Sunday, September 27, 2009

Random Musings on the Fall of Democracy

I took in the MacLeans Democracy Roundtable on Wednesday, and thoroughly enjoyed it. There were at least half a dozen ideas and points raised that would make good blog post subjects in their own right, but rather than elaborate on each of them, I'll just throw up a bunch of random musings from the event:

1. Paul Wells described Question Period (the House of Commons one, not the CTV one) as "the malignant growth on our democracy" or something of the sort. And it does seem that QP is one of the most obvious examples of the problems in our system. So, on that count, I completely like Wells' suggestion of extending question and answer time to 45 seconds (why not a minute?), and only requiring the PM to be there one day a week.

2. It was pointed out that the only time our leaders have gone on TV in the past decade has been to explain why they should be allowed to keep governing. I like the idea of taking a page from the US and having the Prime Minister go on prime time more often to discuss the issues of the day. I know, I know, whenever you say "taking a page from the US", it means the idea won't go anywhere in Canada. And some people will be annoyed that it might bump "Dancing with the Stars" every now and then. But if Canadians saw our leaders talking about serious issues every now and then, maybe they'd be inclined to take them a bit more seriously.

3. Although those ideas are great, Wells did toss out one lead balloon - having caucus pick their leader and review their leadership. Eddie Goldenberg quite rightly pointed out that maybe having the Liberal leader always picked by Ontario MPs isn't the best thing for a national party, and I shudder to think of the behind the scenes horse trading that would go on for support. But, most of all, if you want to engage Canadians in the democratic process, you need to give them more of a say, not less of one. And giving average Canadians the right to buy a membership and vote for party leaders is a way to get them engaged in the democratic process...I really fail to see the benefit of taking that away from them.

4. John Ralston Saul tended to meander off into irrelevant rambling at least 80% of the time. But he did bring up two very valid points. First, that the problem with our debate is one of content, not tone. If politicians debated ideas, there'd be nothing wrong with raucus debate. Secondly, that young people are active in a wide range of organizations - but they need to actually join political parties and run for office so as to change our political system from within.

5. There was general consensus the media has done a bad job covering politics over the past few years...even by the media on the stage.

6. There is no problem too big or too small that Ed Broadbent doesn't believe can be solved by either tax increases or proportional representation. I'm not dead-set against PR, but I do take issue with Ed chastising Liberals and Conservatives for not leading the charge for PR. The fact is, two Liberal Premiers held referendums on the topic and let the people decide. Broadbent feels they didn't push harder because the current system benefits them. Which is true. But you also have to acknowledge that one of the reasons NDP and Green supporters are so keen on PR is that it's a system that would hugely benefit their parties. So everyone is thinking a little bit about their own best interests and I think McGuinty and Campbell deserve credit for facilitating the debate on a topic that could ultimately hurt them.

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  • Excellent analysis. I wasn't able to see the debate, but I agree with all your points - especially with PR, though I am probably more against it than you are.

    Keep it up!

    By Anonymous Kyle H, at 9:39 p.m.  

  • The Maclean's debate should be on CPAC starting at 10 p.m. Eastern.

    I do understand the idea of MPs of a party picking the party leader. It makes the leader accountable to the party MPs and gives those same MPs more power. You and Eddie Goldenberg are correct that we could have a situation where Ontario MPs pick the leader of the Liberal Party; no MP from Toronto would pick a Conservative leader.

    Yes, John Ralston Saul does ramble on about the Canada came into existence because of the tri-partite understanding among the Russian aristocracy, Maori elders, and the Africans who can make those clicking noises with their tongues. He does make an interesting point that young people should become more involved in political parties. However, the political parties are not structured to give young people a decent share of power. Young people are only meant to deliver pamphlets and hammer candidate signs into lawns.

    I do think that Canada and its provinces do need some form of proportional representation. Which system? I don't know. I will write that the provincial NDP in BC were "neutral" about STV for BC. Two of the leaders of the No STV campaign were strong NDP supporters. On the federal level, the NDP does support proportional representation. I think it's stated on page 191 in section 25q-subsection ix of the Orange Book.

