What’s not wrong with Canadian democracy

Argument about what ails Canadian democracy, if anything, is picking up lately, which is good. But it seems to me that much of the discussion is confused and misdirected, which is bad.

The latest fodder for debate, considered here by my colleague Andrew Potter, is the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s report “Ontario’s Referendum on Proportional Representation: Why Citizens Said No.”

The starting point of the report, however, strikes me as a deeply flawed reading of key political events of the past quarter century and what they tell us about the state of Canadian political life.

Here’s its very first line: “After being elected in 2003, Premier Dalton McGuinty took steps to modernize Ontario’s elections in response to falling turnout rates and perceived voter apathy.”

So the disease is identified clearly: apathy resulting in fewer voters. It’s cause? The report points to a string of supposedly disillusioning events that reinforced “declining levels of public trust and confidence in political institutions, and the increasing disengagement of young citizens from the political process.”

And those events included: “the controversy surrounding the binge of patronage appointments in the last days of Pierre Trudeau’s regime in 1984, the free trade election of 1988, the rancorous debate over the implementation of the goods and services tax, the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, the referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, the 1993 electoral earthquake that reduced the sitting federal government to a legislative rump of two MPs and the narrow victory of the federalist forces in the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty.”

According to the report’s authors, Laura Stephenson and Brian Tanguay, every one of these episodes caused Canadians to doubt the legitimacy of their political institutions. If they’re right, then I think Canadians must have a perverse way of seeing politics, because I contend that each shows, in its own way, our democracy at its best.

Trudeau’s final patronage binge? It is remembered only because it allowed Brian Mulroney to score big points over John Turner in the 1984 election leadership debate. “You had an option, sir, to say ‘No’,” Mulroney memorably lectured Turner over his decision to go ahead with Trudeau’s last spree of appointments. What did that dramatic moment prove? That election campaigns and leaders’ debates can matter in exactly the way they are supposed to. It was a high point grown out of a low one.

The free trade election of 1988? Obviously the meatiest campaign in living memory. Every election should prompt so fulsome a debate on the real issues of the day. The GST implementation? If only we could point to more cases of governments forging ahead with difficult policies for no better reason than that they make sense.

The Meech Lake and Charlottetown reform efforts? Political insiders in both cases took their best shots at constitutional change, but then submitted their blueprints to the public and ultimately accepted the popular verdict. To me, that sounds like democracy at its very best.

The 1993 decimation of the Tories? This election proved that far from being calcified, the Canadian party system is open to populist upheaval. That’s great. If enough voters really don’t like the partisan choices on offer, new parties stand a fair chance of rising up to replace them.

The 1995 Quebec referendum? Frightening for federalists, heartbreaking for separatists, and finally uplifting for democrats. The gravest decision possible in our shared political life put squarely in the hands of the people. I find it impossible to be anything but proud that we did it that way.

These examples don’t suggest any need to reform Canadian democracy. Quite the opposite. Does that mean apathy and low voter turnout and youth disengagement don’t matter? Of course not. It’s just that we’re mistaken to look to our political institutions for the cause of the malaise.

The real roots of apathy will not be fixed by a quick change in the way we vote or the way our legislatures are structured. Researchers in Canada and elsewhere (Harvard’s Robert Putnam is the most famous and I’ve recently posted on Montreal researcher Henry Milner as a Canadian active in the field) have persuasively shown how patterns in declining civic engagement, particularly among young adults, are much more complex and rooted in the ways we live, not the ways we’re governed.

If we really want to strengthen democracy, we need to look at how we school our children, at how we might encourage citizens to take part in public life, at the things we do to connect as individuals with our communities at every level. None of this will be easy. But it’s what really matters.




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What’s not wrong with Canadian democracy

  1. "It's just that we're mistaken to look to our political institutions for the cause of the malaise."

    Agreed. A thousand times over, agreed.

  2. "If we really want to strengthen democracy, we need to look at how we school our children, at how we might encourage citizens to take part in public life, at the things we do to connect as individuals with our communities at every level."

    Exactly! Tinkering with the system in order to tempt citizens in a democracy to exercise not only their right, but their responsibility to take part in public life will not change the reality that now exists. It must start in the schools where students should be taught what it means to live in a democracy and what the alternatives are. Those lessons would be taken home by students so that their families become more informed and engaged.

  3. A democracy is only as intact as the citizens taking part in it. Young people aren't in on the game to the same degree? Then we have failed as parents. That's not a first-past-the-post problem. It's a parenting problem. We stole their future wealth by deficit financing over and over when they didn't have a say, and we failed to teach them why it matters that they use their say when they do have a say.

  4. John Geddes writes the most consistently thoughtful pieces here.

  5. "If we really want to strengthen democracy, we need to look at how we school our children, at how we might encourage citizens to take part in public life, at the things we do to connect as individuals with our communities at every level."

