Democracy Isn't Easy (Nor Should It Be)


Our two major political parties have again illustrated that they have forgotten that they work for us and not the other way around. The Conservatives come off marginally worse, as the latest round of shenanigans suggest that they are not only frustrated with the rules the people of Canada saddled them with, but that they have an immature streak as well. This was illustrated at the committee level as the House of Commons considers the issue of streamlining the economic and security rules of NAFTA.

Gordon Laxer … was testifying on behalf of the Alberta-based Parkland Institute about concerns about the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), a 2005 accord by the U.S., Canada and Mexico to streamline economic and security rules across the continent. The deal, which calls North American “energy security” a priority, commits Canada to ensuring American energy supplies even though Canada itself — unlike most industrialized nations — has no national plan or reserves to protect its own supplies, he argued.

At that point, Tory MP Leon Benoit, chair of the Commons Standing Committee on International Trade which was holding the SPP hearings, ordered Laxer to halt his testimony, saying it was not relevant.

Opposition MPs called for, and won, a vote to overrule Benoit’s ruling.

Benoit then threw down his pen, declaring, “This meeting is adjourned,” and stormed out, followed by three of the panel’s four Conservative members.

(link, hat tip to Le Revue Gauche)

More recently, when the opposition members exercised their democratic rights and expressed a lack of confidence in the committee chair, the Harper Tories snitfully refused to assign a replacement.

It would be instructive to look back and see how often the Paul Martin Liberals, who operated under much the same conditions as the Stephen Harper Conservatives, pulled this sort of immature act. The Paul Martin Liberals did reschedule and delay Opposition Days in a desperate attempt to stave off defeat, but I cannot recall the Liberals obstructing the work of committees, or reacting so negatively when the opposition members of these committees had the temerity to exercise their democratic rights. Even so, any defence that the Paul Martin Liberals were worse shouldn’t wash, here. These are the rules that Canadians have given the Harper Tories and the Harper Tories should respect those rules. If they can’t take the heat, then they shouldn’t be in the kitchen.

Not that the Dion Liberals can smile. Although some Conservative supporters expressed disappointment that the latest SES polling numbers (the ones with the bragging rights of predicting most closely the results of the 2006 election) showed that they had fallen marginally behind the Liberals, the fact remains that while the Conservatives are down, the Liberals are not up. And evidence that this might be disturbing some of them comes in the form of suggestions some have made that the New Democrats are thwarting the Liberals’ divine right to govern.

Greg Bester takes on a shoddy piece of journalism by the CBC which appears to advocate a unite-the-left movement. To me it illustrates the typical Liberal arrogant belief that they are owed the votes of centre and left leaning Canadians, rather than earning them like any other political party.

This is a discussion we have had before, and to me, whenever Liberals wonder why the NDP exists, it’s proof to me that Liberals don’t get democracy. When they fail to understand why Canadians can legitimately hold opinions other than Liberal opinions, they cross that critical threshold which, to me, signals that they need to be voted down and hard, to remind them of who the true masters of this democracy are, and why there is no divine right to rule.

But the repeated suggestion that the NDP are nothing more than “Liberals in a hurry” suggests that one critical change has occurred to the political landscape. It used to be the Liberals never needed to build their majority support by seeking to consume the parties around them. Policies, maybe, but not the parties themselves.

On Greg Staples’ blog, a discussion took place about proportional representation, and among the reasons given for supporting PR were various Conservative and NDP majority governments elected with a minority of popular support (with the most egregious case being Bob Rae’s NDP, which won a significant majority of seats in the Ontario legislature, despite taking only 37.5% of the vote). These majorities didn’t have legitimacy, some people argued, because most Canadians who voted, voted against them.

Others rightly pointed out that few, if any, Liberal majority governments have been elected with the majority of the vote either, so why aren’t these governments listed as reasons to have PR? Why are they any more legitimate? And the reason is because of the space the Liberals occupy on the available political spectrum.

By positioning themselves between sizable political movements on their left (NDP) and right (Conservative), the Liberals are able to build an illusion of legitimacy. It’s the old adage, that if you have both sides in an argument angry with you, then you must be doing something right. The Liberals could play Conservative support or opposition to one policy (you’re going too far!) against NDP opposition or support to that same policy (you’re not going far enough!). Neither the Conservatives nor the NDP have that luxury. Bob Rae faced two political parties, one of which said, “you’re going too far”, while the other shouted “WOAH, NELLY, YOU’RE OFF THE MAP!”

But now the federal Liberals aren’t doing that. Instead, to try and get themselves back into majority territory, they’re casting about the parties on either side of them and saying “hey, you’re stealing our votes”, as if those votes are anybody’s to steal.

And they would only be doing that if they felt that majority territory was unattainable on their own merits. Like the Conservatives, they’re expressing frustration with the conditions the Canadian electorate has handed them. They can’t earn a majority quickly enough through their own efforts, so they’re trying to grab that majority in some other way. The Conservatives are too big and have been their strongest opponent over their past thirteen years of government to try and pull pieces off them, so that leaves the NDP.

These incidents illustrate that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals are mature enough to deserve majority rule. Indeed, as frustrating as these shenanigans are, I’m more convinced than ever that we need to enshrine this minority house, through the use of proportional representation. The partisanship and the immature bickering are all the result of the two mainstream parties being a sucker punch away of receiving just enough support to govern without thought to the as many as 60% of Canadian voters who vote against a typical majority government in this country.

If we can get through the thick skulls of these politicians that this minority situation will not change, that they will never again be able to govern without consultation of other parties, and that there is no easy way to power other than respecting the electorate, including those who oppose them, then maybe, just maybe, the quality of our political discourse will improve.

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