December 18 2003
Dear Mr. Martin -
I have listened with interest to your talk of the "Democratic Deficit" in Canada, and examined your proposed "reforms", and regretfully I must say, I think you are missing the boat bigtime - a lot of smoke and mirrors, as it were, with little of actual substance - sorry about speaking bluntly, but I know you prefer it that way. A couple of your proposals I might comment on directly, for instance - I must say that something like an "Ethics Commissioner" is something of a bizarre notion to me - the Canadian people should have a RIGHT to honest government, and not need someone to be watching our representatives - it should be a bottom line given, and is indeed a major sign of the depths to which we have sunk that such a thing even needs to be talked about - but if we have to have one, and it appears we do these rather sad days, wouldn't it be better if such an individual was elected by the people during an election rather than appointed one way or another by the very people he is supposed to be overseeing? Likewise the "free votes" that you are saying is such a big issue - again, we should have a right to expect our representatives to be voting as instructed by their constituents! - it shouldn't be presented as if you were doing us all a big favor of some sort!! These and other things you are proposing, I submit, however, are little more than superficial changes that will have little real impact on the way people feel about the current state of Canadian "democracy" (I use quotes because I am afraid I feel that, at this time in history, the word does not accurately reflect the Canadian political regime, which might indeed much more accurately be called an oligarchy, government run by and for the wealthy interests of the country) - that a "Democratic Deficit" that needs to be dealt with exists is clear, and has been for some years, by both the low and falling voter turnout, and the cynicism which Canadians express about their government in poll after poll after poll. If you are truly interested in rectifying this situation, and truly making Canada more democratic - that is, a government essentially of, by and for the people rather than the wealthy - Canadian Democracy as we enter the 21st century would be infinitely improved, and very quickly, were the following 6 measures implemented:
1) Proportional Representation
2) Full equality of ALL MPs (no 2nd-class "backbencher", "non-governing party" or "independent" MPs)
3) governing party obligated to keep election promises or face a new election
4) MPs obligated to consult constituents (and follow their wishes!) on ALL new issues and matters arising between elections that were not discussed during election campaigns
5) No signing of new "trade"-"investment"-whatever treaties and such like that amounted to amendments of the Canadian constitution without full and informed consent of Canadians through a referendum (requiring a much stronger majority than 50%+1 - the Constitution requires, I believe, 2/3s majority or something) (or because it was part of an election platform)
6) Fair and representative media
Please allow me to expand briefly on the above.
1) Giving "backbenchers" more free votes is an okay idea, if hardly earth-shattering - but what would be MUCH more useful - what indeed is really needed - is to see that Canadians get the mix and balance of MPs that they have actually voted for!! That is to say, perhaps the single greatest "democratic deficit" that those of us who pay attention to such things see, is that time after time after time Canadians, both federally and provincially, are saddled with strong majority governments, when only 25-30% of those of voting age (factoring in those who do not vote for whatever reason) have voted for the "victorious" party!! - and even when you consider only the people who voted (falling to rather pathetic levels lately, as you well know), due to our very antiquated FPTP voting system, almost no "majority governments" of the last couple of decades at least have actually had a majority of the votes that were cast. I won't bother taking space with a bunch of statistics, which others have done and I am sure you are well aware of (a very good website if you do want more information about this can be found at Fair Vote Canada"), but this means, as I am sure you can appreciate, that a large majority of the people are being governed by a party they did not vote for (for the last 20 years, at least, usually the "majority" governments actually represent 25-30% of the voting-age population) - and that, Mr. Martin, does NOT translate to "democracy", by any realistic definition you want to use, and is the single most serious problem facing Canadian democracy today. Until Canadian MPs are elected through some form of PR (as they are in every western democracy in the world with the exception of the US, UK and here!), and the makeup of the House of Commons thus accurately reflects the political feelings of the people of Canada, the "democratic deficit" will not - indeed cannot - improve. In truth, nothing else you do will have any serious impact on the way people regard politics in Canada until this happens. I (and many others) were MOST disappointed only a couple of months ago when your Liberal government defeated an NDP motion calling for the Canadian people to choose, through a referendum, whether or not they would wish to change to such a system - in truth, Mr. Martin, that seemed like a most UN-democratic move, and sure to worsen rather than improve the "democratic deficit" you say you are concerned about.