    In the next federal election, I won't be voting.

    By Blogger Skinny Dipper, at 10:00 p.m.  

  • You can watch the CPAC debate online, in the on demand section. I watched it there and they should have one of those every few months because the turnout and response seemed quite positive, on top of which it was very interesting! Funny enough, there was also the same public forum style debate on CBC Radio this morning on The Sunday Edition titled "Canada's Dysfunctional Politics", is There a Cure For Our Failing Democracy", available at . Its good to see all the negative energy in politics of the past few years finally coming out in constructive ways.

    By Anonymous Mr.E, at 10:15 p.m.  

  • i think you owe Mr Saul an apology. He never meanders off into irrelevant rambling in person, he saves that for his books.

    By Anonymous Luke, at 10:35 p.m.  

  • I don't know if Luke is writing to me. If so, I'll say, "Sorry."

    By Blogger Skinny Dipper, at 10:48 p.m.  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger daveberta, at 10:52 p.m.  

  • Reading your post, Dan, I get the feeling that this was more a discussion about 'politics' than it was about 'democracy.' These are two very different concepts.

    I would argue that the largest issue facing 'democracy' is that Canadians by large don't feel they are getting value out of participating in the political system as it now exists. As far as politics is concerned, MPs will still continue to contently be re-elected regardless of how low citizen participation through voter turnout drops.

    On your description of Ralston Saul's comment, isn't it a little naive of us to simply expect that young people will automatically buy-in to a political system that is dominated by a previous generation who held different priorities and values. There are young people who are passionate about any kind of issue you could imagine, but that doesn't mean that they will see value in participating in the currently existing political structure.

    Should it really be a question of what needs to change to bridge the disconnect that people feel with how they are governed?

    Anyway... those are my thoughts...

    - Dave

    By Blogger daveberta, at 11:01 p.m.  

  • balloon, not baloon; raucus, not rockus. Perhaps a pedantic quibble, but misspelling can decrease the impact of your ideas.

    The latter term, "rockus", might mean the intention of those being raucus, however...; )

    By Blogger Party of One, at 11:06 p.m.  

  • Also, just on a point of clarification, is John Ralston Saul's surname 'Saul' or 'Ralston Saul'? Is Ralston his middle name?



    By Blogger daveberta, at 11:06 p.m.  

  • Ralston's his middle name. There's another author (of hack fiction, I think) named John Saul, so this reduces the confusion. In French he rarely uses the Ralston.

    By Blogger Paul Wells, at 12:46 a.m.  

  • How many NDP premiers have held referenda on PR?

    By Anonymous pr sucks the big one, at 12:59 a.m.  

  • Imagine that you and everyone you know were passionately involved in our democracy. Imagine that issues of democratic health were discussed regularly around the water cooler and during coffee breaks at your workplace and at your dinner table at home.

    Now imagine the backdrop and context that would be required for that act of imagination to be reality.

    It's all about the politics isn't it?

    We have political parties and organizations that think nothing of lying to us - both to our faces and through the subservient, compliant media. And if they happen to be found out in their lies, they lie about that too - through the subservient, compliant media.

    Not only is democracy in big trouble here - it's in big trouble everywhere.

    And there's no reasonably viable alternative that doesn't involve authoritarianism and the utter destruction of the core democratic ideas of citizenship. And that's *all* politics.

    All in all it's a very good time to be approaching old age.

    In another quarter century I wouldn't want to be here.

    Luckily I almost certainly won't be.

    My only hope now is that the destruction and decline doesn't accelerate too much before I get to shuffle off.

    Add in climate change and the picture of life in the future is as goddamn bleak as the most dystopian novel you were never able to finish due to depression.

    Good fuckin' luck.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:23 a.m.  

  • Having caucus decide the leader has exactly the problems you describe. What about a party that gave the same power to a group made up of caucus and un-elected candidates from the last general election?