    I understand how you get here but this strikes me as exactly the wrong approach. The notion that the state should get involved in educating children about the attitudes they should take towards public life is exactly backwards.(Not to mention the scary parallels this makes with political regimes that represent the polar opposite of liberal democracy.) That participation is down shows that leaders no longer inspire citizens, it's up to the leaders to fix their problem. The problem is not with the people.

    The right to vote, if it is to mean anything at all, has to include the right to not vote, to not care enough to vote.

  6. "If we really want to strengthen democracy, we need to look at how we school our children, at how we might encourage citizens to take part in public life, at the things we do to connect as individuals with our communities at every level."

    I understand how you get here but this strikes me as exactly the wrong approach. The notion that the state should get involved in educating children about the attitudes they should take towards public life is exactly backwards.(Not to mention the scary parallels this makes with political regimes that represent the polar opposite of liberal democracy.) That participation is down shows that leaders no longer inspire citizens, it's up to the leaders to fix their problem. The problem is not with the people.

    The right to vote, if it is to mean anything at all, has to include the right to not vote, and the right to not care enough to vote.

    • It's not a matter of the state getting involved in educating children about the attitudes they should take towards public life, it's a matter of educating children about the society in which they live.

      • Ego-centrism runs through every aspect of modern society. Michael Unger was recently on with Allan Gregg discussing his new book, "We Generation". Steve Maich was also on a round-table show discussing topics from his co-authored book "Ego Boom". These changes seem to be steering us to a time where everyone will be so concerned with themselves that all of our institutions that rely on some sense of community or concern for the larger group will simply break down.

  7. Finally someone gets at the root of the problem instead of explaning things away with bias.

  8. The current schooling system teaches us what economic slavery is about. Average student debt is 25,000 across Canada with few available jobs. Once we find jobs, they are often on contract or come with so few social advantages – limited vacation time, no pension funding, job benefits, etc. Often students find themselves in default with those loans, severly limiting chances of owning your own business. Oh, did I mention that those same students can't declare bankruptcy or look to promotions at work because of changing retirement laws. If you want the youth to vote, you've got to have a society that engages them and encourages them into the workforce, who will contribute to the social costs of those leaving. Most students today graduate with an A for Apathy.

  9. Excellent post, hit the nail right on the head. We need to develop civic virtue in the young, not mess around with our institutions. The best way to do this is through participatory governance.

  10. John Geddes post should be turned into a school essay contest by Macleans'.

  11. Voter apathy is a red herring. Only 8% of the population participated in our first federal election because only certain people were allowed to vote. Now 40-50% of the population routinely vote and nearly everyone is allowed to. This change didn't fix any of the problems with our democracy nor will more participation simply because we adopted a democracy that was broken to begin with.

  12. Is there also a problem where over a million people vote for a party and receive no representation? Is there a problem where a majority of Quebecers are represented by MPs with whom they have fundamental disagreements as to the future of their province in confederation? Is there a problem where Liberals in Alberta and Conservatives in Toronto (both large groups) receive no representation in government? I can see how one might conclude that our democracy is working ‘well enough’, but I’m not sure that a compelling case could be made that there are no opportunities for improvement in representation.

    Potter suggested that FPTP is resistant to gaming. I can’t see how he arrives at that conclusion. There is all kinds of gaming occurring, including candidates continuing to campaign even after they have resigned (Saanich-Gulf Islands). There is enormous incentive for voters not to give their honest preference when voting, which is also gaming.

    My choice for reform would be close to copying Australia’s legislature: PR in the senate, and preferential-vote in the House of Commons. I also like how their GG publishes decisions. It bothers me that we don’t know the rationale used by the GG to allow the prorogation in December. The GG should not be a black box.

    • Is there also a problem when only 1 or 2 percent of Canadians are members of a political party?

      • Yes there is. It allows the riding nomination process to be easily rigged to get a preferred candidate.

        • Quite. If more people got involved, they wouldn't have to complain about the choices the end up with in the end.

    • The argument that "conservatives in Toronto and Liberals in Alberta recieve no representation in government" is absolutely false, and this type of argument is one of the consistent lies and misunderstandings promoted by supporters of PR.

      Everyone in Toronto and Alberta and everywhere else across the country gets a vote. Every riding in the country elects an MP. That MP does not represent only the people who voted for him/her, that MP represents ALL the citizens of their riding. EVERYONE is represented.

      If the person I vote for is not elected that does not mean I am disenfranchised or that my vote is wasted. It means my choice was in the minority amongst my neighbours.

      But the fact that all MPs know there are people in their riding who voted against them is part of what keeps them accountable. A PR system would in some ways be less accountable, because the MP would be solely accountable to the Party and the people who voted for his/her party. There would be no need to consider a broader national interest or a specific local one on the basis of representing people who didn't vote for you.