2) Secondly, I mentioned "backbencher" before - the very name is insulting when you think of it, not only to the individual occupying that space, but to the voters who put him or her there. Why, that is to say, do SOME voters in Canada have MPs with special status, while MOST voters in Canada have only a low status "backbencher" to represent them - and even worse if the representative happens to belong to a small party or, worst of all, an "independent" or someone from a party which had not won the requisite number of seats to be granted "party status" - then the individual is verily treated like some sort of pariah, with a fraction of the resources available to him/her to do their work that "front-benchers" have. How, Mr. Martin, is this in any way fair to the people in the ridings of these "backbencher" or other low-status individuals? Why are not ALL MPs accorded EXACTLY the same privileges in the House of Commons, EXACTLY the same access to research budgets and staff and time to speak in the House? They are ALL supposed to be representing approximately the same number of voters, so why should they not all have the same rights and privileges in the House of Commons? To set up a tiered system such as we currently have, with the government members (and their 30% of voter support!) getting the lion's share of privilege and speaking time and everything else is most assuredly NOT democratic, and is a much more serious problem than this "free vote" stuff (that is to say, most citizens understand that, "free vote" or not, most MPs elected under, for instance, a Liberal platform, are going to vote for the things they said they would do in the election, their platform - so what is the big deal??? - bit of a red herring, it seems to me, as an old uncle of mine used to say at times, finger cannily tapping the side of his nose. And, as I argue elsewhere, when you bring up legislation in the House that you never talked about during an election campaign, the MPs - each and every one of them - SHOULD be democratically obligated to go to their ridings and constituents, and get direction from THEM on how they should vote - isn't that what Democratic Representation means?!?!?!?!!!???
3) I would say the third most important item involving the Canadian "Democratic Deficit" would have to be the matter of accountability, in the sense of simply being able to trust the people we elect to do what they say - what they have PROMISED - during the election campaign, and have received votes based on those promises!!! It is beyond disgusting to elect politicians time after time after time on the basis of certain promises they have made, only to have those promises unfulfilled, often within days or weeks of being elected (one might mention, as a major example, your predecessor's major campaign promise in 1993 to "abrogate or renegotiate NAFTA" which was never done as he signed the deal unchanged within a few weeks of being elected, or his promise to cancel the GST) - while seeing a whole bunch of NEW initiatives that were NEVER mentioned during the election campaign suddenly being sold through massive advertising and propaganda campaigns in the national media - people are not really that stupid, Mr. Martin, that they don't see what is going on, and insulting their intelligence like this, year after year after year, has a great deal to do with voter cynicism and falling voter turnout, and until MPs (and parties) are FORCED to honour their commitments, and FORBIDDEN to be doing this bait-and-switch with new policies, your reputation and the democratic deficit are not going to improve (one of the worst things you regularly do, although money-wise quite small but morally quite large, is to say NOTHING during an election campaign about MP salary-benefit packages - and then, within weeks of being elected, suddenly decide you all need more money - despicable, to say the least. If you want to do something to improve this, you should mandate that ONLY salary packages laid out as part of an election platform will be allowed - then people can themselves have some say in it - with most Canadians struggling to make ends meet in an increasingly insecure economy and job market, this kind of "look after me first and well" behaviour by their MPs is pretty much a slap in the face to voters everywhere, and people don't like it Paul they really don't!! (And please don't start with the "we need to pay them well to attract good people" - it doesn't really hold up, I am afraid - first, if the main objective of running for parliament is to make a lot of money, well that is NOT the kind of person I want representing MY interests as a citizen - if these people think they ought to be paid corporate salaries, then they ought to be working in the corporate sector, which has different goals and different modalities. You may recall the term "Public SERVICE" - and that is the kind of people we need, people interested in doing a good job for the PEOPLE of Canada - not people interested in their own gold-plated retirement packages - that is NOT the point (or shouldn't be!) of running for parliament - we see the problems with electing this kind of person all the time, when they gets stars in their eyes from the fancy trips the Bay St people offer them and so on - people interested in doing what was right for the PEOPLE of Canada would not be susceptible to such bribes as a holiday weekend at the Irving's lodge and a trip on their corporate jet. People should not impoverish themselves doing this work, but neither should being an MP for a few years be a path to the top 2% of Canadian income earners, as it is now, and a pension most Canadians can only dream of - if these people are going to represent the interests of "average" Canadians, then they ought to BE average Canadians - somebody who lunches regularly in corporate boardrooms in Bay St. does simply not have the same outlook on life as someone who might "treat" the family once a month or so to fish and chips at the local diner.
4. In a similar vein, but quite distinct in practice, MPs should not be voting on ANYTHING according to "their conscience" or "better judgement" or "party lines" or ANYTHING - these MPs are supposed to be REPRESENTATIVES of their constituents - and that word - representative - has a very clear meaning, Mr. Martin. It is fine for MPs of the governing party to vote for things they said they were going to do during an election campaign - but during the 4-5 years of the life of a normal government, as you well know, any number of issues arise, or new legislation is proposed - and when such things happen, except in cases of DIRE emergency, each and every REPRESENTATIVE MP should be OBLIGATED to go to their constituents, and spend whatever time is necessary at meetings or using other means to accurately determine what a solid majority of those constituents feel should be done concerning the new matter, and then return to the House of Commons and represent their constituent's point of view, whether or not it coincides with their personal view. It does not do to say this is a nuisance of some sort - it is, indeed, the very meaning of representative government!! - and to do otherwise is simply not democratic! Nor does it do to say representatives are "elected to lead" - unless I misunderstand all these English words, that is simply not the case - we call it a REPRESENTATIVE democracy, not an "Elect person A or person B, who will then do what he/she wants and tell you what to do irregardless of your wishes for the next 5 years" system, as far as I can tell. So there again we have a serious Democratic Deficit in Canada, and it is something that must be addressed - if, that is, you are serious about correcting the democratic deficit in Canada, as you have so often said you are.
