Turned-off Canadians tuning out
TheStar.com – Canada – Turned-off Canadians tuning out: Political apathy fuelled by diminishing role of our MPs and a lack of transparency
June 21, 2009. Bruce Campion-Smith, OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF
OTTAWA – At the time it was hailed as groundbreaking. Fill out a one-page form, pay a $5 fee and Canadians had the right to ask for any federal government record. The introduction of the Access to Information Act in 1983 put Canada on the cutting edge.
“We were amongst the leaders in the world,” says Robert Marleau, the federal information commissioner.
But the leader has become the laggard after 26 years of “static decline,” Marleau says.
“Since then it’s been the same song and dance, no effort by any government to have this legislation or these processes keep pace with time, change and technology,” he said in an interview.
Today, the access to information system is collapsing from a combination of neglect and bureaucrats foiling citizens’ right to know through foot-dragging and fees.
The tale of what’s happened to the Access to Information Act is just as easily the story of Canadian democracy in recent decades as benign neglect, calculated power grabs and public apathy erode principles and institutions.
Power is being concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office.
MPs, for years mere props in the production, are now more useful to their leaders as partisan attack dogs. They preach accountability but hide their expenses.
Cabinet ministers are also becoming increasingly sidelined and more government business than ever is being done in the dark, far from the prying eyes of Canadian voters.
Canadians who are fighting to stay engaged in the process increasingly feel their elected officials no longer represent their interests. More importantly, more and more Canadians are tuning out.
That lack of outrage merely allows elected officials to avoid the transparency that the system was supposed to demand.
“Our national political and administrative institutions are not in good shape,” political scientist Donald Savoie says.
“We got there by being complacent, by not focusing on the real important things. We’re focusing on the message of the day … not on the real fundamental functioning of our institutions.
“I’m not optimistic. I think we’ve thrown fundamental policy debates out the window.”
For a nation that has had three general elections in less than five years – and teetered on the brink of yet another last week – the idea that democracy is on the decline may seem odd.
But even elections drive home the concern. Voter turnout in federal elections, especially among the young, is dropping, from 75 per cent in 1979 to 58 per cent in last October’s election.
“Young people are disturbed by the diminishing role of the member of Parliament. Party discipline … has eliminated the freedom of the member of Parliament to express his or her views or to represent the constituency as it ought to be represented,” former Prime Minister John Turner told a session during the Liberals’ spring convention.
Fixing the problem will require a prime minister who seeks less power, not more, and more assertive MPs willing to stand up for their constituents, rather than their parties. And citizens must reclaim their voices in the political process.
IT DIDN’T HAPPEN overnight. Instead, this trend has been in the works over decades with both Progressive Conservatives and Liberals in government, though many observers agree that the worrisome trends have accelerated since Prime Minister Stephen Harper took power in 2006.
University of Toronto political science professor Lorraine Weinrib charges that Harper has an “extended track record” of showing disdain for the principles and practices at the heart of Canada’s constitutional system.
“While Harper touts the democratic principle as his ideal, his actions align with another principle – an all-powerful executive authority that makes his own rules,” she writes in an essay for a book titled Parliament Democracy in Crisis.
She notes how the Conservatives cancelled the court challenges program, which provided funding for court challenges by rights advocates. Harper himself has challenged the non-partisan officers of Parliament, such as the head of Elections Canada and the ethics commissioner.
Savoie, a long-time observer of parliamentary traditions in both Canada and Britain, bemoans the shift of power away from MPs and cabinet members to non-elected advisers around the PM.
“We now know that cabinet has been disempowered,” said Savoie, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the Université de Moncton.
“Power and influence in Ottawa is centred around court government, around the Prime Minister, around lobbyists, around spin doctors and our democracy has been bastardized, if you like, by lobbyists who only have one interest – their self-interest,” he says.
Liberal MP Bob Rae has the perspective of someone who served in Parliament from 1978 to 1982, left for provincial politics and now has returned to Ottawa. He says debates at committees and in the Commons these days are “ritualistic,” as if MPs are merely going through the paces.
“This is the least populist, the most centralized, the most disciplined approach to government that I’ve seen in a long time,” Rae said.
In his mind, reversing that trend will require MPs to flex their collective muscle and return power back to Parliament, though he’s not confident that will happen.
“I’m not sure we’ve got the willingness right now on the part of enough people who are in Parliament to really address it,” Rae said.
“It’s almost as if you need a prime minister who is prepared to say ‘I actually want less power.’ A prime minister who said, ‘We need to restore how Parliament is supposed to work,’ ” Rae said.
Add to that mix a batch of rookie MPs – 205 have been there less than five years – with little institutional memory of Ottawa, little respect for their political rivals, and reluctant to flex their political muscle against their party leaders.
“That is a problem. They come in and think that all this yelling and hollering is the way it should work,” Progressive Conservative Senator Lowell Murray said.
WHILE OTTAWA is seen as ground zero, the roots of the problem are found across the country among everyday citizens.
In short, look in the mirror.
Marleau complains Canadians know too little about the institutions that govern them.
He points to last fall’s parliamentary showdown as proof when the notion of the Liberal-NDP coalition was dismissed as “unconstitutional.”
The coalition may have been politically unpalatable. But it was perfectly legal under Canada’s parliamentary system.
And yet complaints about the coalition as a “coup” found a ready audience among Canadians, something Marleau finds worrisome.
“We do not do a good job in Canada about teaching and learning about our basic institutions.”