The Black Hole of Canada's 41st Election
Posted March 30, 2011
Previous article: 5 Things Bringing Us Closer to the Future of WALL-E
Next article: How You Can (and why you should) Make Government Work
I am doing something I hoped to never do, and I'm breaking a self imposed rule to do this. I'm writing about the toxic mire of federal politics. Many seek to get involved in it with lofty hopes of a better Canada, but often the last thing anyone discusses is the policy to bring us there. I had a rule to avoid the topic because in many ways it runs contrary to this site. Thoughtful discussion, approaching complex issues matter-of-factly and reaching conciliatory and unifying ways forward, the goals I aspire to with my writing on this site, are concepts in short supply at the federal level, if they even exist at all.
Yet here I am, putting pen to paper, well, pixels to web page, to write about it. I'm making the very bad assumption that somehow I can emerge from a conversation about federal politics without sinking into the abyss of spin and partisanship-above-all-else that many others have slipped into. In other words, I'm foolish, but please do humour me and entertain my observations about the black hole that Canada's 41st election would appear to be.
With the election campaign kicking off I've spent some time reflecting on elections prior. Looking back, there's always one thing that makes me cringe more than anything else. In the televised party leader debates, questions are posed from average Canadians and one question in particular (or some form of it) invariably comes up. "What will you do to stop voter apathy and get people voting?". It's a fantastic question, but if I was cringing when it was asked in previous federal leader debates, this time around I will probably enter into a full blown seizure.
I cringe because the answers to address apathy seem obvious, but the leaders hop, jump and skip around those answers, attempting to sell debate viewers to the idea that their party's particular brand of policy that year will inspire Canadians and bring them back to the polls. I cringe because I simply can't buy that the leaders actually believe their own answers. They either do not get the reasons for voter apathy and their involvement in it or they just don't care to address those reasons.
Many of us are apathetic because we have grown cynical that we can make any difference. No matter who we elect, our governments aren't accountable. Our politicians spend more time attacking other politicians than working constructively for solutions, and very rarely do we ever see anything resembling positive change. Worst of all, the situation we are in is only getting far worse.
There is no precedent for how bad the politics in Canada currently are. When I say no precedent, I literally mean no precedent. In the hundreds of years that the Westminster form of government we use has existed, there has never been a governing party held in contempt of parliament. Until now. The "Harper Government" has the dubious distinction of being the first, and these kind of distinctions don't stop there. A Prime Minister has shutdown parliament to stop the opposition 3 times in Canadian history. 1873, 2008 and 2009. Despite being a government that decries coalition governments as undemocratic (despite endorsing them, and later attempting to form one in 2005), the Conservatives are the only Canadian government in modern history to shut down the elected body of Canada in the face of the opposition, and they did it twice.
Any Conservative party supporter reading this article has probably long left, but I must mention that the unprecedented lack of accountability and transparency of the Canadian government isn't limited to the Conservatives - the notorious sponsorship scandal of a decade ago is a prime example of the long road that has been our slipping democracy - but the fact of the matter is the environment that allowed such corruption to occur has only worsened, and it's likely such fraud might not even be uncovered today (or if it was, it would likely be spun as a courageous act like fraud currently is by our Conservative government).
Don't believe me? To prevent another sponsorship scandal, the Conservatives appointed a 'public sector integrity commissoner' to facilitate whistleblowing and investigate wrongdoing. Yet over her time only 5 of 228 abuses were investigated (2.2%!), and she was forced out with hush money by the Conservatives when, ironically, her office came under investigation for wrongdoing.
