Thoughts on Canadian democracy
NORTH BAY, CANADA
On 2 May, 2011 Canadians will choose a new government for the fifth time in 10 years. Some consideration must be given to the broad parameters of what an election means in a modern democracy and what the significance of what democratic participation in the form of voting means.
To begin, much is made in public discussions of the need for public education of party platforms, of what certain leaders think, and of what is at stake for a range of issues such as health care, the environment, and foreign policy.
It is important that the electorate recognize that political parties represent a range of views, what we often call “ideology”, and that who we vote for is, in effect, a demonstration of a measure of confidence that we have in our support for the supposed ideology of that party.
For the most part, voting does not have the affective power we often ascribe to it. In fact, voting is often more an expression of the political identity of the individual than a vote of support for the platform, leader, party or specific candidate.
At the last major shift in power in national politics – the transition between the Mulroney era and the Chretien era – Canadians would have done well to think they were electing a new party (the Liberals) to govern in a manner quite different from the former government. However, as Liberal supporters from 1993 have come to appreciate (none moreso, perhaps, than Stephen Clarkson, the award-winning Trudeau biographer and author of Uncle Sam and Us: Globalization, Neoconservatism, and the Canadian State), the difference between the Mulroney Conservatives and the Chretien Liberals was not, in so many significant policy areas, all that great. The fundamental paradigm of neo-conservative economics was carried forward, entrenched, and defended by the Chretien Liberals and future Prime Minister Paul Martin. And, whatever differences there were on other issues, when it comes to national governance in Canada, it’s all about the economy, stupid.
The absolute electoral devastation of the old Progressive Conservatives and the fragmentation of Canadian politics that continues to this day has had very little significance in terms of major areas of policy and action. The Liberals and the old PCs are not the exact same party, of course, and do not have precisely the same positions, and things under a Kim Campbell (or other PC leader) would probably have been a bit different then under the Chretien Liberals. But given the massive electoral revolt – and the resulting interpretation of the 1993 federal election as a demand on behalf of the electorate for significant change – the trajectory of high politics in Canada has not seemed to follow the contours of what we might have expected.
Why is this the case? How could governance in Canada have remained on such a familiar, neo-conservative path in spite of the most serious shift in electoral mood in post-World War Two Western democracy? Don’t elections matter, especially elections with such an obvious message from the electorate?
The most important answer is often hidden from the electorate and explains why much of the shift from Mulroney to Chretien was not so great, and why a shift from (for example) a Harper minority to Ignatieff majority will, likewise, not be so great. So much of the trajectory of post-WW2 Canadian governance has been a product of the hugely expanded role and influence of the civil service in Ottawa. Clarkson, in his aforementioned book, clearly explains how the neoconservative ideological shift which that place in the mid- and late-1980s in Canada became entrenched in the civil service, from deputy ministers all the way down the line. Of course, it is significant that Martin and other key Liberals believed in the value of neoconservativism. But my point here is that if we were to imagine a different scenario – one where the newly elected party and politicians had wildly contrasting views to the civil service orthodoxy – it is not necessarily clear how easily that agenda would or could have been implemented.
Affective power for the purpose of decision making has become increasingly the realm of bureaucrats, advisors and experts. Sure, Canada had a huge public debate over NAFTA and Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord – and the country really was engaged and citizens passionately defended their views. But the public debate and the often visceral positions held in that debate do very little to shed light on the practical vicissitudes of NAFTA or Meech Lake. If a citizen was against NAFTA, and many Canadians were, how much did you know about the dispute resolution mechanisms and how these would apply to health care services? Did Canadians consider in a serious way how NAFTA contributed to the growth in supraconstitutionality in Canadian politics? Did federal-provincial power sharing and fiscal arrangements come to mind when they read over the various documents? Probably not; the minutiae of the agreement were obscured in the public debate, left to private negotiators and policy elites. Trudeau’s intervention into the Meech Lake debate was so significant because of the depth of his responses to particular clauses and the detail of his response. His response to Meech Lake was a deeply visceral one, but was supported by detailed and nuanced replies to specific clauses and sections of the accord. It was also an anomaly.
When we elect a new government, we project our hopes, dreams, expectations, and angst onto that government. We do so with a false vision of what government can do, but often with a strong sense of what government should do. It is a peculiar theme of American elections and contemporary politics to have mainstream politicians more or less declare that not only should government do less, but that if they are elected they will make it their goal to do increasingly less and less. We are most often disappointed in politicians and with government when we realize that so many of our expectations are badly founded, when we find a huge dissonance between what we project onto our politicians and what we believe they can deliver.
Canadian politics exist right now within a very narrow spectrum. Put another way, I believe that the policy choices (and by virtue, policy differences) available to the parties able to wield power do not represent differences premised on varying ideas of what the country and can be and how government should contribute to that becoming. I do think that Stephen Harper and his brand of conservatism has very particular implications about the kind of Canada he wants to see emerge, but I believe that, ultimately, the capacity for difference between what Harper or Ignatieff could realistically affect as a head of government is insignificant.
|John Mullin is a co-founder of Thought Out Loud. He currently lives in Peterborough, Ontario and North Bay, Ontario. He writes most often about politics, current events, culture, and history. He will be moving to Kuwait in September of 2011 for two years, where his Masters in Canadian history will prove useful in teaching Grade 5 math, English and science.|