Thursday, April 7, 2011

Do We Really Want Democracy?

Currently, Western countries are giving armed support to countries in the Arab World with the aim to create democracies desired by many people in these countries. Now, whether these countries will actually become democratic is yet to be seen but the message we are sending is that democracy is such an important institution we are willing to make great efforts to help others achieve this goal. Yet when we look at what is occurring in North America one has to ask if democracy is really that important to us and do we even approach democratic ideals.

A federal election has just been called in Canada, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leader of a minority government has been judged in contempt of parliament and defeated in a vote of non-confidence, triggering a new election. Harper claims this election was irresponsible and unwanted by Canadians. The media promotes this idea taking as fact the notion that Canadians have had too many elections in recent years. It should be noted though, that the last election was 3 years ago, only a year earlier than a normal election cycle and our new fixed election date. This makes Harper’s claim that things are too unstable to have an election and government change now even more disturbing as one wonders, if he had a majority government than cannot be voted down, if he would try to delay an election if his prospects did not look good? The sadder fact is that the public is either buying the line or is actually of that opinion. Harper’s other scare tactic is the fact that, a year ago, the three opposition parties attempted to form a coalition government that would constitute a majority of the seats in parliament. This would allow them to defeat the Harper government without having another election. Many people, mainly conservatives, considered this a perversion of democracy and the constitution, despite the fact it has been done many times before, is fully constitutional, and would actually represent the views of a majority of voters, unlike the current situation. As it happened, Harper arranged to dissolve parliament to prevent the government from being voted down, and the coalition ended up falling apart before parliament resumed. Now he has pulled the idea out of nowhere that the opposition has a secret plan to form a coalition after this election. Never mind that when his party was the opposition in a minority government he is on record attempting to form a coalition of his own with the same smaller parties for the exact same purpose.

If people really believe a coalition is bad for democracy, I think they need to review elementary school math. The conservatives had 40% of the vote in the last election. 8% of voters are excluded because they voted for the Green party which did not get any seats in parliament because no individual candidate was able to win a race. That leaves 52% of voters who voted for the 3 parties involved in the coalition. Now, do you think it is more consistent with democratic values to have policy decided by 40% of the population or by 52% of the population (hint: 52 is more than 40)?

Then there is the issue of being in contempt of parliament. Harper refused to provide parliament with information detailing the cost of several major government spending plans, including the purchase of new top-of-the line fighter jets, building many additional prisons, and a program of corporate tax cuts. Aside from whether these are good ideas, it can’t be denied that these are evidently going to cost large amounts of money. Therefore one would assume that it should be necessary to show exactly how much this will cost before deciding whether this should be done. The speaker of the house, a parliamentary committee and the full parliament all ruled the government in contempt and Harper’s response is that this is all political games and “you win some, you lose some”. That is an actual quote. This goes along with an increasing trend of extreme secrecy in government decisions, adding a level of political control to the civil service and a great unwillingness to have any meaningful negotiations with the opposition. Yet according to a recent poll, only 14% of Canadians believe that ethics and accountability is the main election issue. Do we really not care that democracy is eroding away? It is understandable the economy is still a pressing concern but this disinterest, combined with the apparent unwillingness of Canadians to have an election, seems to suggest that Canadians just don’t care about government or having their voice heard. Meanwhile people are risking their lives to get a say in their political lives. Now one reason frequently cited is that people don’t like any of the candidates. Unfortunately, this cynicism reinforces itself within the political process. Anyone who might be an able and likeable politician would have no desire to take part, and even if they did would probably be shut down by party insiders that have a very complex system of internal politics that can get very nasty.

Another thing to consider. We are all very adamant about our rights as citizens and have every reason to insist that our rights are respected. But when it comes to responsibilities, whether it be taxes, jury duty, volunteering or even voting, everyone starts to complain and do everything they can to avoid fulfilling these responsibilities. You cannot have one without the other, because whenever you have a right, it becomes the responsibility of someone else to ensure that you have that right. What do you have if you remove all your responsibilities? You have anarchy, because in a society without law or government there is nothing you are required to do. But this means there is also no requirement to provide any rights to anyone else so you will not have any rights in an anarchy either. In dictatorships you also have few responsibilities, but also few rights, because the dictator has pretty much taken on all rights and responsibilities and only gives any to the people at his/her pleasure. It follows then that there must always be a balance between rights and responsibilities. If we have more rights, there will be more responsibilities we need to take on. When you complain about having to pay taxes or when you do not want to vote, you are contributing to a situation where you will have fewer rights. The United States right now serves as a great example. Republicans and the Tea Party gained a great deal of support by promoting the idea that Americans have too many taxes and too much government. And what has happened since then? Both the federal House and Republican controlled state governments are trying to take rights away from unions, gays, women, the poor and everyone they can think of who is not part of a privileged class. They are willing to cut the most basic of services but not ask a very lightly taxed populace to pay even a tiny bit more. This shows that when the government decides that neither they nor private individuals or corporations have to be held to responsibilities, everybody’s rights tend to disappear.

So what can we do about all this. This most important thing that I can suggest is to gladly accept one’s responsibilities as a citizen. This means taking part in the democratic process, accept that we pay taxes for an important and necessary reason and appreciate that these sometimes annoying tasks are necessary to maintain a just and free society. And if you feel that the government does not represent you, do what you can to get more involved. This doesn’t necessarily mean going into politics yourself, but attending debates and forums, communicating directly with your politicians or supporting candidates who are trying to improve things. It may be frustrating since sometimes you can do all these things and nothing changes, but at least you have done your best - maybe if more people do the same things might actually start to change. But letting political leaders do whatever they want with no oversight and increasing secrecy as long as they don’t ask you to do anything is not beneficial to a democracy.


  1. Nice post! It sure got this politically jaded person thinking. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, JR. I would for the most part consider myself politically jaded as well, even cynical. But that doesn't mean we can justify sitting on the sidelines, especially when what seems to be at stake is more than policy direction or spending decisions, but the actual foundations of democracy. I think the trick is to know when you are dealing with the usual partisan bickering and when there is something more important at stake.