CFN – Principles and institutions developed and implemented over the years by the collective will of the majority of the citizens are at the base of a healthy representative democracy. We have already highlighted the decisive role played by the «power of decision», which while belonging to the citizens, is temporarily delegated to their representatives. We have briefly seen that the role and the duties of the elected representatives (MPs) have evolved through the years as have changes to the relationship between the elected people and the party they represent.
Therefore, it is in the light of all these elements that we will try to identify a few trends that have marked the evolution of Canadian democracy in recent decades.
It must be noted from the beginning that the two major parties that dominated Canadian politics until the mid-90s, the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) and the Progressive Conservative Party (PCP), contributed in turn to the deterioration of democracy and the concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister (PM) and his non-elected inner circle.
At the same time, both parties contributed to the dispersal of power by multiplying the number of Parliamentary Officers (Auditor General, Parliamentary Budget Officer, Commissioner of Official Languages, Information Commissioner of Canada, etc.) and giving more and more place in the decision making process to various lobbies, especially those exercised by corporations and financial institutions. However, until the mid-90s there was still a relative balance between the parties and within the democratic institutions. Parliament was still a place for discussions and in general most of the legislation was the result of constructive discussions aimed above all at serving the common interest of Canadians. Moreover, the contributions of the third party, the New Democratic Party (NDP) was often considered and the Senate had a meaningful contribution to the final legislation.
The late 80s and early 90s marked a major change in the political and economic history of the world: the disappearance of almost all of the communist economic system. The prevailing capitalist system released the forces of globalisation and for a certain period of time some pundits and political scientists, including Francis Fukuyama in 1992, decreed the end of history.
For over 80 years, since 1917, the state has been playing an important role in the development of the economic and social policies in the Western world. As long as the communist system existed, the state through its military, economic and international powers was the main bulwark against communism. Internally, the state ensured the balance and stability necessary to cope with external threats. The early 90s marked the end of this balance and the beginning of the erosion of democracy. On the ideological level, neo-liberal economics is gaining ground and traction and we are witnessing the consolidation of the conservative forces.
In Canada, the PPC first lost ground to the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance and eventually, in 2003, was taken over by the newly created Conservative Party of Canada (CPC). The LPC used the division of conservative forces to remain in power during the 90s and early 2000s. Finally, since 2008, differences in the distribution of the collective wealth have enabled the rise of the New Democratic Party (NDP), the official opposition since 2011. Political parties are increasingly controlled by interest groups and they act more in the interest of these groups than in the interests of the common good and the citizens who elected them.
Economically, the deregulation of financial markets, the free movement of capital and the proliferation of financial products, combined with the outsourcing of manufacturing production to developing countries have had a double effect. The power and the influence of financial institutions on governments and government decisions have become dominant. At the same time, the amount of financial transactions and the ability to quickly transfer investments from one country to another has created a situation of continuous economic and financial crises. It is the reign of markets and market forces are supposed to solve all the planet’s problems without the intervention of the state. The dogma of tax cuts has made it so that governments are no longer able to provide the essential services for which citizens have elected them.
These few economic, social and political considerations should help to better understand the trends that currently characterise democracy in Canada.
The concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister (PM) and his unelected inner circle is one of the most harmful trends for democracy. Although constitutionally the PM has always had a lot of power, the trend toward centralisation began to be more pronounced with P. E. Trudeau. This trend continued with Brian Mulroney, became very visible with Jean Chrétien, and, for the moment, has reached a peak with Stephen Harper. Each new PM, regardless of the party he represented, grabbed a little more power than his predecessor.
One feature of the Canadian political system that gives the PM more power than any other PM or President anywhere else in the world is his power to appoint. The Governor General and the Senators, the ministers and the deputy ministers, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the presidents of various Crown Corporations and so on, all such appointments are made by the PM. The only appointment that he doesn’t make is the Speaker of the House of Commons, elected by all MPs. It is thus understandable that Jeffrey Simpson wrote in 2001 a book entitled «The Friendly Dictatorship» and I myself wrote a column entitled «Democratic Dictatorship». This concentration of power has contributed to a deterioration of the political neutrality of the various Canadian democratic institutions.
The concentration of power in the hands of the leaders of the political parties, especially after 1974, is largely responsible for the concentration of power in the PM’s hands and the radicalisation of political positions. This trend is so strong that each time a party changes its leader it means a change of the vision, the principles and the electoral platform that guide the party. The LPC has become in turn Trudeau’s party, Chrétien’s party, Dion’s party and so on, as the CCP is Harper’s party and the NDP is Mulcair’s party after it had been Layton’s party. Without the democratisation of political parties, we are unlikely to see an improvement of democracy in Canada.
