Witnessing a democracy's decline

Apr 21, 2009 04:30 AM



Nineteen per cent of Canadians think their federal democracy is healthier than it was two decades ago. They haven't been paying nearly enough attention.

A lot has happened here while one in five of us was otherwise occupied. Prime ministers now rule between elections with the near absolute authority of monarchs. Parliament has lost its defining ability to safeguard the public purse. Institutions are so weak that tough questions aren't answered when the RCMP tilts an election or when the party in power challenges the authority of the Governor General.

So many other conspicuous failures make the list that there's a hum in this capital about Canada's declining democracy. Honourable members returning from two more weeks away are finding the place awash in three new books and newspaper commentary deconstructing how power slipped from citizens, backbench MPs and cabinet ministers into the hands of appointed professionals clustered around the Prime Minister.

It's too early to tell if this is Canada's modest facsimile of Czechoslovakia's 1968 Prague Spring, the blooming of democratic revival crushed under invading Soviet boots and tanks. It's not too soon to conclude that citizens here are rightly worried that accountability, rules and even laws are now routinely sacrificed to expediency.

On April 4, this paper published an essay, now found at thestar.com/travers, arguing that legitimate as well as illegitimate forces were breaking the bonds binding politicians, particularly successive prime ministers, to the people. The response was overwhelming. Canadians, cognitively or intuitively, had sussed out that something is wrong here and, unlike the optimistic 19 per cent EKOS Research surveyed, don't think it's getting better.

Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson agrees. She writes in a foreword to Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, a thoughtful collection of mostly academic articles focusing on the pre-Christmas coalition crisis: "There is so much misunderstanding about our system and of the functioning of every part of it that we are in serious danger of losing the good things that we have and of not understanding when bad things happen."

Green Leader Elizabeth May and former MP Garth Turner detail those threats in new books. Then they offer elixirs. May, an outsider wanting in, argues for the correctives of proportional representation and coalition government. Turner, once an insider and now on the outs, sees salvation in the empowering blogosphere.

Of course, there's no silver bullet, no quick fix. A system progressively dismantled over decades by Liberal and Conservative prime ministers isn't repaired overnight. Restoring Parliament as a public watchdog, making ministers more than a focus group and convincing civil servants to again speak truth to power all require a protracted test of wills.

Control is as convenient to leaders and their nodding cliques as it is intoxicating. It won't be surrendered without a struggle.

Still, there's hope beyond the coincidence of current concern. Ballot-box rewards wait for the leader or party able to convince Canadians that democratic reform is a commitment, not just another campaign promise to be scrapped once power has been secured.

Proof of that political potential is in the 40 per cent EKOS found who believe that democracy's in failing health. Proof is found, too, in those who still bother to vote in the expectation they are electing a functioning government complete with democratic safeguards, not a four-year autocrat.



James Travers' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.



Commentary by the Ottawa mens Centre


The Star article is a wake up call - For decades there has been a slow erosion of basic democratic rights. Perhaps the number one symptom is the failure of the Freedom of Information. Any request regarding police, jails, judges, justice, courts, local officials with absolute is routinely denied. Police reports come blacked out at great cost. Judges now prevent anyone recording proceedings while ordering transcripts not be provided or even ordering that they be altered or, ensuring that they are not delivered until too much time has passed. Politicians have stacked the judiciary with judges who will make political decisions rather than legal decisions. The primary effect of the abuse of power is the virtual destruction of the Rule of Law in Canada.