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Obama and Harper: Bookends in a broken democracy

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On Saturday,  Jan.23  at 1 p.m. in more than 60 cities and towns, Canadians will hit the street to demand a real democracy in this country.  What started as a protest against the prorogation of Parliament is starting to look like a democracy movement.

Voters in both the United States and Canada are reacting to a broken system.  In the US by voting down the Democratic candidate for Senate in the most Democratic state of Massachusetts and in Canada by this unprecendented uprising.

Today is the first anniversary of Barack Obama's inauguration.  The massive mobilization of hope that propelled him into power and had to promise of renewing the democratic participation of the people is being eaten away by the monstrous political machine that is the American state.  The first African American President elected with the promise of change appears to be trapped inside of a system that allows so little deviation from the interests of the powerful that even a charismatic articulate loveable liberal reformer like Obama cannot achieve very much.  Obama is penned in not only by his Republican enemies, a vicious, often lying right-wing media but more importantly by his own allies who have been bought and paid for by the very powerful interests he pledged to combat.  Instead of using the grass roots citizen movement he had built in his campaign to take on the corporate elite, he has become part of parcel of the rotten system that people voted to change.

The Prime Minister of Canada on the other hand, who is neither loveable nor charismatic,  even with a minority government has been able to shut down the Parliament twice in one year, restructure foreign aid, remove most government programmes promoting equality, cut funding for any group that doesn't agree with his policy on Israel, create a chill in the federal civil service, fire any senior bureaucrat who dares to criticize, centralize power to an unprecedented degree, and turn Canada into an international pariah on climate change.  Have I forgotten anything?

In both cases, the problem is the sclerotic systems of representative democracy, different in both countries but in each case, the majority are not getting what they voted for.

I have been arguing for profound democratic reform in Canada for more that a decade but finding little resonance in the population.  Harper's second prorogue of Parliament seems to be the straw that broke the camel's back.   Chistopher White, a young University of Alberta archeology student was so angry he set up a Facebook page that now has more than 205,000 members. 

"This prorogation is far more than a matter of parliamentary procedure," he says in a rabble.ca blog post. It is emblematic of an institution that has turned its back on its people. We can stand outside and rage against the machine for as long as we like, or we can work together and take it apart, brick by brick and rebuild it anew." 

Demonstrations are planned for Saturday Jan 23 in 61 cities and towns across the country.  In Toronto, there were more than 200 mostly young people at the organizing meetings.  It's the first truly spontaneous citizen reaction I've ever seen in my long life as an activist.  Creativity in the form of videos, blogs, posters and organizing energy is exploding.  And White and other organizers across the country are saying this is just the beginning.


 Oddly enough the problem is the opposite in each country.  In Canada, individual members of Parliament have almost no power and under Harper even Cabinet ministers have little.  All power is centralized in the PMO and in the office of the Leaders.  Even still, we don't get a direct vote for those leaders, only for their party and that vote is counted by the antiquated first past the post system so a candidate with a minority of votes usually is the winner and the party that wins almost never has a majority.  There are few checks and balances in the Canadian system unlike in the US

In the US, individual members of the Congress  have alot of power supposedly to represent their constituents but in actual fact most of them are bought and paid for by the corporate lobbyists through Political Action Committees.  The balance of power in the US means the President is limited by the Congress and in the hyper sectarian atmosphere on Capital Hill, the only things Obama can achieve are things the Republicans want.  

But despite the differences, in both countries democracy is broken.  The only way to fix it, is by engaging citizens in democratic decision making at every level.  The demonstrations on Saturday are just the beginning. 


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