Canada is frequently hailed as one of the leading democracies of the world, despite the fact that a majority government faces almost no accountability to the voters, and is often elected by a minority of Canadians, due to both the Westminster parliamentary system and a low rate of voter turnout. If a government is not actually accountable to its citizens, is it correct to call that state democratic?
The following post includes excerpts from a letter I wrote to my local MP, a Mr. Albrecht. In the letter I address themes such as voter participation and the state of democracy in Canada. I am looking forward to hearing Mr. Albrecht’s thoughts on the content of the letter, and welcome other responses at firstname.lastname@example.org. Furthermore, I would implore any Canadians to contact their own local MP’s to discuss issues important to them. Whatever faults Canada may or may not have, the government is extraordinarily transparent, and it is a wasted opportunity to not utilize that transparency to create meaningful discussions and real change.
Anyway, here is excerpts from the actual letter:
While there are many things I would like to discuss with you as my representative in Ottawa, I thought I should narrow the focus somewhat for this letter. I have done quite a bit of reading, thinking, and discussing about the nature of democracy in modern Canada in the last few months, and it seems to me we have a bit of a crisis on our hands. I would like then to discuss with you, at your convenience, your thoughts on the nature of democracy in Canada, especially as it relates to voter participation and to the Westminster system.
Thanks to the open nature of statistics in Canada, a minute amount of research can yield some shocking results. For instance, I was able to discover that you were able to win the most recent federal election with 54% of the vote, with a 61% turnout, which – though I could be wrong – means you in fact hold the confidence of 33% of your constituents. You may disagree with me on that, but it troubles me deeply that only one third of people in this riding agree that you are the best person for the job. To extrapolate that problem, in that same election the Conservative Party was able to seize 54% of House seats, while only winning 39% of the popular vote. Moreover, voter turnout in that election was a dismal 58%. Many people, especially people my own age, see this fact as evidence that Canada is not a democracy. It stands to reason that if a party wins 39% of the vote, they should hold 39% of the seats, not 54%; if, like the Greens, that party wins 4% of the popular vote, they should control 4% of the seats, not 0.32%, as they in fact do. Voter turnout rates aside, do you believe it is right that a party is able to form a majority government, with little accountability or opposition, while only winning the vote of a minority of Canadians? That fact alone to me suggests that Canadian democracy has a serious flaw.
To my mind, the other notable flaw in Canadian democracy is the near total party discipline, which ensures that a small group of party elites, both elected and unelected, essentially dictate voting and discussion in the house. This renders the “representative” nature of the Commons moot. When I examine the voting records of almost all votes in the House, I see that each and every Conservative member votes the exact same way, and each and every NDP member the same. I simply do not believe that some one hundred-odd individuals all have the same opinions on every voting matter put before them. I realize that party discipline allows governments to function effectively within our system, so as not to collapse the government when it is defeated, but it completely objectionable to me that my representative in the House is not voting with his or her own conscience, with a mind to the best interests of their constituents, or paying attention to public opinion in their riding. MP’s cannot claim to speak for or represent their constituents if they are not voting in the house in correspondence with the wishes and opinions of their constituents, but rather vote along party lines. I would imagine most MP’s are like yourself, in that they were elected by a minority in their riding. While that alone makes their legitimacy questionable, the fact that they are in no way beholden to their constituents on a daily basis and do not actually represent their constituents in the House, I believe, makes them illegitimate as representatives.
The little I know about you, Mr. Albrecht, is highly positive. You seem a highly intelligent, compassionate, and caring man. I would be happy to vote for you if I knew that in the House you were speaking – and voting – from your own heart and head with your constituent’s wishes and opinions in mind, and not simply following the lead of a party with which I disagree with on many points.
While the first-past-the-post system ensures more stable, non-coalition governments, I believe it is horribly out-dated. Our Westminster parliamentary system was effectively designed in the thirteenth century with the express purpose of allowing representatives from the upper classes of England monitor and give approval to the actions of their government. In the 21st century, where the means exist for all Canadians to monitor and approve or disapprove the actions of their government directly, the Westminster system is obsolete; it either needs massive reform to remain viable, or should be abandoned in favour of a system which gives average Canadians more of a say in the governance of their country, and truly makes the government accountable to the people.
Along the same lines, the Senate is consistently identified as a problem by both average Canadians and legislators, including Mr. Harper, who promised to reform or abolish it; of course, he has done no such thing, and has continued to appoint senators. The recent senate scandal has brought the issue again to the fore. Does the Senate really fulfill its supposed purpose, or is it an unnecessary rubber-stamp? Personally, I see no reason why an upper chamber could not be composed of a proportional representation system, whereby the party with 4% of the vote could control 4% of the seats – this would balance out many of the flaws in the House as it exists at present, and would drastically improve the function of democracy in Canada while requiring the fewest real changes.
If I may bring up a final point, I would like to go back to voter turnout, and the state of participatory democracy in Canada in the 21st century. While Canada’s federal voter turnout rate of 58% is appalling, even more worrying for me are two other numbers: 30% and 39%. The former is the voter turnout rate in the most recent municipal election, while the latter is the voter turnout rates among those 18-24. This is an incredible level of disengagement with politics, especially among young people, and I believe speaks to many of the problems with Canadian democracy. If only 39% of youth vote, while 75% of those 65-74 year’s old vote, it is only natural that the government and opposition will cater their activities and policies towards the senior group who actually elects them, leading them to ignore younger generation’s wants, needs, and opinions, even though it is that generation that is the future of the nation. Many youth report feeling that they do not know enough about politics to make a responsible choice voting, although given Canada’s extraordinary record at transparency this cannot be the case – if a young person wanted the information, they could find it.
The real reason young people aren’t voting, I believe, is because they are not happy with the status quo, and do not believe that participating in the process offers any real change; if you disagree with the entire system, than participating in the system is hardly the solution. Moreover, few candidates offer any meaningful change. There is nearly no difference in policy or ideology between Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats. Parties which offer true reform, including the Green Party and the Communist Party, are obviously never going to control enough of the discourse to make reform happen. Change, therefore, must either come from the demands of everyday people (and, I believe, the lack of participation in our current system would imply that they are in fact demanding change) or from the lead of the current parties, including your own.
I would welcome your comments on why youth are not engaged in the system, and how you think all parties and the government can successfully engage all Canadians and especially the youth. This is an issue that Ottawa is not paying nearly enough attention to.
The low level of participation at municipal levels is also troubling, but I believe it is highly revealing. While newsmedia and cultural discourse frequently includes federal and provincial politics, local or municipal level politics are nearly always left out (except in large cities, like Toronto). An average person then who watches the news regularly has some idea of what is going on in Ottawa or at Queen’s Park, though almost no knowledge of affairs at City Hall. Even fans of satire or comedy can gain at least some perspective on current affairs through programs like the Mercer Report et al. I believe that the number of 30% thus represents the number of Canadians who are actually willing to seek out information about affairs, policies, platforms, issues and candidates (and of course, to go to the poll on election day). If that assumption is correct, than democracy in Canada faces a serious problem, and it is up to the government and party leaders, Members of Parliament such as yourself, and everyday Canadians such as myself to address and fix this problem. I hope that this letter, and the conversation that I hope will follow, prove to be part of that process.
I await Mr. Albrecht’s response to this letter, and hope to publish his response on here, with his permission, when it becomes available.