    Motivation for better local candidates (and therefore greater membership) even in "unwinnable" ridings, and you balance out the regional thing in a way that reflects the kind of regional support the leader needs to be successful nationally.

    Is that equally offensive?

    By Blogger Gauntlet, at 1:29 a.m.  

  • I have yet to watch the whole discussion; thanks for the summary. I was disappointed by those parts which I did hear. Especially that points were being suggested and never properly challenged.

    I am eternally disappointed by people who say "my vote didn't count": the failure is in their understanding, not in the system. Their vote did count, and it did matter. And not because it's worth so much to the Party with which the candidate was affiliated. At the end of the day, each MP is elected to represent ALL of their constituents: their margin of victory has a strong influence over how they act.

    I'm also disappointed by those who claim that so-and-so doesn't have legitimacy because they were elected by (say) 35% of the voters: Those who chose to not vote implicitly voted to respect the outcome of the election, the same as those who are not eligible to vote. It is not true to say that 65% of voters voted against that individual: we do not "vote against" on a ballot; rather, all we can say is that even smaller proportions of the population voted for any other candidate.

    If politicians want a different system (PR, runoff, etc), let them form their coalition BEFORE the election and take it to the people, not change their platform after the votes have been cast. The point of governing is to pass laws which reflect the will of the people, not to endlessly debate every fringe extreme: including every last viewpoint runs counter to efficient government. What would "break" democracy more than governing on a different platform than that on which the (coalition) was elected?

    And if QP is such a problem, let the politicians amend the Rules of Order to simply get rid of it. My own preference would be for Ministers to be compelled to appear before corresponding Parliamentary Committees on a regular basis.

    As for media coverage, I'm encouraged by one of the newer shows on CPAC, "On the Bright Side", which aims to cover more of the behind-the-scenes co-operation and contributions by all of the Parties on the Hill.

    By Blogger Paul, at 1:35 a.m.  

  • @Gauntlet- let's consider a few different systems for selecting a Party Leader:

    1) The Elected MPs choose a leader from among themselves. Therefore, areas of the country which elected other Parties are not eligible, and excellent candidates from within the Party who were unsuccessful are excluded from eligibility.

    2) The whole Caucus chooses the leader from among themselves: as in (1), but you have Senators contributing to the selection. They probably wouldn't be eligible to be chosen leader, however.

    3) All of the candidates (elected or not) from across the country vote on the Party Leader. This would resolve the regional underrepresentation from above, but just because a candidate failed in the most recent previous election doesn't necessarily make them the best qualified to represent their riding in selecting a Party Leader, or in serving in such a capacity.

    4) Each riding identifies a number of individuals who will vote on their behalf for a Party Leader, who may be selected from Caucus or from the general Party Membership. Delegates may be committed to a particular candidate (so that the members know how they will be represented) or may be "free" to exercise their own judgment on ballot day (likely, to vote according to their predetermined but unadvertised disposition).

    5) Each Party Member across the country is eligible to vote for their Party Leader. Each vote is counted equally, so regions with high membership outweigh regions with low membership.

    6) Each Party Member across the country is eligible to vote for their Leader, but the votes are weighted by region (by riding) to "strengthen the voice" of the under-represented areas.

    I'm not sure I see how your suggestion is better, or more democratic, than a more broadly delegated convention: why does a smaller number of delegates per riding improve the result?

    Among all the options, which would be most democratic? Which provides the best results?

    The discussion leaves me thinking that some are hiding under the label of "democracy" in an attempt to impose their own will over the majority.

    By Blogger Paul, at 1:52 a.m.  

  • Canadians by large don't feel they are getting value out of participating in the political system as it now exists

    There are things about the Tories I like, and a lot I don't like. Same for the Liberals. So why bother voting? Picking which one is better strikes me as an absurd exercise because even if one party had 6 out of 10 good policies and the other 4 out of 10, not every bill before Parliament is going to neatly fall into those 10 categories. In fact, not even most. One could say, "well you vote for an ideology" but these parties are not ideologically distinct. For example, the Tories are accusing Ignatieff of being too American. Is that a left or right wing charge? Government spending increases have been more or less the same with both of them.

