10/11/2015 09:27 EDT | Updated 10/11/2016 05:12 EDT

Is Canada a Country, Or a Commodity?

Steve Russell via Getty Images
OTTAWA, ON - NOVEMBER 10:Tourists visit the Centennial Flame, lit in 1967 by Lester B. Pearson burns on Parliament Hill. Preparations are under way War Memorial on the eve of Remembrance Day. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Haven't really crystallized this into a coherent argument yet, but I can't remember feeling this disheartened about a federal election since 1997. Ever since then, there's been a growing malignancy in our body politic -- a malignancy that goes beyond partisanship.

Successive governments since then have, for whatever reason, surrendered more and more policy tools, and more and more of their innate capacity to advance the public good, in the face of supranational trade and investment regimes. Regardless of who's been in power in Ottawa (and provincial capitals, for that matter), we've been watching the gradual but unmistakable enfeeblement of government, to the point where it may well be irreversible. As awful as Stehen Harper's been on so many files -- environment, the war on women, civil liberties, First Nations, the economy, health care, immigration, housing, veterans, integrity in government, climate change -- this didn't start with him.

What I still don't understand is, why? Why is government, of whatever stripe, voluntarily abandoning its role? Free Trade, NAFTA, MIA, CETA, FIPA, TPP, whatever. Why are public institutions consenting to, and even participating in, their own enervation? Why are we, through our governments, surrendering our ability to protect ourselves and act in the national interest in favour of a few multinational corporations and allowing them to sue us for notional lost profits? Who benefits from this? Who's looking out for the common good here?

And that doesn't even begin to address the glaring faults in our current electoral system. The disfiguring effects of our antiquated, necrotic First Past The Post system have already been discussed, but if there's any sustained discussion of alternatives or efforts to reform the voting system, or the so-called "Fair Elections Act," it's barely being heard above the manufactured controversies and distractions. The conversation's being dragged into the sewer, and that's no accident either.

It's why I've been wondering, perhaps at odds with my arguments about the responsibilities of citizenship, about the efficacy of voting. If civic engagement is reduced to casting a ballot every few years for choices that have, in truth, been set out for us, then are we really participating meaningfully in our own governance?

Is voting, even if it manages to end the Harper era, going to undo decades worth of damage to civil society? Is it going to put an end to this misguided fetish for austerity? Is it going to reinvigorate the notion of an activist government committed to using the power of public policy to cultivate the greatest good for the greatest number? Is it going to re-assert the primacy of the public sphere in the face of "free trade" regimes and investor-state protections?

How likely is it that any government, even the best-intentioned, will move to roll back the damage in the face of the inevitable backlash from international finance, the small coterie of Serious and Responsible People™ who decide which ideas are "realistic" and which are "lunatic," and their amplifiers in the media?

I don't want to sound facile, but doesn't it come down to the kind of government we want and the kind of country we want to be? Do we want to be governed by the people we elect, or by a small global oligarchy of unaccountable string-pullers? And is the simple act of choosing a brand on polling day going to affect that?

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