We take it for granted that we live in a democracy. That label for our political system is, however, no longer accurate. Premier Dalton McGuinty's decision to shut down the Ontario legislature until his successor is chosen (whenever that might be) is further evidence that our democracy is under constant threat, more so in fact by the powerful than by terrorists.
Consider some of the principles of democracy:
1. People vote for individual representatives and governments. The government's power and legitimacy of the state is, therefore, derived from the people and entrusted to those elected;
2. Our electoral system should produce governments that reflect the will of the majority, thereby resulting in policies and laws that reflect the consensus of the majority of the voters;
3. People expect their representatives to ensure that our legislatures are functional and productive;
4. The Prime Minister and the premiers serve at the pleasure of the legislatures; and
5. While governments are supposed to govern for the majority of the electors, they are supposed to respect the rights of those in the minority.
How many of these principles do you believe are being respected by those to whom we have entrusted our power?
The weakness of our democracy begins with our electoral system. Our outdated "first past the post" electoral system significantly distorts voter intent. In the 2011 federal election, the vote was distorted by 22.2 per cent. That's a whopping distortion when you consider that the Conservatives have taken complete control of the federal government after earning less than 40 per cent of the votes.
It's very unfortunate that our politicians would rather keep this electoral system than change it. They hope to benefit from the distortions to get into office and stay there. The possibility of attaining complete power is more attractive than having to work with other parties to govern, as would more often be the case if we used a proportional representation election system, one which accurately allocates the number of elected members to the percentage of the votes their parties earned.
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When you lead Canada's biggest province for nine years you're bound to have some missteps. Ontario's Premier Dalton McGuinty has had his share of scandals and mistakes. We highlight a few that caused him more headaches than usual. Photo: Ontario Liberal Party
Back in 2004, a relatively new Liberal government under Premier Dalton McGuinty was forced to go back on a campaign promise not to raise taxes and instituted a health premium of between $300-$900. Photo: Alamy
In 2006, the Liberals tried to announce a new $46-billion energy plan that would see renovations of many of Ontario’s power plants. But the plan became a problem for the Liberals when the Globe and Mail revealed that the government tried to exempt their plans from environmental assessments. Photo: Shutterstock
The government’s plans to modernize medical records in the province ran into massive scandal when reports of overspending, waste and possible conflict of interest were revealed at eHealth, the agency responsible for building a new electronic records system. The scandal forced the resignation of Health Minister David Caplan. Photo: Shutterstock
Dalton McGuinty and the Liberals were criticized for laws giving police greater powers to ensure security during the G20 in 2010. The laws were seen by civil rights groups as draconian. Andre Marin, Ontario’s ombudsman also criticized the government calling the laws and police action a massive violation of civil rights. Photo: AP Files/Carolyn Kaster
Ontario’s air ambulance service, Ornge, caused another headache for McGuinty’s Liberals after reports of financial irregularities, cost overruns, huge salaries for managers being kept secret and reports of kickbacks began to emerge in the media. Photo: CP/Globe and Mail
Hobbled by scandal and facing a resurgent Conservatives in the 2011 provincial election, the Liberals cancelled two power plants in the GTA despite the fact it would cost taxpayers several hundred million dollars. Ontario's auditor general estimates those costs could climb to $1.1 billion. Photo: Michelle Siu/CP
Canada needs electoral reform but we lack the tools of direct democracy to move this issue forward without the support of the parties. Proportional representation is clearly in our interest if we want a true democracy, but when our rights in this regard conflict with the needs of the parties, it is the latter that prevail.
Our warped electoral system clothes leaders who have the support of relatively few Canadians with the full legitimacy to govern. Prime Minister Harper pretends that he has a support of the majority of Canadians. He has never enjoyed anything close to that support but he has set about remaking Canada nonetheless.
When faced with the real possibility that a majority of Members of the House of Commons would vote him out of office, he shut down Parliament so they could not do so. Now Premier McGuinty has employed the same tactic, presumably to stop the opposition from further investigating the Liberals' roles in the Ornge affair and gas plant closures as well as possibly censuring one of his cabinet ministers.
The Premier's stated reason that labour negotiations require his government's full attention is not credible, or has the Premier also forgotten how to walk and chew gum at the same time? If he were President of the United States, by his own logic, he would not have been able to deliver health care reform while attending to the economic recovery while Congress was still at work.
Prime Minister Harper and Premier McGuinty apparently believe that the people's elected representatives are a mere inconvenience, and why shouldn't they? Just as we have ceded our power to our elected representatives, they in turn have ceded their power to the Prime Minister and Premier in the hope that their leaders will look favorably upon them when it comes time to select their cabinets, or to avoid being kicked out of the caucus for not voting in accordance with the leaders' wishes which would jeopardize their reelection.
The erosion of democracy is far from a trifling matter. The exercise of a disproportionate amount of power can lead to serious problems. In our case, the will of the majority is subsumed to the power of the leaders who feel nearly impervious to threat. They are free to do considerable harm. They have used this power to serve corporate interests beyond what is in the interest of society as a whole by putting policies and laws in place that allow income inequality to grow to levels that are unhealthy for society and reduce food safety among other things. What informed citizen would believe that governments that do such things are really working in the country's best interests?
We let our politicians get away with far too many actions that undermine our rights. Shutting down the legislature to avoid being scrutinized or turfed by the majority is not an action that meets the test for true democracies. Premier McGuinty will get away with it because our system lacks the requisite checks and balances. We don't have the tools for direct democracy because we have put our faith in our politicians to uphold the principles of democratic representative government. They repeatedly fail us in this regard.
Truth and trust are rare commodities in politics. Our representative government is dysfunctional. Those in power have no shame. The politicians think we don't know what they are up to, but we do. The fact that they believe we can't do anything about it until the next election also does not speak well of our democratic system.
Governments count on us having short memories and their ability to divert our attention from what really matters when the next election comes around. Often, they are correct in this regard. It's up to us to not let our political leaders fool us, and to not fool ourselves. We have more than enough power if we choose to exercise it.
We owe it to each other as citizens of our nation to get involved to make things better. Talk about and work for electoral reform and the other important issues facing the people of our nation. Tell your politicians when they fail you and make sure you let them know that they will lose your vote if they don't take corrective measures. Remember the words of our national anthem: "O Canada, we stand on guard for thee." Will you?
Follow Benjamin Trister on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@cdnsforjustice