    If there were more parties there would be a party that matched my interests and I'd be keen to vote. But first past the post systems force everything into a two party system where everything gets compromised to the point that I could just as well go over to the other party.

    their margin of victory has a strong influence over how they act.

    Tell that to GWB after he beat Al Gore.

    By Blogger Brian Dell, at 3:26 a.m.  

  • Did Ed Broadbent offer an opinion as to why the NDP governments in Manitoba and Nova Scotia are not moving toward PR? This is a multipartisan failure to reform the system.

    By Blogger Greg, at 6:24 a.m.  

  • I think McGuinty and Campbell deserve credit for facilitating the debate on a topic that could ultimately hurt them.

    I would agree with you if they were debate facilitators, but they are supposed to be our leaders. I think referenda are a dead end and the only way were are ever going to get it is if one of the governing parties champion it (and that includes the NDP). That's why, though not impossible, the establishment of PR in Canada faces some pretty long odds.

    By Blogger Greg, at 6:31 a.m.  

  • I have to disagree about the process for choosing leaders. While OMOV is more "democratic", it also gives rise to a whole host of other problems - instant members, meeting stacking, special interest groups signing up en masse. We've seen this countless times in Liberal and Tory leadership races. While there's always the fear of "horse trading" going on behind the scenes, the reason this is defensible is because whatever the ultimate result is, the public can pass judgment at the next election. That's where accountability comes. If the entire public is, theoretically, supposed to be allowed to have a say in choosing a party leader, and the only criterion for doing so is a ten dollar membership card, why have political parties at all?

    I don't think we'll ever go back from OMOV, as any alternative is easily shouted down as undemocratic, but in my view having delegated leaderships or caucus elect the leader would restore some internal balance into parties - I can't see the level of centralized power we've seen accrue over the last 20 odd years in the PMO continue apace if the leadesr are actually beholden to caucus.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:48 a.m.  

  • Greg - I guess Broadbent's general response (to put words in his mouth) would be that those NDP governments (Man and NS) were elected under FPTP so it's not in their interests to change the system. At least, that would be his proper response.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 9:49 a.m.  

  • dave - I think some of the political changes being discussed would be intended to improve democracy. Presumably, if politicians debates ideas more, people would feel their vote mattered. Ditto for PR. If local MPs were more empowered, there would be more insentive to write to local MPs.

    Or were you getting at something else?

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 9:52 a.m.  

  • Why are we asking people who are already engaged in our democracy what the problems are with it?

    Let's ask the ~50% of the population that is completely disengaged.

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 10:09 a.m.  

  • paul.obeada@ has mentioned something that is rarely talked about. When we vote, we vote for someone . . . we can't vote against anybody. When we don't vote, we say we like all the candidates equally.

    We like to talk about voting for the leaders of the parties. Remember, our vote is local; only people in the leader's riding get to vote for them.

    If we choose not to vote, why would you complain when the election results come in . . . you didn't care who won.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:40 a.m.  

  • Greg - I guess Broadbent's general response (to put words in his mouth) would be that those NDP governments (Man and NS) were elected under FPTP so it's not in their interests to change the system. At least, that would be his proper response.

    I suspect you are right, but I would reply that party interest and the interest of a health democracy may not mesh as neatly as he is implying.

    By Blogger Greg, at 10:44 a.m.  

  • Excellent post. Does it concern you at all that as an old Reformer from Alberta, this post sounds like it could have been written by one of us?!?

    By Anonymous Brian, at 11:29 a.m.  

  • Brian - yes.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 1:23 p.m.  

  • "Excellent post. Does it concern you at all that as an old Reformer from Alberta, this post sounds like it could have been written by one of us?!?"

