Why renewing democracy in Canada must begin first with democratic reform
Much has been written recently by many with respect to identifying what is wrong with democracy or government in Canada and how they might be "renewed." Yet, the elephant in the room which has largely been ignored in this discussion of how to renew democracy in Canada is the unavoidable conclusion that Canada is a 21st century country with a 19th century constitution and a 19th century electoral system. Furthermore, unless we acknowledge this reality, any hope of renewing democracy in Canada is simply a pipe dream. Indeed, to even speak of a "renewal" of democracy in Canada is itself misleading because the system of governance under which we have operated since Confederation was never intended to and has never functioned in practice as any kind of acceptable option for a modern democratic state.
Strange as it might seem, the one group committed to radical change in Canada who has recognized this undeniable fact and acted aggressively on it to remake our country is the present Conservative Party of Canada. The kind of radical change which constitutes the rightist agenda of the Harper Conservatives may not be the kind of change which the overwhelming majority of Canadians want, but it has proceeded apace nonetheless under both the Conservative minority and "majority" regimes.
If one were to describe the modus operandi of the Harper Government during its tenure in office, it might be summed up as follows. They know full well the depth of the democratic deficit in the Canadian constitutional framework and they know exactly how they can ultimately use this to remake this country in their own image. How, you might ask, can they achieve this objective in an allegedly democratic country where 60%+ Canadians citizens did not vote for them in the last federal election. Isn't the irrevocable political reality that Canada was and still is a predominantly small "L" liberal country and that it is likely to remain so for some time to come?
The answer easily enough is because the Harper Conservatives know that this country has a 19 century constitution, a 19th century electoral system and a largely uniformed or apathetic citizenry and that a determined minority political party in power can exploit this knowledge to secure their rightist agenda. Not much different in many respects than how a radical right wing party in Germany in the 1930's accomplished this by utilizing the same constitutional shortcomings and the same electoral system which we still have in Canada. That party never achieved an absolute majority of votes either but it too managed a "majority" that never exceeded more than 37% of the German electorate and we all know where that lead.
The Harper Conservatives, recognizing the flawed constitutional structures and electoral system which pass for democracy Canada, have made this the key element of their political strategy and they have implemented it so effectively that they are well on their way to constructing a new concept of Canada which may well be radically different than that held by the majority of Canadians today. This "new" Canadian democracy, which the Harper Conservatives is constructing however, has very little which is actually new about it; firmly rooted as it is in an outdated constitutional system which has changed minimally since !867
What is new, however, is the ideological rigour and determination with which the Harper Conservatives have acted to achieve their agenda by exploiting every one of the multiplicity of democratic flaws which have always existed in our old and outmoded constitutional system. Earlier, Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments did exploit these same democratic shortcomings to their occasional advantage, but, being less ideological and more consensual in their approach to governance, they did not attempt to use them to alter or remake the political status in any radical way.
Consensus and compromise were the operative Canadian political values for most of this period and whatever role ideology played in this process was left to marginal parties on the political right or left. There were, to be sure, heated debates, but, even here, the Progressive Conservatives could go from confirmed opponents of free trade to exponents of it and the Liberals vice versa indicating that ideological rigour was not the defining element in their political response to issues.
When the Reform Party and the right wing rump of the former Progressive Conservative party morphed into the Conservative Party, the populism and democratic inclinations of the Reform Party quickly gave way to the ideological thrust of the right wing conservative faction led by Stephen Harper. This is precisely the point at which the old political Canada and the new political Canada converged with the emergence of new right-wing ideologically driven party within an old and badly flawed Canadian constitutional structure devoid of any strong democratic principles or protections to confront this new political development. The results were predictable, although it took some time before the new Conservative Party agenda, often referred to initially by their opponents as their "hidden agenda," could be put in place. Even with the election of Conservative minorities in 2006 and 2008 and, despite the weakness of the opposition, the Harperites kept their ideological tendencies in check and adopted a kind of populist and relatively mainstream governing style. In fact, they spent liberally and, in general, with a few concessions to their populist and ideological base, they stayed largely within the traditional mainstream of Canadian politics. This undoubtedly was a strategic longer term consideration as well as a practical necessity as any aggressive or radical political initiatives might have insured a hasty Parliamentary defeat on an issue that might not have the support of the necessary 37% of the Canadian electorate they needed.
Suffice it to say, Conservative patience was rewarded in 2011 when they received their 39% majority and were finally in the position whereby they could fully exploit the democratic deficits in our flawed constitution and begin to drive their ideological right wing agenda straight through it. In fact, their election victory itself in 2011 relied a great deal on a staple component of good old Canadian political values, i.e., the preference for majority governments over minority ones and our seeming dislike of or unfamiliarity with coalition governments. The persistence of the latter values may also explain why constitutional change and even the demand for such changes in Canada have lagged far behind other democracies including several with the same British antecedents as ours. The Canadian electorate has traditionally and continues to prefer authority and certainty in government over democracy and the uncertainty that sometimes goes with it. Until this belief changes, we are likely to continue to have "majority" governments of the sort we currently have for some time to come. This, combined with the democratic shortcomings implicit in our outdated constitution, means that any government, but particularly and dangerously so when it comes to ideological driven ones like the present regime, will be able to remake the country in whatever image they like in the course of the five year "mandate" they are able to achieve with the votes of a minority of the Canadian electorate
We can already see this pattern emerging in the "majority" Harper Conservative government which was elected in 2011. This is a government which has much less patience for processes of Parliamentary debate and sees the committee system, which they now control, as a bothersome kind of inconvenience to getting things done. The case of the dismantling of the Wheat Board is instructive in this respect where parliamentary process was largely ignored as were all attempts at consultation, compromise or consensus. No referenda, no legal opinions, just do it in the shortest time and rid the country of a detested remnant of Canadian socialism. The same approach is evident in the discussions over the fiscal transfers to the provinces for health care, again just a unilateral government decision, no discussion, debate, or any effort to achieve consensus or compromise
.More importantly, perhaps, was the obvious agenda of removing the federal government from our health care system completely with respect to policy, standards, or any other form of involvement. Let the provinces take care of their individual health care systems and, if they do not have enough funding, they then will get as much health care as they can afford. The likely result is ten health care systems in Canada without any guarantee with respect to equality or level of care from one jurisdiction to another or even that the system remains essentially public in character. The ideological objective is to get the federal government out of public health care and perhaps to kill or privatize it altogether over time
The recent appointments of vetted Conservative partisans to the Senate, the appointment of a unilingual Auditor General with partisan party ties as well as two right leaning Supreme Court justices indicate that the Harper Conservatives are fully exploiting the almost unlimited powers the Prime Minister has under our constitution to make the key constitutional appointments that insure their agenda is "constitutionally" entrenched.
Remember when Stephen Harper told Canadians to allay their fears about a possible hidden agenda on the part of his party to radically change the country, that we would be protected by Parliament, the bureaucracy and the courts; not likely it seems under the present Canadian constitutional structures where the sitting PM has ultimate control over all these constitutional levers as well. Faced with the obvious democratic deficit in Canada, my advice for all well meaning advocates of 'democratic renewal" in Canada is to start a new campaign which is focused on constitutional reform without which any real democracy is impossible.