THE BLOG
12/19/2011 12:03 EST | Updated 02/17/2012 05:12 EST

Yes, Our Democracy Really Is in Peril

We've lost a professional political class that put respect for the institutions above tactical political advantage. We've lost an understanding that our public servants are individually elected trustees rather than cynical voting-machine-delegates of a party or a constituency. And we've lost a public that expects better of its elected representatives, or for that matter, can articulate their disappointment, beyond cynical canards about the corruption of politicians.

I always have to be careful when I identify myself as a conservative. First of all, the word needs to find its way into the sentence somewhere where it can't be capitalized, and I also find that adding left-wing as a preface helps as well.

Either way, I spend the next five minutes in a discussion or the next dozen posts in an online forum differentiating what I believe what many conservatives before the Thatcher era believed, from what passes for conservative today.

"Tis the true conservative that lops the mouldering branch away," said Wordsworth, as well as John Diefenbaker. For those of you who don't remember, The Right Honourable John Diefenbaker was a prime minister who:

1) Rolled back defence spending, cancelling the Avro Arrow;

2) Ran up large deficits by expanding social welfare;

3) Is credited by the Fraser Institute as the PM who oversaw the largest reduction in absolute poverty in the last 60 years;

4) Gave First Nations Canadians the vote and campaigned to white audiences on the need to appoint an aboriginal Canadian to the Senate;

5) Appointed the first woman to the federal cabinet;

6) Eliminated racial criteria for immigration;

7) Opposed the death penalty.

I could go on, but the fact remains he was a pretty left-wing prime minister. Also, he was a Tory. More importantly, he had a peerless respect for Parliament.

In the 1957 general election, the key attack he levied at the governing Liberals wasn't about patronage, or MP pay, or whether they were playing footsie with Quebec's nascent nationalist movement.

He didn't sell himself as a tough-on-crime hockey dad (hard to do that as a childless defence attorney on his second wife, but I doubt the idea came into his head). John Diefenbaker centred his critique of the government on one core issue:

In 1956, the Liberal government wanted a natural gas pipeline built very badly... which it eventually was, though the opposition Progressive Conservatives and CCF (forerunner to the NDP) criticized the project's American ownership and government support.

Suffice it to say, the government rushed the bill through the Commons, essentially violating the right of Parliament to debate and ultimately express its will, which, given the Liberal majority, was a foregone conclusion. The Pipeline Debate crystallized a perception among Canadians that democracy was being ignored by the government of the day in support of its own political and ideological agenda. Canadians responded with an outpouring of indignation and elected the Progressive Conservatives, netting one less seat in Quebec in 1957 than The Right Honourable Stephen Harper managed in 2006, despite Diefenbaker's, shall we say, far less adroit handling of the French language.

Shortly after the Diefenbaker government took power, there was an economic downturn, at its time the largest contraction since the Great Depression. Sound familiar? Good. Lester Pearson gave a speech in the Commons arguing that the government should turn power over to the opposition Liberals.

And therein the similarities end.

Lester Pearson didn't have the support of the other opposition parties with an alternative government that would have the confidence of the Commons when he called on the government to resign.

Stéphane Dion did.

Diefenbaker inherited the declining economy from the Liberals, including a government analysis that foresaw the capital outflows to come before the election was called.

Stephen Harper juiced an overheated economy and destroyed the government's structural surplus, because, well, I suppose Canadians know how to spend their money better than the Canadians that Canadians elect, or some such talking point. (I would love to see how we'd have won World War II with individual military savings accounts.)

As a result, what would have been a stimulus at a deficit of about 35 to 40 billion had to become a deficit of about 50 billion to have the same effect on expectations. This was part of the opposition's case against the government: that they weakened the structural footing of the Canadian economy before the crash, not that that argument found its way into much of the media analysis of the situation.

But most important, when there was a legitimate challenge to the support that the government held in the House of Commons, John Diefenbaker went to the people to resolve the issue, calling an election.

Stephen Harper, however, went to the governor general to close Parliament before it had a chance to remove him from power. Michaëlle Jean, who, after her appointment, faced a controversy over her possible support for Quebecois cultural nationalism, was hardly going to be politically able to rule against a government which had the overwhelming (by which I mean 37.65 per cent) support of the electorate.

In 1958, a Tory prime minister willingly faced the people and the people's representatives, and after the victory that followed, the Liberals, while chastened, didn't dump their neophyte leader for the sin of having suggested that parliament picks the government, not the other way around.

In 2008, a prime minister dubbed a Tory by the press referred to a Liberal-NDP agreement to form a coalition government with parliamentary support from the Bloc Quebecois as a socialist-separatist coalition, and froze Parliament long enough to rattle the centrist faction of that potential coalition into dumping its leader.

Did we as Canadians punish this government for its disrespect of government like we did the last? No, rather, we rewarded them.

It'd be tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the Conservatives alone, but every federalist parliamentary party had its role to play in this disaster.

The Liberals, when faced with a prorogued Parliament, backed off. I would've even allowed that they might not think that a coalition government was wise anymore, but when a prime minister muscles a governor general into shutting down Parliament, that must then be the issue. The NDP decided that the government was in contempt of Parliament in 2011 and voted non-confidence. Where were they for the previous two years?

We have a fairly weakly written constitution in this country, the reason being that there had been a general consensus, one could call it a classical conservative respect for the unwritten constitution of parliamentary supremacy... but we've lost that.

We've lost a professional political class that put respect for the institutions above tactical political advantage. We've lost an understanding that our public servants are individually elected trustees rather than cynical voting-machine-delegates of a party or a constituency. And we've lost a public that expects better of its elected representatives, or for that matter, can articulate their disappointment, beyond cynical canards about the corruption of politicians. Regardless of whether the fish rotted from the head down, it is now in the advanced stages of decomposition. The only thing more troubling is the general expectation that the stench has always been thus.

Civics do not become irrelevant simply because we've forgotten them. That many of us vote based on the candidate's intention of supporting a particular party leader for prime minister does not mean that we elect a government rather than a Parliament. That we've forgotten the role of a professional appointed legislature doesn't mean that the Senate is an utter waste, though most of us aren't willing to give the body a sober second though.

That most Canadians wouldn't have ever heard of Viscount Byng, who, by the way, led the Canadian forces at Vimy Ridge before becoming the last governor general to tell a prime minister, quite simply, "no," doesn't mean that the governor general is a nonentity. That we howl when MPs cross the floor, gnashing our teeth and baying indignant betrayal, doesn't mean that they don't owe us their intellect just as much as their industry. That we conflate journalistic opinions underlined with fact with opinions, presented as fact, masquerading as journalism does not make them the same thing. And that we have insinuated ourselves on every public forum available as "average Canadians" and partisans and "taxpayers" does not mean that we are released from our core duty: that of citizens.

Rather, it means that we are engaged in an act of national dereliction, and that the state of Canadian democracy is dependent not just on the 308 Canadians elected to the House of Commons, but on the estimated 23,971,740 Canadians charged with electing them and holding them responsible.