By all accounts, the current federal election in Canada has more citizens engaged in the political process. Judging by my own Facebook feeds and the record number of Canadians voting ahead of election day, we seem very interested in the outcome of this election.
But I want to make a somewhat counter-intuitive suggestion which is that the real work of us as Canadian citizens in this election begins on Tuesday, October 20. In fact, our voting and who wins this election matters far less than what we as citizens do after Monday. If we act the way we usually act after the election, it probably won't matter much who wins.
In this week's first Democratic presidential debate Senator Bernie Sanders was lambasted by his four opponents when he said what we need in America is a "political revolution." Revolution is never popular. But if you listened closely, what Sanders really said is that the only way for government to overcome the vested interests of the financial and corporate elite is for average citizens to stay engaged in the political process. Until citizens focus week after week on holding their leaders accountable to make real changes that will create a better society, nothing meaningful will happen.
Unless the electorate is involved AFTER the election, the status quo will remain intact. Of course we Canadians should be familiar with this problem. When Harper first ran for Prime Minister he talked about creating a more open and accountable government, reforming the Senate, free votes for members of Parliament and so on.
Of course he broke almost all of those promises, created a fortress mentality and a tight run ship where no one stepped out of line and scientists were muzzled. This capacity to run on platforms you don't follow through on is not unique to the Conservatives. The federal Liberals promised to cut the GST but never did, they signed Kyoto but never took action for Canada to meet the carbon emission targets they committed to.
Why does this happen? When Gorden Campbell, former premier of British Columbia, was running for that office the first time I heard him speak to a small group of entrepreneurs in Vancouver. He asked us a rhetorical question: "Why do politicians make promises and then break them?" Going on, he said, "Because you let us. After the election you go dormant and politicians get to do what they want to do or what those who are most interested in maintaining the status quo want them to do."
Have you ever wondered why special interests so often keep things from being done that average citizens firmly agree on? In the United States, the vast majority of citizens are in favour of stronger gun control laws but the status quo remains.
Why? The reason is because special interests like the NRA know that who gets elected is not nearly as important as who stays involved all the time holding politicians accountable. Special interests spend as much or more time, money and effort on lobbying and influencing leaders between elections as they do before and during elections.
Here at home, a vast majority of Canadians want our government to do more about addressing climate change yet we have a federal government known worldwide for being among the least interested in taking action. Why? Well, you guessed it, the special interests are always on these issues whereas the average Canadian cares deeply but does little each week to keep the pressure on the government to act.
Some politicians have harnessed the power of involving citizens. When Ronald Reagan became President, he faced a reluctant Congress. So he went directly to the American people using what he called the "bully pulpit" of the Presidency to ask voters to write, call and badger their representatives to support Reagan's proposals. Congress was controlled by the Democrats but Reagan passed most of his legislation.
What does all this have to do with our election? Well on Friday someone is going to win and if the current projections are correct we will likely have a minority government of some fashion. On Saturday, the three major parties will decide what to do next. The worst thing we could do as citizens is to stand by and let them decide. Instead, we need to be even more involved than we are right now in calling, writing, blogging, and badgering those parties to do what we want them to do.
My guess is that most Liberal and NDP supporters want those two parties to put ego aside and form some kind of working coalition. We want them to take action on climate change, address social inequity and create a more responsive, open and civil governing body. And they will do just that, if we weigh in every day and every week that follows this election.
Citizens tend to blame our leaders for the kind of government we have. We ought to look in the mirror instead. Getting engaged every four to five years for six to eight weeks is not what it means to be a citizen. The kind of revolution Sanders talked about means that if we want our leaders to do our will on the big issues we face, a far greater majority of us have to stay engaged post-election. Otherwise, Gordon Campbell nailed it: We get the government we deserve.
How can we do this? Here are three commitments we can make. First, keep writing and calling our representatives in the days and weeks following the election. Let them know what YOU want and what you WILL hold them accountable to. Second, keep blogging, face-booking, meeting with friends and like minded people, to keep engaged in the process. Third, make it clear to whoever wins, that we know what they promised and we will be watching.
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