Democratic deficit needs our attention

Lana Payne
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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.

Disconnect growing

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

Her column returns March 26.

Organizations: Harper Conservatives, Federal Court of Appeal, Elections Canada Globe and Mail Institute for Wellbeing NDP Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada

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Recent comments

  • Ursula Dowler
    March 13, 2011 - 09:45

    With all due respect Ms. Payne , had you written the same article describing the politicial system here in NL. , I and others would have given it some credence . Until we clean our own house , there is no way that we can expect the politics of this country to change . Virtually everything that you have said here applies to what is going on under our very noses , and until we as a people can trust our own instincts , to do what is best for us , there is little hope that we will have any control over what goes on in the rest of the country . Senator Ruth is not the only one advocating "shutting up ", we have journalists on the west coast , handing out the very same advice.

  • pat
    March 12, 2011 - 15:31

    The people of Canada have been misled BY the MEDIA since before the 2006 election.. CTV,and CBC and print media and radio gave Harper a pass in 2005. They were all extremely rude & hostile To Paul Martin and the Liberals (not fair and balanced) and it has continued ever since. They gave away Millions of dollars for free unfair & unjust attack ads on Stephan Dion. Why didn't they have the guts to to say they won't be part of this garbage misrepresentation to subvert our Democracy. No, they aided and abetted our spiral down to almost a dictatorship. It is the MEDIA that is ruining our democracy. Did they once correct Harper about his blatant lies? Did one of them ever say a coalition is NOT a Coup? The Media left the ignorant people, ignorant on purpose. There were some Professors that tried to tell us. They spoke out the truth and the Media sidelined them. The Media is all big business all the time and NOT in it for Canadians. Ask Kady O'Malley CBC : The House Mar.12/11

  • Hal
    March 12, 2011 - 11:10

    Well written article , my only disagreement would be that the Canadian electorate is not nearly as smart or informed as you might think. The Brookings Institutes last study on voters shows how most people vote against their own best interests due to the fact that they actually believe in all the noise and propaganda they are been fed. Unfortunately most Canadians like Americans are so busy trying to make a living and raising their families , that they basically vote " blind faith " instead of looking at the policies of the parties.