Degeneration of Canada’s Democratic Institutions Has No Limits

15 Jan

Degeneration of Canada’s Democratic Institutions
Has No Limits
– Anna di Carlo –

In the 20 years since the 1992 defeat of the Charlottetown Accord, the degeneration of Canada’s democratic institutions has intensified. When the people rejected the Charlottetown proposals, they brought to the centre-stage of national political life their demand to have a say in governance. Canada’s ruling elite — the leaders of the political parties in the Parliament, representatives of big business, and the monopolized media — responded by using their positions of power and privilege to trample in the mud the demand of the people for the recognition of their rights. They declared that the defeat of the Referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, which asked Canadians whether they thought the Accord was the basis for the renewal of Canada – meant that Canadians were not interested in discussing the Constitution. The people, they said, wanted the politicians and governments to focus on the economy. They wanted solutions to social, economic, cultural and other “real problems,” they said and declared that henceforth it would be “business as usual.”

By declaring that constitutional matters would be set aside, the ruling elite expressed its refused to engage in the historical requirement to renew the democratic institutions and modernize the Constitution so as to vest sovereignty, the decision-making power, in the people. The failure of the political and electoral process to empower Canadians so that they can actually participate in solving the problems facing the society as a matter of right has remained unresolved ever since, deepening the crisis in which the institutions and Canada itself are mired.

A Future to Face (1992) and A Power to Share (1993), by Hardial Bains were published as part of the fight against the Charlottetown Accord and for a modern Constitution. Then and now, they elaborate the key issues facing the polity on the questions of democratic renewal and political empowerment.

Since then, from all quarters — including the left, the right and those that position themselves in between, Canadians have been inundated with explanations for the problems that continue to plague the society, be it unemployment, poverty or the destruction of the natural and social environments. Canadians are told that the problems should be blamed on climate change, neo-liberal economics, irresponsible fiscal policies or bad government and corrupt self-seeking individuals who successfully lobby the government. They are told it is party politics and the uncivilized behaviour seen in the legislatures of the country that prevent constructive problem-solving. Discussion is reduced to a clash between contending explanations and policies.

All of this diverts from the problem at hand. The right of the people to decide the affairs which concern them — the exercise of their sovereignty — is not recognized.

Far from getting overwhelmed with the endless spin and counter-spin on the policy “options,” Canadians must stick to working out alternatives which affirm the recognition of their rights based on the world as is, ensuring the struggle for their empowerment remains at centre-stage. The fundamental law of the land must vest sovereignty in the people and rid the democratic institutions and laws of all exceptions and practices which permit the usurpation of power based on privileges for some while the majority are deprived of what belongs to them by right. What is required is a modern constitution that guarantees rights and eliminates the historic problems rooted in the country’s colonial legacy and its 19th century notions augmented by those established in, and perpetuated since then, especially since the Cold War ended but all notions of rights continue to be framed within the definitions it provided.

Canadians face many problems, from the crisis-ridden economy and the general insecurity it creates to the political and electoral process that negates their decision-making power reducing them to voting cattle, and the problems related to cultural rights and national sovereignty. The solutions to these problems fall within the same rubric as the need to constitute a new Canada based on the free and equal union of the nation of Quebec, the nations of the Aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canada and build a truly multicultural society in which the languages and cultures of all Canadians are given official recognition and encouraged to flourish. Solutions to these problems can be found in a society guided by the overriding principle that all people have claims on the society by virtue of being human.

For the establishment forces, especially the party-in-power and the other parties in the legislatures, every opportunity to engage in democratic renewal is squandered and taken as an opportunity to introduce self-serving measures to enhance and extend their own privileges. More often than not, this approach of ignoring the objective need for democratic renewal based on recognition of the rights of all members of the polity to participate in governance comes back to haunt them, deepening their crisis of legitimacy.

