How You Can (and why you should) Make Government Work

Posted April 15, 2011
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I knew once I broke my silence on federal politics on this site, the floodgates would open. Rest assured this will be my final article on the topic this election and far more positive than my last one!

How You Can (and why you should) Make Government Work

How's this for a positive start to the article? We live in the best country in the world. Of course, that's very easy for me to say, having not travelled the world. But I read. A lot. And through what I've read, I've come to realize we are a country like no other when it comes to having the best of all worlds. Economic freedom without an excessive disparity between the rich and the poor. The highest rate of immigration per capita without the racial tension and violence that plagues other western nations. We even have widespread gun ownership without the violent crime. What we lack in a great climate, we make up in almost every other way possible. This didn't happen over night, and yet, with our country only 143 years old - a relative child on the world stage - it esssentially did happen overnight. Which is why we should make no assumptions that our prosperity will always be this way. There's no rule stating we Canadians are entitled to a great society, and certainly no rule stating  that we will continue to be. It took hard work for our country to be where it is today, and it will continue to require hard work to ensure it stays that way. This is where you come in.

All the federal parties add something positive to Canada's direction. The Tories, Grits, Dippers, Greens, and yes, even the Bloc, have important contributions to make. We need them working together. All of them. Because they represent all Canadians. Over 308 ridings, these parties and their elected members are who we have chosen to lead our country. If we have them working together, all offering their perspectives and debating the outcomes for our country, our country will be better for it. I'm certain Canadians of any political stripe will find something they like in each parties' platform. Family income sharing, promoting local-food, job-creation tax cuts for business, a toxicity-tax on emissions, abolishing double credit for time in custody served awaiting trial. These are all great ideas, all offered by the different parties, and a great example of how parties working together could achieve results greater than the sum of their parts. 

It sounds like a pipe dream. I know that political parties can't always work together. There are many issues in which parties are ideologically opposed, and compromise is impossible. This is why our elected members of parliament vote, and for anyone that wins a vote, there will always be someone who loses. The system works as it should. The problem is, we've warped the system to make it politically damaging for any parties to ever work together. All issues in parliament now seem ideological when they don't need to. There's something of merit in all the parties' platforms, yet cross party support for these ideas is unlikely - even when the idea proposed meshes with their own party's priorities. This rabid partisanship stops our government from being effective. Being perpetually stuck in a minority government where no party has a majority of votes and thus requires cross party support has only exacerbated this ineffectiveness. We can do something about this, and with that, I present ways to do your part in making our government work and our country flourish:

 
Know the Importance of Elections

2004. 2006. 2008. 2011. We have had our fair share of elections in the past decade: 4 in the past 10 years. This is leading to a lot angst towards our democracy by a large share of Canadians. We have all heard (or said) that we are "tired of elections" or "don't want another unnecessary election". Four elections in ten years is certainly more often than we are used to, but how come we don't hear Americans complain how often they have elections? They have elections every two years. They vote for their equivalent of members of parliament every two years and vote for a President every four. That's right, even in our chaotic period of minority governments, we've gone to the polls less than our neighbours down south.

The elections in between presidential election years act as a 'check and balance' on the President. Our elections bring about a Prime Minister and all the MPs at once, so essentially we elect our 'check and balance' to the Prime Minister along with him. Our Parliament dissolves when a term is up or when the majority of MPs vote non-confidence in the government. When non-confidence happens, we typically return to the polls to vote for MPs. This is our fundamental - and only - measure to exert control over our government. The Americans have this power more often than we do, but we've entered a period where governments are falling before the end of their term and consequently we head to the polls nearly as often as they do. The chance for us exert this control on our government is never unnecessary or tiresome and we should appreciate every opportunity to have our say knowing that usually we seldom get the chance.

