Professing Education

 

Electoral Hopes: A Canadian
Perspective

Dirk Windhorst
Redeemer University College, Ontario

During election time, a concerned citizen needs an unwavering faith in democracy. The individual voter needs to be sustained by such a hope while knowing full well that unelected corporate elites with a global reach have grown in power since Mills (1956) first opened our eyes five decades ago. As both Canada and the United States are conducting federal elections this year, it might be instructive to take a comparative snapshot of these two systems of government with a view towards assessing which one is healthier from a democratic point of view.

First, let us review some obvious facts that are rarely discussed. Unlike the United States where the government's power is kept in check through the separation of the executive and legislative branches, Canada follows the British parliamentary model in which the majority party of the legislature forms the executive branch of government. In the nineteenth century, Canadian members of Parliament saw themselves as accountable first and foremost to the citizens of the local constituencies that elected them. This meant that the governing party would often lose votes in the House of Commons because party discipline was not the powerful variable that it is today. With the rise of mass media in the twentieth century, the increasing cost of campaign advertising pushed political parties to develop into powerful fund-raising organizations. As local candidates became increasingly dependent on their party machines to help them get elected, they had to balance accountability to their constituents with loyalty to their party. There is a political price to pay if an elected Member of Parliament votes against the party line.

Consequently, political debate and civil discourse moved from the public arena of the House of Commons to the private chambers of the caucus room. What we see in Parliament now is staged political theatre where party members dutifully applaud their chosen speakers, and opposing members jeer, heckle, and interrupt. No one is trying to persuade anyone in the House through careful argumentation: debates are performances designed to grab the attention of a voter who happens to be watching the Parliamentary television channel or, more likely, viewing a snap-shot of the daily Question Period that a network has decided might be "newsworthy." What we remember are the "colourful" antics of those who shock or entertain us, such as Pierre Trudeau's "fuddle duddle" (Did he really say f _ off?) or John Crosbie's chauvinistic put-down of fellow Member of Parliament Sheila Copps. Canadian educators who wish to take up Kingwell's (2000) challenge to encourage a political civility that "entails consideration of the interests of others, coupled with a willing restraint on the expression of [their] own interests" (p. 116) would point to the recent debate between the leaders of Canada's four major parties as an example of how not to do it. By contrast, any Canadian who watches The Newshour with Jim Lehrer will soon discover that the level of political discourse in the United States seems much more substantive and civil. Are American politicians more independent and more responsive to the needs of their constituents? Is party discipline comparatively weaker in the United States because of the separation of powers?

Similarly, Parliamentary committees lack the clout of their Congressional counterparts. During the recent sponsorship scandal in which millions of tax payers' dollars disappeared, the House of Commons' investigating committee had to put up with evasive answers from former government ministers that bordered on contempt. At about the same time, a Congressional committee in the United States had senior administration officials "shaking in their boots" over the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.

Since Trudeau's time, the relative power of the Prime Minister has increased considerably. By leading a party to a majority victory, he or she becomes a veritable dictator who commands the legislative agenda in addition to running the executive. By comparison, the President has much less domestic power. Congress may oppose a President's legislative initiatives with impunity. From the above snapshot, it seems clear that the United States has a much healthier democracy. This Canadian wishes his American neighbours well as they go to the ballot box next November.

Recent Canadian polls suggest that no party will be able to win the majority of seats in the House of Commons on June 28. For the first time in twenty years, Canada may be ruled by a minority government. This is a hopeful prospect for short-term democracy: minority governments are more responsive to the wishes of the electorate because they are vulnerable to being defeated at any time in the House of Commons. Perhaps this prospect will spark Canadian citizens to consider ways of reclaiming their responsibilities as citizens in a democratic society for the long term. As Kingwell (2000) reminds us, we need to create public spaces where we can talk about these things in a climate of mutual respect. One can only hope....


References

Kingwell, M. (2000). The world we want: Virtue, vice, and the good citizen. Toronto: Penguin.

Mills, C. W. (1956). The power elite. New York: Oxford University Press.