5). Fifth, many, many Canadians are seriously concerned about all of this "globalisation" activity of the last few years (which concern, as I am sure you are aware, has NOT been dying down, as the recent protests in Miami and Cancun demonstrated clearly), and the "trade" treaties that are constantly being signed without our approval, turning over more and more of our sovereignty to unelected corporate-dominated bodies such as the WTO or NAFTA tribunal, which pretty much invariably decide controversial issues brought before them in favor of large multi-national corporate profits regardless of the impact it has on Canadian citizens or communities. Major trade treaties - such as the FTAA currently under negotiation - should NEVER be entered into without the full and informed approval of the people of Canada - whose lives and country and future and children's futures are, after all, at stake in such things! They should either be voted on in a referendum (and NOT a 50% + 1 sort of deal, but at least a 2/3s majority required to pass, since they do effectively amount to a Constitutional Amendment), or be offered as part of a party platform (in conjunction, of course, with a PR style of voting!!! - you will recall that Mulroney got a "big majority" government to implement his FTA - but only because 60% of the voters split their votes between the NDP and your Liberals of the day - and with the 70% turnout of the election, that meant that this major, major "trade" treaty which has had a huge impact on Canada was passed into law and imposed on EVERYONE with the approval of barely 30% of the Canadian people of voting age - and that, Mr. Martin, once again, is hardly definable as a meaningful democratic process!
6) The return of a much more inclusive and representative media in Canada - currently most of the Canadian media is owned by a very small number of wealthy people or corporations, and, reflecting the views of their owners, very heavily dominated by the right-wing/neocon perspective, and Canadians are NOT given a full and fair airing of all issues such as is necessary to make informed decisions on the issues of the day. The corporate viewpoint (i.e. lower taxes lower taxes lower taxes, privatisation, "free trade", closer ties with American, etc) is expressed widely and well and aggressively through the Sun chain, the Asper Canwest chain, and the Globe and Mail and others - but the more centrist or "left" perspective is hardly to be found outside of the Toronto Star and parts of the CBC radio - and even the CBC is under serious attack by the right-wingers to silence its balanced voice. It is, I fear, not clear to me at the moment how this problem might be adequately dealt with, since in a free and democratic society one can hardly presume to tell the owners of the Canwest or Sun papers how to run their operations or who to hire as columnists or how to spin their news coverage - but nonetheless the Canadian people are currently denied a decent selection of national media - or local ones for that matter - which reflects the majority centrist point of view on such things as health care, for instance (most Canadians fully support a decently funded national system, while most of the media is strongly pushing for privatisation and an American-style system, meaning Canadians are denied information supporting their desires), or world issues such as the FTAA or dealing with American aggressions around the world, and until this serious information deficit is met squarely and rectified, it will be problematic at best to call Canada a fully functioning democracy. There are many things that might be done both directly and indirectly were you interested in addressing this urgent aspect of the democratic deficit - as the letter grows rather long already I'll forgo a listing of them here - I'm sure you can write if you would like some more input on this aspect of addressing the Canadian democratic deficit.
Most of these things and others ought to be addressed through wide-ranging debate and referenda - the government could at the very least get an idea of the way people were thinking, even if the referenda were not necessarily binding - that is, if a referendum on some issue turned out to be 52-48 or something, then your options would be pretty open, and you could bring other factors into consideration - however, if something was asked in a referendum question and 80% of Canadians, in a big turnout, expressed a solid opinion, then I would think you would be pretty much forced to do as they wished. Questions that might be suitable for such a referendum would be things like legalising marijuana or implementing a national ID card, or perhaps joining George Bush in his next war or so-called "Missile Defence Plan" (about as "defensive" as Bush's little invasion of Iraq recently was). And there should be no rush for decisions on most things - full public debate through the media (OPEN debate, NOT the government and Bay St dominating everything trying to get Canadians to accept a certain policy as we have seen so often in the past and continue to see!!), searching for a consensus of Canadian citizens (not Canadian corporations!!!) - followed by a referendum at some point which really should simply confirm a consensus decision that has already become evident.... - the politics of confrontation and domination should have no place in a modern democracy. This will take a big shift in the way our corporate leaders view society, especially in their apparent belief that they have some special calling to set government policy - but these people are, after all, only a small special interest group, and they must be willing to give way as necessary to the majority of people in the country - if, that is, we wish to call Canada a Democracy rather than an Oligarchy. Canada should be leading the way PROGRESSIVELY into the 21st century, not heading backwards into the capitalistic dark ages - we should be following the much more progressive European model of social interaction between governments and ALL citizens rather than the American model of excluding average people and having government of, by and for the wealthy.
Well, I grow lengthy, Mr. Martin, and my apologies - but I do believe that in the great debates of modern society, sound bites just do not convey sufficient information, and I try to explain some of the reasoning behind the things I say. I hope some of it has set your head nodding in agreement - sometimes it only takes the smallest encouragement to actually do something we know we should be doing, and if I have contributed to such a small push I would feel my time in composing this small missive well spent.