There is an increasingly strong influence of corporations, financial institutions and interest groups including unions, professional associations and religious groups on political parties and therefore on governments. This trend is very detrimental for democracy because the concept of the common good and public interest has been replaced by the special interests of those who are the real masters of the political parties. Of course the governing party pretends to act in the national interest, except that most often it turns out that the national interest corresponds to the special interest of various corporations and groups.
The concentration of the press and electronic media plays an important role in the erosion of democracy in Canada. It is virtually impossible to have an open debate in our society because of the manipulation of the media either by the government or by corporations and interest groups. Mark Twain was right on when he said, «If you do not read the newspaper you are uninformed, if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed». There is also the manipulation of public opinion by supposedly independent and non-partisan think tanks which publish at great cost studies designed to influence the public. That is the case with all the studies that «prove» that the current health system is unsustainable, that should sell bulk water or that the supply management must be dismantled.
The failure to respect our democratic institutions including the House of Commons and its Committees, Parliamentary Officers or even the current laws, is a trend that is increasing more and more and that is downright anti-democratic. The PM and the Cabinet, as the main representatives of the executive power, trespass more and more on the role of the House of Commons, the main legislative branch. This political behaviour goes against the principle of responsible government according to which the PM and the Cabinet are accountable to the House of Commons which in turn is accountable to the people. This trend began under Liberal governments and currently is at a peak with the conservative government. The announcement of key decisions outside the House of Commons, the refusal to disclose documents essential for the proper conduct of business in the House, the imposition of discussions in camera for the Committees, the ministerial non-accountability, the proliferation of unjustified omnibus bills and even the fraudulent manipulation of the electoral rules are only a few examples of this very anti-democratic trend. Once again, we have to emphasise that that each PM, regardless of the political orientation of his party, has gone one step further than his predecessor. For now, the only exception is the NDP, simply because it has not yet formed the government.
The political disengagement of the population contributes to and encourages the erosion of democracy in Canada. This withdrawal is due to many causes, some of which are economic and social such as economic instability and family debts. But other causes are downright political. The engagement of citizens as members of various parties has declined steadily over the past ten years, largely because of the feeling that leaders, party executives and MPs do not listen to the grassroots. Citizens see the arrogant and insensitive behaviour of government in relation to their needs and problems and the speed with which the same government meets the demands of corporations and interest groups. This disengagement is also evidenced by a sharp drop in voter turnout at elections which only reinforces the influence of interest groups on governments.
All these trends are contributing to the erosion of democracy not only in Canada but in most Western democracies. In May 2012, the British think tank Democratic Audit released its fourth annual report “How Democratic Is the UK? The 2012 Audit”. The report summarises the situation, namely “Democracy is in long-term terminal decline as the power of corporations keep growing, politicians become less representative of constituencies and their citizens disillusioned stop voting or even discussing current affairs”. In an interview with the Guardian, Stuart Wilks-Haig, one of the authors, warned that soon the British will wonder “Whether it’s representative democracy anymore?”
In this context it is difficult to ignore one of the highlights of contemporary democracy: the refusal of the President of Iceland to make the Icelandic population pay for the huge amounts of money lost in speculation by Icelandic banks. He resisted the pressure from domestic and international interest groups and, against the will of all the other Icelandic politicians, asked the population to decide by way of referendum. The refusal of the citizens to pay for the mistakes of the financial markets created the conditions for Iceland to get out of the crisis faster than all other countries affected and which, without consulting the population, had chosen to subsidise the banks with taxpayer’s money.
In an interview on CBC, in December 2011, the President of Iceland, Olafur Grimmson said
“I was left with the fundamental choice between what was interpreted as the paramount financial interests of the financial market in Europe with respect to Iceland and on the other hand the democratic will of my people. And I came to the conclusion that our society, like Europe or the Western world, is more about democracy than it is about the financial market. If we start sacrificing elements of our democratic societies for financial expediencies we have, in my opinion, entered a very dangerous journey.”
Some ideas for a more democratic future:
Democratising the political parties, by establishing a balance between the Leader and his non-elected inner circle, the MPs and the grassroots. The return of political parties to programs and electoral platforms based on the common good and public interest and not on the interest of corporations and interest groups;
Upgrading the role of the MPs as transmission belts between the citizens and the government;
Honoring the principles and institutions of Canadian democracy, including the principle of responsible government and the supremacy of the House of Commons;
Eliminating the influence exerted on government by corporate lobbies and interest groups;
Changing the electoral system, to allow better representation and encouraging citizens’ participation in political life;
Conducting real societal debates on the most important issues in Canada and organising referenda.
I know that many of these proposals are unworkable and could be considered as dreams but for those who still believe in democracy and a better future for the next generations the time has come to speak out publicly, to get involved and, at least, try to reverse the current trends. Otherwise the little democracy that still exists will become an oligarchy on its way to tyranny.