 
Understanding how our democracy works

We can't criticize our government if we don't understand how we form it. And we don't understand how we form it. 51% of Canadians think we directly elect our Prime Minister. We don't. The Prime Minister is chosen by parliament, which means the leader of the party elected with the most members will be PM. Should that government lose confidence by the majority of those we elect, we either hit the polls like we've been doing, or our Governor General can ask another party to form government. This isn't undemocractic, as this new party tasked with governing can only do so with the support of the majority of our elected representatives. This is how our system of democracy is intended to work and encourages parties to work together for government to function. Yet the majority of us don't know this, and this ignorance has created a political environment discouraging our parties to work together under such a scenario. We've turned a very democractic, cooperative political system into a disfunctional partisan one.

In 2008 our political ignorance was showcased like never before. The government was about to fall because it lost the confidence of the majority of our MPs and our Governor General was to ask for another government to form so we wouldn't have another election immediately after the one we had just had. Instead of taking to the idea of our elected representatives working together across party lines, we instead thought our democracy was coming to an end. It's not entirely our fault, as this ignorance was being exploited for partisan political gain. We were told from politicians and even media that forming a new government out of the same parliament was undemocratic, treasonous, and illegitimate, despite being none of those things. We would have had the chance to see if our government could work without the partisanship that plagues it today, but Canadians rejected the idea. We gave overwhelming political support for parties to avoid working together and to continue to be divided along partisan lines - the exact reasons we are often so cynical of our own democracy. If we know how our democracy works, we can ensure our support is for our democracy to function better, not worse.

 
Support local democracy

We don't elect a Prime Minister and we don't elect a party. We elect a member of parliament to represent our local area. Yet it's not uncommon for MPs to go against constituents' wishes to vote along party lines. If we are to have a functioning democracy based on representing individual ridings federally, we need to ensure our politicians are accountable to their constituents. Many politicians have abandoned campaigning in their constituency to help the campaign in other 'contested' ridings. This is a practice that has to stop. It should be illegal for a party candidate to campaign outside of their riding because that is a clear abuse of our system. But until it is, we must pressure our candidates to ensure they engage in their riding's democracy. Politicians have even skipped debates within their own riding to campaign elsewhere. If there's no debate, there's no democracy. Don't vote for a candidate skipping out on their own constituents. If they're that unaccountable when they need your vote, think of how unaccountable they'll be once they have it. Don't reinforce candidates' poor democratic involvement with your vote.

Supporting a healthy democracy in your local area doesn't work if you don't vote for the best candidate in your area. Yet we often do just that. It's called strategic voting, where you vote for a candidate who isn't your first choice to stop a candidate you like even less from being elected. This is another way we wrongly encourage partisanship we can't stomach over a functioning democracy. We fail to support the best local candidates we have because of party lines. We need to ignore the polls and vote for the best candidates going. In a perfect world, political polling wouldn't exist, but unfortunately it's here to stay, and it's a perfected science. However, the cynicism that develops from polls showing a lack of support for the candidate we are interested in is very much a self-fulfilling prophecy. Strategic voting steers voters to candidates that appear to have a chance of winning, ensuring candidates low in the polls will remain so. Even when a silent majority may be interested in voting for a candidate, they simply won't because they aren't aware others are interested in voting for that candidate too. If everyone ignored the polls and voted their hearts, we'd see the best possible candidates heading to Ottawa.

 
Vote

Political parties are well oiled machines. They are organizations that survive off of market research, focus groups and polling. They've worked out what they're capable of doing (and capable of getting away with) because they've done their homework. Often they bank on voters' own indifference and increasing tendency to stay at home to get away with what they do, and it's a terrible cycle. We don't vote because our democracy is dysfunctional, and our democracy is dysfunctional because we don't vote. Nothing will throw off the marketing research of our political parties quite like if we voted in unprecedented numbers. Rick Mercer says it best:


We owe it our parents and forefathers who built this fantastic place we call Canada to give it our best. Even more importantly, we owe it to future generations, so that they can have even more opportunity and prosperity as we do.