Can we save democracy from Harper’s abuses?
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
September 19, 2012. By Bob Hepburn, Editorial Page
As Stephen Harper continues his relentless assault on our democratic institutions and traditions, growing numbers of Canadians are wondering if the prime minister can be stopped — and if so, how?
Given the Conservative majority in Parliament, it may seem impossible to prevent Harper from running roughshod over our democracy.
Encouragingly, though, people across Canada are starting to fight back. They are doing it in small ways, in classrooms and weekend workshops, on websites and at coffee parties, by writing letters and even joining a knitting campaign.
To date, their efforts have gone largely unnoticed by politicians. But organizers for these initiatives believe they are participating in the birth of a grassroots movement.
Since Harper took power six years ago, the Conservatives have slashed funds for agencies promoting democracy, suppressed public information, shut down Parliament twice for partisan political reasons, violated election financing rules and lied to voters.
Through it all, federal politicians have done little to derail Harper.
One of the biggest initiatives promoting democracy is Democracy Week, which runs through Sept. 22.
The initiative, launched by Elections Canada, features classroom lesson plans, university workshops, as well as a contest for the best student video, blog post or tweet relating to democracy that is being judged by CBC star Rick Mercer and others.
I’ll wager that few people have ever heard of it. However, students and voters in schools and communities across the country — albeit in small numbers — are learning about our democratic system, traditions and institutions and why it’s important that we respect and strengthen them.
Marc Mayrand, Canada’s chief electoral officer, says the country may be experiencing “a democratic recession,” adding that engaging young people is critical to maintaining a healthy democracy.
He says the most noticeable sign of this “recession” is steadily declining voter turnout, with barely 60 per cent of eligible Canadians bothering to cast their ballot in the 2011 federal election. Voter turnout in provincial and local elections is worse.
Other groups, big and small, are also fighting to save democracy.
In Mississauga, a citizens group called Reclaim Our Democratic Canada is organizing a day-long symposium on Nov. 24 aimed at setting out actions that it hopes can help restore democracy at the next election.
Claiming voters need “a wake-up call,” the group believes the Harper government has demonstrated “an astounding disrespect for the foundation of democracy, our parliamentary traditions and regulations, and the rule of law.”
In Ottawa, Vanessa Compton started OrangeScarf: Knitting Canada Together ( www.orangescarf.org) in mid-August as a way to raise funds to support a legal challenge that will take place before the Federal Court of Canada starting on Dec. 10 into alleged voter suppression in the 2011 election.
“Many people feel disempowered in the current political processes in Canada and want to make a statement that is a visible way of expressing their opinion,” Compton says on her website. She insists the orange colour is not a reference to the NDP.
Also, Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based citizen group with a solid record of pushing for government accountability since it was established in 1993, launched a new campaign last week inviting Canadians to become “democracy watchers” pushing politicians to be ethical, open and honest.
The group also suggests voters organize events, including coffee parties with friends, to raise awareness about the erosion of democracy.
“For many people, engaging in efforts to promote democracy is very difficult, with little results,” admits Tyler Sommers, co-ordinator of Democracy Watch. “People believe their efforts are wasted, mainly because politicians don’t listen.”
But Sommers feels Canadians can make a difference by spending as little time each day trying to make changes to our democratic institutions, say by writing to an MP, as they do lining up for a cup of coffee.
Sommers is right when he says politicians have a long history of failing to listen to voters. That can change only if enough voters become nags, by making themselves heard, individually or in groups.
On their own, these initiatives may face more frustration than success.
Collectively, though, they could well play a major role in deciding the outcome of the next federal election.
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