In a current series in the Toronto Star, Rick Salutin is writing about how citizens are disconnected from their democracy. In his second piece, he wrote something that I have come to believe; our democracy is broken because of political parties. They stifle debate and therefore engagement, especially for those of us for whom politics is interesting, but not a full time occupation.
From my vantage point in Toronto, the contrast between the current state of local politics and federal politics is an interesting study. King Harpernicus and Burgher Meister Ford are basically cut from the same cloth, but the results of the tailoring are very different. I offer two examples:
King Harpernicus sends Bill C-38 through the legislative mill without a need to heed dissent or truly debate its principles publicly. He's also used noblesse oblige (what else can we really term this) to stack the Senate in his favour over the years to cover the bases in that chamber. Sure, there are columnists and protestors who are outraged, blah, blah, blah, but the public serves him; he does not serve the public and the majority of the public knows this. Our prior ruler King Jean taught Harpernicus well.
Burgher Meister Ford declaims and declares, but -- to his endless consternation -- actually has to try to convince others his ideas have merit through debate. Despite being on council for over a decade, he came to the mayor's chair with the notion that in municipal government he would call the shots and all the others (I like to think of the minions in Despicable Me) would simply step into line. I guess he was too busy voting "no" on items to pay attention to the dynamics.
The most recent example of the current dynamic is the debate about merchants collecting fees for plastic shopping bags. The mayor ordered that this "tax" (which is actually a fee collected by private business, no money has hit municipal coffers) be repealed. In the course of the debate, council ended up rescinding the fee but proposing banning plastic shopping bags altogether as of January 2013; I would suggest this is not what the BM intended. We'll see if they follow through this fall. The amazing thing here is that the result isn't preordained.
I wish that we could actually debate environmental policies, foreign policy, economic policy or social policy in Canada. We can't even give these the same due as a plastic bag fee because we have a majority government that is not required to do so. Our representatives are beholden to their parties, not the electorate. I think the best example is our current Minister of (some would say "against") the Environment, Peter Kent. If he gets in a couple more years of saying and doing what he's told to, he could have a federal pension. I'm not sure what Canada is getting in return other than being jammed with a long pipeline.
Call it a naive fantasy, but what if Parliament was a group of people who had to decide on things through consensus? If that is currently happening on some level why is the debate not visible? Why does "debate" mean a session of shouted talking points during (the strangely named) "question period" in the House of Commons or whenever an election campaign is on?
The reason is political parties. Political parties are brands with the marketing objective of winning elections. Lest I simply be branded a PC basher (okay guilty as charged), I looked at the NDP website. Front page, attack ads on Harper. There are news items on what they're against, but nothing on policy or vision if they weren't the endless opposition. "Participation" means receiving e-mails or giving money. King Harpernicus' site is similar with just a few more press releases, but all kings issue proclamations about how benevolent they are. Everyone campaigns; no one seems to truly engage. If the twittersphere are to be believed, not many seem to "like" (button) this approach.
I'd even blame a lazy media establishment looking for quick sound bites to meet daily deadlines. However, the media in Toronto have seemed to gravitate towards the massive force that is Burger Meister Ford and any subsequent shockwaves he sets off. No TV ads to be seen, no skewed opinion polls, no radio ads, billboards, pamphlets or lawn signs. People line up to get engaged when an issue speaks to them as citizens, and when they think they might have a chance to have their voice heard in the process.
With the communication tools available today there is no longer an excuse for the packaging of public discourse and election campaigns -- except for the whole "wielding of power" thing. Paid election ads should no longer be allowed as this is the lifeblood of marketing. The same holds for government advertising, which is propaganda or at a minimum oversimplification. Opinion polls should not be allowed if the actual questions cannot be scrutinized. Members should be able to represent themselves, not their political entities, in their ridings. Addressing the electoral system is meaningless until those elected are free to represent their constituents. Until then all political victories are pyrrhic.