Democracy 101

Matttbastard, as per usual, is doing a great job staying on top of the various relevant points that are coming out now that there’s something big happening in Canadian politics. The links he’s got on his various posts over there flesh out better than I ever could the whats, hows and whys of this possible progressive coalition government.

Me, I still get tempted to scroll down just that little bit into the CBC comment zone. I know I shouldn’t. I know it will cause me pain. But I also know that this is what the general Canadian public thinks about how our government works, or should work. There are a lot of good comments over there that are explaining why words like “treason” and “coup” are, frankly, fucking ridiculous, but there are lot of others from more moderate voices opposing this coalition in principle. The basic argument (the one that isn’t based on either “Lions and tigers and separatists and socialists, oh my” or “Jack Layton is an evil lying scumbag politician who makes political deals and has political negotiations with other politicians behind the scenes! Shouldn’t you be outraged now, hypocrite lefties?!?”) says that this minority Conservative government is the one that we as Canadians elected fair and square and that any change in governing party or PM would have to go through another election process. Many of these also include some hefty tones of bitterness suggesting that the left-wingers were the ones who wanted an election in the first place, so we should continue to want another one instead of supporting this “undemocratic” course of action.

Okay. Even beyond the nuances of coalition, and how it might work especially given the negotiations over cabinet seats for the smaller party and the role of the Bloc, how hard is it, really, to understand that this is exactly the point of a parliamentary structure? Anyone who’s looked at the theory of the Canadian political structure beyond the very basics understands that the PM is not, in theory, necessarily the leader of the party with the most seats (minority or majority), (s)he’s the person identified by the representatives as best able to make the government function by gaining the support of the majority of parliament. In practise, that person is usually the leader of the party with the most seats, even in a minority government, but an organized coalition of opposition parties to such a minority in a time when trust in the government is seriously threatened by, say, a global financial meltdown, would be exactly the exception to that rule.

Maybe that’s actually Canadian politics 201 or so, and my snarky title is unwarranted from that angle, but my main source of frustration is actually the continued demonstration of outright laziness on the part of the electorate. I think I was 19 or 20 when I read John Ralton Saul’s book Reflections of a Siamese Twin and suddenly woke up to this idea of participatory democracy (I’m not the biggest fan of Saul anymore, and I do realize now that there are far more challenging thinkers who are hitting that drum a lot harder and a lot more directly, but I was young and just beginning to emerge from my shell of mainstream complacency). At that point, it was actually news to me to imagine that we don’t have to think of democracy as something that only happens when we mark an X on a little piece of paper. Once a government is elected, we the people, whether we voted for them or not, do have the right/responsibility to try to influence their policies, and opposition parties do have the absolute duty to try to pull those policies in the direction of what those who voted for them would expect. Really a radical concept, I know, but I was a teenager during the Harris government in Ontario, when the most common response to any kind of a non-Conservative political opinion was basically “You can’t complain – he’s only doing exactly what he promised he would do”. This position was perhaps leveled even more strongly against people who voted for him because they liked some aspects of his position, but then felt that maybe he had gone a little too far, or wanted to speak out against other policy issues. And I remember being a loud and passionate but somewhat inarticulate 17 year old, feeling completely baffled as to how to respond to that point, not because I thought it was a good one, really, but because I kinda just didn’t know where to start.

Democracy is not an all or nothing proposition. That should be simple, but the philosophical position underlying that argument during the Harris government, and the current argument that the Harper government won fair and square and therefore the opposition parties have no right/authority to form this kind of a coalition, or that they would be going against the will of the electorate in doing so, is that “the will of the people” can only be expressed through marks on papers and those Xs demonstrate complete agreement with everything the party next to them says at any time, ever, regardless of the circumstances. Nuance not allowed. Negotiations not allowed. Shifting positions as new information becomes available definitely not allowed.

