On March 22, the Harper government, as the Canadian government is now called since the royal edict from the Prime Minister’s Office, will bring down its third budget since being re-elected in 2008.
That budget may bring down the government.
This election will come at a time when a large section of Canadian society is so turned off by politics, especially federal politics, that the status quo is unlikely to be challenged in any real way.
I don’t blame Canadians. I wish it were otherwise, but I can’t blame them for their cynical thoughts about politicians, the political system and the whole Ottawa scene.
Every day there is another reminder about why politics needs an extreme makeover.
The latest is the elections financing scandal that the governing Conservatives would like us to think is little more than an “administrative error” despite the contrary view of the Federal Court of Appeal. Federal prosecutors have since laid charges against four senior Conservatives, including two Senators.
The Conservatives have been charged with exceeding spending limits in the 2006 campaign. This is indefensible. It is indefensible because the rules from Elections Canada are pretty clear about how much money a candidate in any riding across the country is allowed to spend. In fact, you are told so.
Ironically, as Globe and Mail columnist and political writer Lawrence Martin pointed out, this elections financing scheme came at the same time that Stephen Harper was promising a new era of transparency and accountability.
Remember this was the crowd in 2006 that was going to clean up all the political scandal in Ottawa. Instead, they were immersed in creating and making new scandals — all of which have had the expected chilling effect on democratic engagement.
But perhaps that’s exactly what they want: Canadians tuned out and turned off. It’s certainly been working for the Harper Conservatives who have become experts on how to keep their political base happy, while reinforcing why the rest of Canadians should be contemptuous about traditional politics.
Consider the federal election of 2008. Canada, like the rest of the world, was heading into the worst recession since the 1930s. And yet just 58.8 per cent of us voted — the lowest percentage in our history. This compares to nearly 70 per cent of Canadians in the 1993 election, and a 75 per cent average voter turnout historically.
Democracy and democratic engagement is about more than voting, but voting is still really, really important. Usually when large numbers go to the polls, it means the status quo is about to get a lashing.
Last year, a report by the non-partisan and independent Institute for Wellbeing found that Canada has a mounting democratic deficit; that the disconnect between Canadians and those who govern on their behalf is deep, wide and growing.
The Canadian Index of Wellbeing found that fewer Canadians are voting in elections at all levels of government and while more people are interested in politics, there doesn’t appear to be any direct relationship between voter interest and voter turnout.
Fewer Canadians are volunteering for political parties and yet more and more Canadians are participating in informal political activities such as protesting, signing petitions and boycotting.
The study also found that a whopping number of Canadians are not satisfied with the state of their democracy and that the policies of the federal government have not made their lives better. So much for all those tax cuts.
But nothing changes unless we vote.
Democracy means power for the people and is based on a few simple notions, like the fact that we elect our governments; that we have structures and processes that encourage citizenship engagement; that we, the people, get to have a say in the political discourse of our country; and that we, the people, get a say in influencing public policy.
Get out and vote
Voting, discussing, participating, having a say. When citizens do all that, they need to also feel like it is making a difference, that their efforts are having an impact, that they are being heard.
Our political system needs changing. Canadians are turned off not just because of the scandals, but because of the central control we see in today’s politics. Canadians are turned off because, despite promises of more accountability and transparency, what we get is less.
Same old, same old isn’t going to turn on a new generation of Canadians, but the fact is that changing the same old, means we have to first vote. It also means that those running for political office have to understand that advancing democracy is also their job.
It doesn’t mean recommending a strategy of silence, as Senator Nancy Ruth suggested in her infamous “shut up” advice to non-governmental organizations. Silence, or perpetuating the politics of fear and division, has no place in a free and democratic society and no democracy will advance under such conditions.
Ed Broadbent, former leader of the NDP, has said that equality as a value is persistently linked with democracy and that more equality, not less, is an ethical requirement of democracy.
And perhaps this is the crux of the problem. Equality and ethics are not exactly concepts championed by the Harper government. Hard for democracy to advance when these are options rather than standard operating principles.
Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her column returns March 26.