      • In theory, indeed. The way electoral calculus works in this country is that residents of ridings who are unwinnable are irrelevant to a given party. Please note that I advocate PR for the senate, which is better than the crazy scheme of giving PEI as much say as Ontario (who would be your pick for, say, Minister for Potatoes?). The House should continue to have single member representation, but with preferential voting, we’d at least get a consensus candidate, and making strategic voting irrelevant.

        • Fair enough. I can agree with that much more. A preferential ballot for MPs is a good idea, as it would eliminate the ridiculous argument that those who don't vote for the winner aren't represented.

          Any kind of Senate reform is problematic, and I'm actually not averse to equal regional represenation like in the U.S Senate, but I would be willing to consider a PR Senate if the Commons remains single member (either FPTP or preferential ballot).

        • Fair enough. I can agree with that much more. A preferential ballot for MPs is a good idea, as it would eliminate the ridiculous argument that those who don't vote for the winner aren't represented.

          Any kind of Senate reform is problematic, and I'm actually not averse to equal regional represenation like in the U.S Senate, but I would be willing to consider a PR Senate if the Commons remains single member (either FPTP or preferential ballot).

          Further,
          "The way electoral calculus works in this country is that residents of ridings who are unwinnable are irrelevant to a given party."
          The electoral calculus, yes; the governing calculus, no.

      • That's how it was supposed to work, yes.

        But wasn't Michael Fortier appointed on the basis that Montreal would have no representation?
        And remember that Conservative Dick Harris, MP for Cariboo- Prince George, issued a news release naming Houston (BC) Mayor and Conservative candidate Sharon Smith as "the person residents of neighbouring riding Skeena-Bulkley Valley should contact with concerns or issues with the federal government." Nevermind that the elected MP was Nathan Cullen.

        So I don't think it's a terrible stretch to suggest that conservatives in Toronto really don't receive representation, because the Harper party has made it quite clear they don't listen to any other MPs.

        • You're right. We should allow the government to appoint all our representatives, so every area is represented in government. Just like the People's Republic of China.

  13. Superb article. Well done Geddes.

    The problem rests with individuals and virtue. Government is not going to solve this one.

  14. I voted for the last time (in the foreseeable future) in the last federal election. I doubt I will ever vote again in a Provincial election either. I do plan on spoiling my ballot from here on out though. Why? Because, as a general rule, ALL POLITICIANS ARE THE SAME. As long as the majority of politicians are willing to kowtow to big business and appoint their friends to all of the plum positions, the few that actually have integrity and try to represent their constituents will be muzzled.

    • And your plan to not vote will be helping out how, exactly?

  15. Agree with the entire article, except the last paragraph.

    Today we have a substantial portion of the population who do not participate at all; they might be a bit grumpy about politics, but for the most part they just live their lives and don't lose much sleep thinking about politics and governance.

    Then we have the engaged people. Some of them like the system basically the way it is – or at least they don't see the need to make changes to it – and then we have the rest of the engaged people, folks who are disappointed by some portion(s) of the current system (the partisanship or the apparent focus on politics over policy or the lack of representation that meets their desires or whatever) or maybe they are even disappointed by the every part of the current system, but yet they are engaged.

    So now assume that we set out on the recommended path, we modify how we school our children, and we adopt programs (or whatever) to encourage citizens to take part in public life and so on.

    A decade or two later we will end up with what? My bet is that we end up with a larger group of engaged but disappointed people. Maybe then there will be enough demand for the other changes that are sometimes discussed.

  16. Agree with the entire article, except the last paragraph.

    Today we have a substantial portion of the population who do not participate at all; they might be a bit grumpy about politics, but for the most part they just live their lives and don't lose much sleep thinking about politics and governance.

    Then we have the engaged people. Some of them like the system basically the way it is – or at least they don't see the need to make changes to it – and then we have the rest of the engaged people, folks who are disappointed by some portion(s) of the current system (the partisanship or the apparent focus on politics over policy or the lack of representation that meets their desires or whatever) or maybe they are even disappointed by the every part of the current system, but yet they are engaged.

  17. I agree with John Geddes’ assessment that the events mentioned above were indeed examples of Canadian democracy at its best. The problem is that all of these events mentioned happened roughly 2-3 decades ago. The fallout from these events is that since that time, we have been governed by a string of leaders who lack conviction out of a fear that they will be pilloried in the polls for fully acting on any convictions they may have. Comparing the current crop of politicians and their policies to those of leaders like Tommy Douglas, Lester Pearson, Rene Levesque, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Mike Harris, and Preston Manning, to name a few (across the spectrum) provides the most vivid illustration of this point.

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