You know what’s undemocratic? Complacency. Casting a vote – or fuck, not even bothering to cast a vote – without bothering, really, to examine what the issues on the table are or what you might be voting on/for (I wish I could forget how many Ontario voters went to the booth last year not knowing there was a referendum happening, let alone what it was about), then crawling back into a nice, warm bed, singing a round of “Que Sera, Sera” and steadfastly refusing to think about politics until the next time there’s an X to place in a box. Or rather, until someone who believes that democracy actually also happens between election days, that nuances are kind of important, that opposition parties should oppose and might even accomplish something, starts trying to make that work. Then your role as a proponent of such good Canadian values as peace, order and good government is to tell that person to shut up and take it, majority (or the closest thing to it, even when it’s not) rules.

GodDAMN does that piss me off. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go lament the fact that I just wasted an hour or so writing 1000+ words that do not count toward the thousands this little grad student monkey is supposed to be churning out in essay form this week.

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5 thoughts on “Democracy 101

  1. hysperia says:

    Hurrah and brava Purtek! It drives me nuts that a civics class has to be taught while we’re in the middle of a critical moment, So much knee-jerk and ignorant reaction. But it doesn’t help when the politician who argued to Michaelle Jean that he would have the right to form a government (Harper) tells people this move by the opposition is “treason”, does it? I was hanging out with my cousin for the weekend and he said they should all be charged and put in jail! How did I hold my temper?

  2. […] purtek has a great post on this too […]

  3. Oliver says:

    Good on you. I’ve been profoundly frustrated with the discourse surrounding what is an entirely legitimate practice of parliamentary democracy, for many of the same reasons you’ve outlined above.

    Obviously, the strength of the discourse against the “unelected seperatist-socialist” coalition is predicated upon a mentality that presumes that the coalition is an attempt to over-turn of the will of the voting public (possibly an illegal one, the talking points imply, and certainly unprincipled). This is, again, troubling for reasons you’ve largely covered. However, I don’t think we’ve even began to scratch the surface of the Canadian electorate’s comprehensive lack of understanding of our government and it’s machinations.

    The idea that the coalition is disregarding democracy by seeking power without a mandate suggests to me that Canadians do not understand the rudiments of parliamentary democracy. There appears to be some unexamined doxa maintained among the electorate that federal parliamentary elections manifest an electoral college that directly elects an executive branch of government that is separate from (and above) the legislative body from which executive power (in this country) is derived. I’m beginning to think that this is the likely consequence of the inescapable prominence of the American presidency on this continent (and the inside-baseball media culture which underscores it). As the machinations (both public-transparent and backroom) of American executive government (and more generally, American political ideologies) are reduced, conventionalized, narrativized, etc, they enter into (non-reflexive) canadian public consciousness as the meta/master-narrative which underpins ‘democracy’, and by extension our government and political system.

    Of course, my intent here is not to blame American media and government for what is, strictly speaking, Canadian problem. But the phenomenon is wholly lamentable. While I will stop short of advocating a mechanism to strip voters of the right to practice democracy if they demonstrate a failure to comprehend our political system (which, for the record, I was doing so earlier this week, until I realized how untenable such a position is in a liberal democracy), there is a serious need to address that lack of comprehension and to re-engage a canadian public that is incapable of approaching government like the complex, immensely technical array of political, social and cultural power that it is.

  4. purtek says:

    OLIVER! Oh, how I’ve missed your esoteric commentary. 🙂

    Total agreement on pretty much everything you say. It’s really terrifying how much this is revealing about people’s misunderstandings of what a *parliament* means. The coalition is not disregarding democracy, it is, in fact, democracy *working*.

    It’s all simultaneously really exciting and extraordinarily discouraging.

  5. Oliver says:

    “It’s all simultaneously really exciting and extraordinarily discouraging.” – this is the political headspace i presently inhabit. I am vacillating between jubilation about genuine, meaningful change in the way parliament works and party’s perceive their relationship to each other, and miserable woe that this meaningful change had to come in the form of a three-pronged trident spear wedge issue that simultaneously manifested one constitutional and two national unity crises.

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