    And have you ever worried that a Grit in Calg'ry might be a Tory in TeeOhh?

    By Blogger Paul, at 4:16 p.m.  

  • Even if EVERYBODY voted in ALL elections, we wouldn't have real democracy.

    Elections aren't so much democratic as they are validations, mainly of the status quo. Does anybody REALLY think voting once every four years is democratic? Consider all the decisions made in your name that YOU didn't vote for.

    Arguably, right now, with the minority government situation, and voting every 12-18 months, is more democratic than if we had a majority government, and didn't get to vote for another 4 or 5 years.

    If we're going to have elections every year anyway (apparently), wouldn't it be better to adopt the system of rolling elections, electing a quarter of our representatives every year? We're in a constant political cycle anyway, we might as well formalize it. And can you imagine how moderate some of our more extreme parties would have to become?

    By Blogger Party of One, at 5:38 p.m.  

  • In German elections yesterday, the FDP gained 93 seats but did not gain a single seat under the first past the post system (the Germans have a two vote system where by one is cast under a FPTP process and the other proportionally).

    In other words, the party would not exist but for the PR system. And, indeed, libertarian parties are fringe parties in FPTP system. Libertarians essentially have to vote for either big government or politicians like Joe "You Lie!" Wilson. No intelligent option.

    By Blogger Brian Dell, at 6:23 p.m.  

  • How about reducing the power of the whip, and promoting more free-votes on non-confidence measures (I heard someone promote that before)? Empower our individual MP's more.

    The party and the message is so controlled and managed that it doesn't even seem like a real process to people on the outside....

    Nobody wants to get involved or is passionate about something that feels like an automated phone message.

    Maybe we need some blackberry referendums or online policy forums, similar to policywiki, but within the decision making process.

    I also think, although I have reservations, that mandatory voting could improve things. It would at least force politicians to pretend to speak for everyone, instead of simply focusing on group targeting..

    Although these things might improve our system, I think the premise that our democracy is broken is false. It is a fluid and evolving dynamic system as it's designed to be, and 50 years from now people will still be asking these types of questions,.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:30 a.m.  

  • @darcymeyers: I would like to support your idea of reducing the Central Authority which each Party manifests over its MPs (not just within the Governing Party).

    Does anyone happen to have quick stats on how many votes (other than Confidence matters) were Whipped by each caucus in the current Parliament? My own uninformed gut thinks the percentages may have gone down over the past five or ten years (although the Party Unity may not reflect it in the voting patterns - I seem to recall a large percentage of votes under Paul Martin's administration having been whipped, but I'd like to see the numbers). (Note: I have a difficult time discerning whether any NDP vote is ever Whipped, as their caucus tends to align its collective mind on most issues. They are not completely alone in that regard. Hence the call for actual facts which might only be known privately within each Party.)

    By Blogger Paul, at 3:14 a.m.  

  • First..

    Paul Wells described Question Period (the House of Commons one, not the CTV one) as "the malignant growth on our democracy" or something of the sort.

    This also accurately describes the CTV one.

    Which leads me to...

    5. There was general consensus the media has done a bad job covering politics over the past few years...even by the media on the stage.

    This is a major problem which needs more attention. Many of the problems mentioned during the debate, I would argue, are not problems at all but symptoms of the extremely poor media coverage.

    Might I suggest the next debate be "Our national media is broken. How do we fix it?"

    By Blogger me dere robert, at 2:25 p.m.  

  • "Our national media is broken. How do we fix it?"

    Blame the viewers. Or the non-readers. Blame You-Tube. And the volume of the noise from thousands of individuals making their own voices heard, thinning the corporate message.

    No, wait, that last one is one of the things we're saying is wrong with our democracy.

    By Blogger Paul, at 3:13 a.m.  

  • This can't succeed as a matter of fact, that is exactly what I believe.

    By Anonymous un sex shop, at 9:56 a.m.  

  • By Blogger yanmaneee, at 11:51 p.m.  

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