A Canadian Near Majority for No Options on Offer

There have been a fair number of hands wrung in public about poor voter turnout at all levels of government, lately, but nothing much done about improving the situation. It’s not my intention today to try and solve all the problems in politics in Canada within 1,200 words or so — talk about trying to boil the ocean! — but to focus on just one factor:

The disenfranchised see no point in voting

What do I mean, “the disenfranchised”? Well, simply put, if you conclude that (a) the system now only turns on leaders of parties — not even the party and the rest of its cadre of candidates, but simply X, Leader of Y —, (b) once elected, leaders see no responsibility to the electors to honour their commitments, (c) once elected, leaders see no reason to invest energy in persuading us that a course change is the reasoned thing to do but simply impose the change, (d) once elected, public opinion — unless loud and highly persistent — is brushed off as “the ravings of the uninformed who should leave such matters to their betters”, and (e) the system is now so complex that getting anything done within it is a matter for intermediaries, fixers, professional supplicants and courtiers, then (f) why bother with the charade of voting?

I had always been a dedicated citizen: studying the issues, paying attention to my local candidates, avoiding reflexive party voting, trying to cast a reasoned ballot. I have followed political matters between elections; I have belonged to multiple parties over my life (if only as a financial supporter).

Living outside of Canada twice, however, forced me to realize — years later — that whilst I lived in the United States and in the Netherlands, places where I was outside the political process (not being a citizen), that I didn’t actually miss much. Things unfolded in both countries exactly as they would have had I been able to get involved, and been involved. In other words, despite all the object lessons that one vote matters, whether these be in Florida in 2000 or in Vancouver-Quadra two weeks ago, the reality was that all it mattered for was “who got to win and who got to lose”. In terms of how the national landscapes unfold, it didn’t make a whit of difference.

So, too, here in Canada — in British Columbia — in the City of Vancouver. There is no reason to be “for” anything, for there is no result obtainable 99% of the time by being “against”. Whether one is choosing positively, or simply voting to “toss the bahstids out”, makes no difference. The system trundles on, unaffected.

See how the Harper Government has been co-opted by the “Ottawa consensus” of the civil service, the central provinces’ leaders and “conventional wisdom”. See how the Federal Liberals still fail to recognize that their day as the “Natural Governing Party” died ages ago — with John Turner — and that Chrétien was an aberration brought about by the last rebellion of the voters breaking up the Progressive Conservative coalition, not the attractions of Chrétien at all (or of Martin in succession, who no longer had a divided opposition to face off against). Enough said: the stately dance continues.

Then there’s the mess in British Columbia, where we have a left:right political rationalisation completed for generations, and therefore a sense of entitlement on the majority side (the “right”). Why not? — far too many people in BC would rather die than vote for “the left” (whatever that is, these days: it’s certainly not what they think it is) no matter how crooked, dismal, abysmal, arrogant, expensive, etc. the “right” becomes. Enough said: without the threat of discipline, politics will run amuck.

Or how about the City of Vancouver. Wardless — oh, how that helps the NPA hold power! — and with neither side needing to offer anything to anyone who lives here. Unless, of course, you’re a developer, in which case have at the city and put up more ugliness. This city deserves the low-life that is Sam the Sham, Mayor of all the “people that count”.

If there was any level of government that ought to have given an opportunity to have influence, it ought to be the one closest to home — the municipal. But none of us do. At the end of the day, a municipal ballot is a long list of candidates, and no more. No wonder people block vote by party — or, as do about two out of three, ignore the whole thing. There’s no point. Taxes will rise, services will be chopped, streets will stay in deplorable state, and “prestige” will be all that matters.

Our political leaders, by making this all about themselves over the years (perhaps a good “Kicking Liberal Ass for the Good of Canadian Politics” aimed at the likes of Senator Keith Davey, Warren Kinsella and the likes is in order, if only to let off steam for their tactics of debasement), has broken faith with the institutions of responsible government. Responsible to Parliament? Three-line whips for almost every vote, trained seal tactics in the House, message management outside of it and a “who gives a damn who the candidate is” towards the constituency MP have destroyed that responsibility, which is founded in, and survives via, backbench rebellion. Responsible to the citizens? Hardly: Jeffrey Simpson was right, we elect “Friendly Dictators”, regardless of majority status or party affiliation.

That’s why we’re not supposed to talk policy, but instead positions. Why we’re not supposed to criticize, but to trash opponents. Why there are emerging “affiliation tests” across the blogosphere, and a growing hostility and refusal to see one’s challengers over a course of action as your equal and worthy of consideration and respect even in disagreement.

The MSM has their part to play in turning everything to the simple story line of a horse-race, and backroom intrigue, of course, but we put up with it, don’t we? If you don’t like the way CTV or the CBC cover matters, turn the television off — and keep it off. But we won’t do it. We deserve the outcome, the way we act.

Meanwhile, the more rational amongst Canadian citizens have checked out. They spend their time on other matters. Increasingly, an election is given and “no one shows up”. This allows the more rabidly partisan to use ever-smaller numbers to “win” — and thus reinforce the politics of position and shouting as opposed to debate and consideration. The cycle intensifies.

Eventually democracy itself will be lost, if only from a lack of interest. But that is form finally catching up to function. Democracy as a function of the political mind-set was lost a long time ago.

I doubt many will actually miss it when it goes.

One response to “A Canadian Near Majority for No Options on Offer

  1. As someone who works in politics for a living, and who, come election time, finds himself dealing with large numbers of voters in one format or another, I am continually perplexed by the level of political disengagement on the part of Canada’s electorate. Not that I’m unaccustomed to wide-scale indifference to all matters political, coming as I do from the United States (I’ve lived in Canada for about 6 years now). It’s just that I had higher expectations of Canadians. I was quickly disabused of these, however, after working a few elections up here.

    I suspect that the public at large must bear a greater responsibility for the current state of affairs than your well-written essay admits. Sure, the media trivialize all public affairs, reducing complex issues to decontextualized images and increasingly compact soundbites. Sure, Government has worked with business over generations to depoliticize more and more issues, taking them out of the realm of politics altogether, and placing them within the purview of various bureaucracies. And certainly because of these changes, voting seems less and less urgent.

    But what has the public been doing throughout all of these momentous changes? Citizens in a democratic republic have more responsibilities than just showing up every few years to vote. People have grown accustomed and complacent with the way in which representation is achieved in this country: i.e., with allocating the work of politics to the “experts”—their representatives—who are, we are to presume, to work on behalf of their constituencies in a clientelist fashion, as a lawyer to a client. Meanwhile, citizens are to while away their time in their unsatisfying jobs, spending their free time on diverting activities and vacations.

    But the problem with this arrangement is that a functioning democracy requires—demands—and active and participatory public. Voting can matter, should matter. But it won’t until the public rouses itself from its many diversions in the time between elections and demands to take back the decision power that should be back of their vote, but which now isn’t. When citizens withdraw from the public arena (and that is most certainly what has taken place), a vacuum is created. Interests who do have clear agendas to push invariably rush to fill in this vacuum. At this point, all the problems spelled out in your essay follow.

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