Broken democracy can be fixed

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Apr 28 2011.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

At about this point in every election campaign, policy activists and academics, disgusted by the grubbiness of the contest and worried that voters will stay home, begin churning out remedies.

They include lowering the voting age, teaching more civics in schools, switching to a system of proportional representation, allowing online voting, making it mandatory to cast a ballot and using social media to engage young people.

All of these proposals are worth considering. Some — online voting and increased use of wireless technology — will probably be adopted in the foreseeable future. Most will peter out for lack of political support, lack of interest or lack of momentum.

But there is a deeper problem. They don’t address what’s really wrong.

Election campaigns have become ordeals. Voters are subjected to a 37-day onslaught of attack ads, doomsday scenarios and personal vituperation. Political parties spend millions of dollars tearing each other down. The media focus primarily on polls, tactics and speculation, ignoring the disenchantment of Canadians.

By election day, those who still believe their voice counts go to the ballot box dutifully. Those who have given up — or never cared — don’t bother.

Changing the way votes are cast or counted won’t fix this mess.

Is it possible to bring democracy back to health?

Yes, but it would require radical surgery, enlightened leadership and a core of Canadians committed to rebuilding the electoral system from the ground up.

Step 1: Reduce campaign spending limits drastically (by 65 per cent, say). The current maximum — $21 million for national political parties — encourages the practices that alienate voters and subvert democratic principles: relentless negative advertising; slicing and dicing the electorate and targeting messages at winnable segments; pushing the national media to the sidelines; treating campaigns as win-at-all-costs combat missions.

Political parties clearly aren’t prepared to discipline themselves, but Elections Canada can rein them in by making their destructive tactics unaffordable. (This would require an amendment to the Canada Elections Act.)

Step 2: Scrap the $2 per vote subsidy to political parties. Taxpayers should not be required to support organizations that no longer promote democratic choice or serve the public interest.

As a stand-alone proposal this would favour the Conservative party, which has an extensive network of donors (which is why Stephen Harper advocates it). But coupled with a $7.35 million spending ceiling — $2 million for the Bloc Québécois, which is a regional party — it would put all the parties on a competitive footing and wring $27 million in excess cash out of the system.

Step 3: Create an independent public commission to organize and run weekly televised election debates. Offering voters just two prime time leaders debates — one in English and one in French — arranged by a consortium of broadcasting executives, guarantees that style trumps substance. The TV networks want fast-paced political jousting. The candidates want to look good, deliver a few memorable lines and get through the two-hour showdown without a killer mistake.

Five debates on important topics would give voters a much better grasp of the issues and take the pressure off leaders to perform flawlessly and reduce their policies to simplistic sound bites.

These three reforms wouldn’t be enough to cure the malaise of voters, rid the system of smear tactics, wean the media from reporting who’s up, who’s down and what the leaders said yesterday, or restore integrity to politics.

But they would allow the green shoots of a healthy democracy to grow. They would signal to voters that Canada can replace the bloated, hyper-partisan electoral system that exists now. And they would give young Canadians a chance to help build a new model.

Adopting new voting technology or linking a party’s seats to its share of the popular vote could be part of the answer. But the first imperative is to get the basics right.

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