It is astonishing the brazen way in which the Conservatives show what little respect they have for parliament. In our system of government, parliament is our only democratic institution. It's the only way we can have any say over what our government does, and we do this through voting who we choose to represent us. If we don't have parliament, we don't have a voice, and we don't have a democracy. Instead of our government striving to ensure the integrity parliament, they intentionally undermine it. The Conservatives' first homework assignment after forming government in 2006 was to adopt a playbook to circumvent any parliamentary procedure that didn't serve the party's interests. Stephen Harper thinks parliament is a "distraction" and would rather "focus on the economy than parliamentary procedure" (as if they were some how mutually exclusive). These are the kind of quotes you'd find unburied from a politician's past for use in an attack ad, and yet our pragmatic Prime Minister has no problem openly speaking this way. How can he do this without massive fallout from the electorate?
In their efforts to tackle the opposition, the Conservatives made the argument that the opposition has broken parliament and circumventing it is justified for that very reason. This view is unfortunately not without its supporters, and by framing their public attempts to undermine parliament in this way the Conservatives have avoided much of the public outlash they should for a government undermining how our democracy works.
I tweeted to the Metro newspaper's Alberta managing editor that there are Canadians who think upholding the integrity of parliament is an issue worthy of an election. His response? "Sorry, but I'd rather ignore the whims of some parliamentarians rather than ignoring the will of Canadians." In our parliamentary system it is our parliamentarians that express the will of Canadians. If members of parliament don't express our will, when we head to the polls we elect new ones. The will of Canadians gave the Conservatives an opposition. To support ignoring parliament to skirt around the opposition is to support the end of our democracy. Canadians actually wanted a stronger opposition than we received, with 62.35% of Canadians voting for the opposition, yet receiving only 53.57% of the MPs (but lets save our system of disproportionate representation for another time). Despite this many Canadians support the Conservatives' circumvention of our only democratic institution as if the end justifies the means, but to what end if the means is weakening the power of our own vote?
When Stephen Harper gets his turn to answer the inevitable voter apathy question, he won't talk about what he has done to keep people away from the polls such as his public contempt for parliament, or his government's unprecedented lack of transparency and accountability. It's unlikely he will mention anything outside of coalitions and taxes in an uninspiring explanation of how he will bring voters to the polls, but Harper isn't concerned about that, he's more interested in having voters stay home.
That's just what voters did in the 2008 federal election. The Conservative party picked up 19 more seats than in 2006, yet they actually had 165,275 less votes. They improved their standing because everyone else lost even more votes. Instead of appealing to the huge demographic of those who have never voted before with policy to return accountability and transparency to government (which I admit is awfully hard to do when you don't have any), they comitted themselves to smears and character assassinations of the opposition.
Last election the Conservatives had puffins defecating on Stephane Dion, and this time they're attacking Michael Ignatieff's patriotism and his family. This is hardly the stuff to motivate first-timers to the polls, and that's exactly the point (imagine how few first-time voters Naheed Nenshi would've attracted had his campaigned featured various animals defecating on Ric McIver). The Conservatives want any one who doesn't support them to stay home.
Many are citing this election as the first 'social media' federal election. So it's no surprise that the Conservative war machine wants to tap it like only they can. The result? @count_ignatieff. From the Conservatives' point of view, wherever more attacks can be explicitly designed to stop Canadians from voting for the Liberals the better, despite disenfranchising all Canadians from politics as the colloratal damage. Stephen Harper will answer the question about voter apathy knowing full well his complicit role in it. As the recent Calgary mayoral election proves, there are far more votes to be gained treating Canadians with honesty and intelligence. But as long as Canada's most popular and well-funded party would rather convince Canadians it's okay to ignore our fundamental democractic institution and smear any opponents any way they can, we will only see less people at the polls for all parties.
40.9% of Canadians didn't vote in the last election, and the actions of our government likely ensure that number will grow. We are losing what others around the world are rioting for, so make your vote a message to stop the decay of our democracy. This election is a blackhole that seems like nothing positive will result from it when the truth is that anything is possible. 40.9% of the population can send the tiniest political party to a majority government. Vote for a future where I will no longer cringe when federal leaders are asked about voter apathy, because it's no longer being asked.