The uphill battle to save democracy in Canada

Posted on April 18, 2012 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Wed Apr 18 2012.   By Bob Hepburn, Editorial Page

The fight to stop Stephen Harper’s slow and systematic unravelling of our democracy is lonely and frustrating.

Across Canada, individuals outraged by recent moves by Harper to stifle democracy have been writing letters, signing petitions and tweeting their friends and elected politicians demanding more accountability and respect for our parliamentary institutions.

They are outraged by the F-35 scandal in which the Conservatives lied to voters during the election about the true costs of the fighter jets, by the robocall affair, ethics breaches, slush funds, suppression of public reports, falsified documents, shutting twice of Parliament, dirty campaign tricks, attack ads. The list goes on.

It is toxic politics at its worst.

To date, though, all of their efforts have been fruitless.

Their letters are ignored or receive innocuous replies, backbench MPs dismiss them as cranks, media commentators pay no attention to their petitions, and apathetic friends and neighbours tell them they’re crazy to think they can change the political culture in Ottawa.

Clearly, the need for democratic renewal has never been greater. And yet individuals fighting to restore democracy seemingly can’t make a difference.

That’s just the way Harper wants it. Although he initially vowed to increase government accountability, he has shown zero interest in improving our democratic institutions since coming to power six years ago.

He seems convinced he can get away with it because only about 30 per cent of Canadians regularly follow politics and public policy issues. The rest of us are either turned off, fed up or have given up. Harper is counting on that indifference to continue through the next election.

Upset by what’s been happening in Ottawa, dozens of small groups in this field have sprung up in recent years. But their track records are generally dismal. Organizations come and go, their websites shut down or become inactive. Volunteers burn out, lose interest and move on. Donations dry up.

“It’s definitely fits and starts and not a very robust community,” says Alison Loat, co-founder and executive director of Samara, a non-profit group devoted to promoting citizen engagement.

Samara, co-founded by broadcasting veteran Michael MacMillan three years ago, is one of the few active organizations in this area.

Another is Voices-Voix, a Montreal-based coalition claiming 200 organizations as members. It will hold a daylong event in Montreal on Friday and another in Ottawa on May 11 evaluating the Harper government’s record in terms of democracy., which was launched in March 2011 and claimed more than 100,000 members at one time, has virtually disappeared except for the occasional Twitter posting. Canadians for Democratic Renewal is basically inactive, with just one blog posting in the last six months. Meanwhile, the badly-named Manning Centre for Building Democracy has little to do with democracy and everything to do with promoting conservative policies and training Conservative politicians.

“Yes, it’s very discouraging,” says Loat.

Samara is undertaking two major initiatives. The first is an annual “democracy index” that will be trying to measure such questions as whether Parliament is dysfunctional and democracy broken. The first report will be issued in 2013.

The second project, “Democracy Talks,” will be launched this summer and will focus on ways to engage citizens who tend to have lower voter turnout rates.

Loat says democratic renewal and citizen engagement “clearly hit a chord” with many Canadians.

But she says individuals who want their voices heard won’t see much success if they work in isolation.

Loat has several ideas for individuals who feel strongly about becoming involved in this field.

First, she suggests citizens focus on the political parties themselves, which she describes as “completely nontransparent” organizations that shut out individuals — and often their own MPs — in every area from policy development to candidate recruitment.

“People blame Parliament for being dysfunctional, but I think it’s really our political parties that are the issue,” she says.

Second, Loat says individuals should take full advantage of today’s social media, which has made it easier to engage like-minded citizens. Loat says it is critical to understand that politicians are now starting to pay far greater attention to Twitter and Facebook than just about any other media outlet.

By themselves, these suggestions won’t change the status quo. Neither will individuals working in isolation.

But together, citizens can slowly — very slowly — start to make a difference.

Yes, trying to save democracy is lonely and frustrating. But it isn’t hopeless.

Bob Hepburn’s column appears

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