So How Do You Like Democracy Now?

Commenter below is right, I ran against Carolyn Bennett, not Parrish. I think I got them confused at an all-candidates meeting as well, back in the day. Memories are hazy…
Wikipedia is wrong though; I definitely got 514 votes,.

Remember those heady days of “Gritlock,” when everyone, including the Liberals, were convinced the Natural Governing Party would be in power forever? When a reporter couldn’t swing a notebook without some politician, pundit, wonk, activist, or academic bending their ear about the Democratic Deficit that afflicted our system of government? That Canadian democracy was in a crisis, and the only solution to voter alienation and parliamentary irrelevance was to implement a package of democracy-enhancing reforms that would, finally, allow the people to rule?

And so in the early years of this decade, Canada went through a weird little “democracy” craze. All anyone wanted to talk about was the desperate need for free votes in parliament (or at least a three-line whip), proportional representation, strengthened officers of parliament, an ethics commissioner with real teeth, an accountability act, parliamentary oversight of Supreme Court appointments, strengthened commitees, voter recall, and fixed election dates.

This view of things had a remarkable amount of support across partisan lines. The NDP supports these reforms partly because of the kookie fetish for “local” democracy amongst its urban supporters in Toronto and Vancouver, but also because anything that makes minority government more likely is good for the Dippers, who become more irrelevant than usual in majority parliaments. Team Martin was keen on fixing the democratic deficit not out of any intellectual dedication to a particular theory of democracy, but out of a misguided sense that the perceived problems with parliament were somehow Jean Chretien’s fault.

The only party with a coherent theory of democracy within which these reforms make any sense is the Reform/Alliance wing of the Conservatives. It is a theory of democracy that is utterly hostile to parliamentary government — a syncretic alliance of prairie populism and knee-jerk lust for American-style politics. Since the main effect of all of the various proposals to fix the democratic deficit is to weaken the government and make it harder to sustain the strong executive authority that is needed to push through substantial new social programs, it is easy to see why the Harper Conservatives support democratic reform.

And so, with the exception of proportional representation (thank god) almost all of these have been implemented in some fashion either in Ottawa or one of more of the provinces. And almost without exception, these reforms have manifestly made democracy in Canada worse. Since Paul Martin came into power promising to fix the democratic deficit, parliament has become more internally dysfunctional and less able to hold the government to account.

I had a brief fling with the Democratic Deficit around 2000, when I became so frustrated with The System and Chretien’s Liberals — but so turned off by the other parties — that I ran for the Marijuana Party of Canada, taking on Carolyn Bennett in St. Paul’s. 514 votes later, my illiusionment with single-issue parties (and with grassroots democracy in general) had been pretty well dissed. It was a nice practical lesson in the wisest words of Ned Franks’ book about Parliament, viz., that what parliament needs is not so much to be reformed as understood.

It took Stephen Harper a while longer to learn that lesson, if in fact he finally has. It is pretty obvious that he’s happy enough running a dysfunctional parliament, since an Ottawa that is busy fighting over the In-and-Out “scandal” or the Linda Keen affair is an Ottawa that can’t focus its attention on actually doing something positive for the country. And if, like Harper, your entire intellectual orientation begins with the proposition that Ottawa is Evil, well, what’s not to like?

But for whatever reason, Harper has decided that his fixed-election law is not worth the paper it is printed on, and is clearly ready to drop the writ this fall. Of course, the fixed-election gambit was always a complete bluff, having no legal or constitutional weight. It was just another spanner he could throw into our constitutional workings, another constraint he could apply just to watch parliament squirm.

Well, centuries of institutional memory are finally reasserting themselves, and responsible government is finally squirming free of the various idiotic, misguided, or cynical fetters that have been installed over the past decade or so. We need an election, yes. But more than that what we need is a majority parliament. Then, and only then, will responsible government return to this Dominion.

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