit to call an election.  We inherited this method of voting from our former British colonial masters.  But even Britain has begun to move away from this system.  The parliaments of Scotland and Wales now use a form of proportional representation, as do most of Europe's democracies.  Most recently, Chile has moved to adopt a more proportionate electoral system.  I can only dream of the day when a party that contests provincial or federal elections in Canada and wins twenty percent of the vote, wins twenty percent of the seats.  Then again, reforming this country's antiquated electoral system is only one change we should be making.

We also need to re-democratize the federal parliament and provincial legislatures that we vote for.  For as long as I can remember, legislatures in Canada have been ruled by fear, or more specifically by ironclad party discipline imposed by autocratic party leaders.  MPs or MPPs who don't vote the way their party leadership tells them to vote can find themselves kicked out of caucus in the blink of an eye.  This excessive party discipline has turned our federal parliament and provincial legislatures into rubber stamps, where nearly every vote is a forgone conclusion because it's almost always considered a confidence vote that can bring down a government if the nays outweigh the yeas.  And who is the most dictatorial of all party leaders?  Our prime ministers and provincial premiers, of course!  Since nearly every vote at the federal or provincial level is considered a confidence motion, the leader of the party who also heads the government must keep his or her MPs or MPPs in line.  If not, there could be a new election, and of course no one wants to risk their highly-coveted seats if they don't have to. 

The fact of the matter is that all major policy decisions at the federal or provincial level are not made by the lowly MPs and MPPs sitting in the backbenches; they are made behind the closed doors of the cabinet.  Contrast this with Israel, the other country whose political system I am most familiar with.  Ministers in the Israeli government are hardly ever in lockstep with the Prime Minister.  In fact, even though they may be in the same government, it usually seems like they're at each others' throats on a daily basis.  Descent within a government, not to mention the discord between ordinary parliament members, is always on public display in Israel.  But here in Canada, the thoughts, words and deeds of cabinet members are closely guarded secrets.  In fact, the only other forms of government that I can think of, which are more secretive than Canada's, are those of communist China and the former Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, the way government works in Canada is very unlikely to change, simply because Canadians don't want it to.  Resistance to political change is ingrained in the Canadian psyche.  Heck, Canadians have been resisting political change all the way back to the American Revolution when the residents of Upper and Lower Canada decided to remain loyal to the British Empire rather than revolt against it.  Canadians on average are just not the kind of people who want to rock the boat.  So for those of us who want more democratic elections, legislators that are accountable to us, the voters, instead of their party leadership, or more open government that doesn't resemble the politburo of some communist country, I guess we'll just have to keep on dreaming. 

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