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.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.