For example, all the parties in Parliament went along with then Prime Minister Chretien’s “solution” to the Sponsorship Scandal, the key element of which was to increase state-subsidization of political parties. The writing to end the party-domination of the political process was clearly on the wall and the times cried out for a system that funds the process, not the parties, so as to enable all members of the polity to exercise their rights. Chretien tried to circumvent the scandal, introducing the per-vote-subsidy for political parties and placing limits on contributions in the name of “eliminating the influence of money” in the electoral process. The political parties in the House were happy to go along with this scheme that lined their coffers (but later snapped back in their faces when, after they had become reliant on the subsidies, the Harper Conservative government announced, for their own self-serving reasons, that they would be phased-out). The introduction of the escalated political party per-vote subsidies did not stop further revelations of the sordid details of the Sponsorship Scandal, that were most likely initially leaked by the contending Martin faction of the Liberal Party. It did not heal the Liberal Party’s wounds and it was defeated at the polls and continued on a path toward imminent extinction. It certainly did not end the corruption of the party-dominated system of representative democracy.

When Harper came to power in the January 2006 election on the sails of the Sponsorship Scandal, he pompously introduced the Accountability Act. Just hearing the name of the bill was meant to cause Canadians to swoon: “An Act providing for conflict of interest rules, restrictions on election financing and measures respecting administrative transparency, oversight and accountability.” It banned corporate contributions to political parties, declaring that political parties would no longer be beholden to them and for good measure banned trade-union contributions too. It introduced a Conflict of Interest Act promising to “creat[e] for the first time a legislative regime governing the ethical conduct of public office holders, both during and after employment.” It set up a complaints regime for conflict of interest and created a new Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, reformed the Lobbyists Registration Act and the powers of the Commissioner of Lobbying, and amended the Public Service Employment Act to “eliminate preferential hiring for ministers’ political staff.” It created the positions of Parliamentary Budget Officer and Director of Public Prosecutions, and changed the Access to Information Act to make it applicable to the officers of Parliament and Crown corporations. The Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act, the Harper government claimed will “strengthen protection for whistleblowers.” The Financial Administration Act was changed to increase the penalty for fraud and “establish deputy ministers and equivalent senior officials as accounting officers accountable for certain matters before parliamentary committees.”

In the period since the Harper Conservatives came to power, the people have seen:

1. The unbridled abuse of government resources for self-serving and/or proselytizing purposes in the cases of several Cabinet Ministers — Bev Oda, Tony Clement and Jason Kenney, to name just a few.

2. The unbridled abuse of government resources to promote the Harper Conservatives’ narrow policies in the name of government advertising.

3. The increasing use of omnibus legislation, like the Accountability Act, to push through legislative measures that fundamentally alter the state arrangements and its constitutional underpinnings, with open declarations in many cases, such as with the Senate reform bills and fixed-date elections. In many cases, the Harper dictatorship has openly congratulated itself for its cleverness in not re-opening discussion on the constitution and bringing about reforms that “get around the constitution.”

4. The Harper government’s general flaunting of all the principles which the Accountability Act purported to uphold, be it accountability, transparency or ethnical standards of governance.

5. The Harper government’s consistent attempt to discredit and undermine the very Officers of Parliament that it created.

These measures of the Harper government, continue on the path set by the ruling elite 20 years ago when they refused to heed the call of the times for democratic and constitutional renewal to empower the people. This only guarantees that the days of the Conservative Party are also numbered, ticking away to its inevitable demise, as unlikely as this may seem today.

The fundamental changes being made to the state arrangements and the premises on which the democratic institutions are based, such as Ministerial Responsibility, are being rammed through Parliament at a mind-blowing speed. The almost daily revelations of political corruption and scandal are conducted in a manner to overwhelm the people by their sheer enormity. This is to create a seemingly hopeless situation where the people watch powerlessly as the most depraved government wrong-doings are carried out with impunity, and engender a craving for the illusory comfort of the “good-old-days” of a bygone era.

Throughout this entire period of the past twenty years the ruling elite has attempted to put a halt to the struggle of the Canadian people who, far from hankering for the past have been fighting to affirm their economic, social and political rights. The conclusion being drawn and the space being occupied by Canadians is to make sure that never again will they suffer the negation of their fight for a world in which the human, material, and natural resources are wielded to guarantee not the privileges of the rich minority, but the rights of the people.

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