Saturday, October 18, 2008

Democratic dry rot

So when do we panic about the state of democracy in Canada?
Voter turnout was the lowest in 141 years, continuing a slow decline in participation.
Fewer than six in 10 registered voters - 59.1 per cent, to be exact - cast votes.
It takes about the same amount of time to vote as it does to buy a litre of milk on the way home from work, but 40 per cent of Canadian voters decided voting was less important than having something to put on their bowls of cereal in the morning.
Actually, way more than 40 per cent. When Elections Canada assesses turnout, it only counts registered voters. If you include those who are eligible to vote, but haven't registered, only about half of potential voters bother to participate.
That should alarm us all.
It should humiliate the political parties and their leaders. Fifty per cent of Canadians don't think it matters who is in power, or don't believe their votes make a difference. They think it's a scam.
That's stunning. Stop 100 people on the street and ask them which party they would like to see form the government, and 50 don't really care.
They've probably got preferences if you ask them about brands of toothpaste or fast food chains. But not about the political parties that want to become the government.
When does it become a real crisis? When four out of 10 people vote? Two out of 10?
I'd say we should panic now.
You can have great theoretical discussions about voting. Maybe the less committed should stay home and leave the decision to the passionate voters who, presumably, have put effort into developing their preferences.
But there's no guarantee they aren't guided by stupid partisanship, narrow self-interest or prejudice.
And surely we should not be content to be a nation of sheep-people who believe either it that it doesn't matter who governs us, or that we aren't competent to choose those who will?
The Chinese government is not a big fan of democracy. Its official news agency sent out a story headlined, "Worst turnout registered in Canada election." The report cited - accurately - the dismal and declining participation rate.
So if we care about democracy, what should we do?
The most obvious - and difficult - step would bring in some sort of proportional representation, so everyone's vote matters.
Look at the results from this election. Stephen Harper claims a strong mandate. But just 38 per cent of those who voted wanted him to govern. Just 22 per cent of registered voters.
That's something out of a developing country pseudo-democracy. Massive power bestowed on the basis of the preference of one-fifth of the potential voters.
The Bloc Quebecois had the support of 10 per cent of the voters and won 50 seats. The New Democrats captured 18 per cent of the votes. They ended up with 37 seats. How does that reflect the public's will?
The Greens were supported by almost one million people - seven per cent of the people who voted. But no one will speak for those voters in Parliament.
If you proposed this approach to a country just developing its electoral system, the people would reject it overwhelmingly. Why give absolute power to a leader supported by a small minority, and deprive millions of anyone to speak for them in Parliament?
The odds are against reforming the federal system. Talk about opening the constitution and the special interest and regional groups get nervous about losing clout.
But we have a chance in B.C. Next May, there will be another referendum on switching to the single transferable vote system of proportional representation.
It's not perfect, but it's miles better than what we have now.
Footnote: The next test of our democracy comes Nov. 15, with municipal and school board elections. Here in Victoria, voter turnout was about 25 per cent in the last election. It's lower in some communities. That's pathetic. After all the struggles to reach some sort of democratic system, over centuries, we have come to consider it a trifle of no value.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Paul, of course what you say is quite true and should trouble everyone. But you've raised a point to use as an example that is repeated by many analysts - that with respect to the power of the Bloc vote in Quebec. Maybe that is more of sour grapes (not necessarily in your case) than of a problem with democracy. I wonder what a graph of voter turnout, province by province, would show. Obviously the Bloc has a platform that resonates with their constituants more so than does that of the other parties with theirs. Is that so different from what the Reform Party in the west was trying to do before they capitulated for the sake of a real chance to govern the country (given, as you point out in your essay, the broken way in which the system actually works)? I don't recall the western media bemoaning Reform's strategies in those days, but quite the reverse. Is it possible that the Bloc is an example of how democratic process might be improved? The result might be minority governments with real regional representation - perhaps not unlike that which proportional representation would achieve.

Toronto life insurance broker said...

For sure, only 60% voters used their only official legal tool to influence political atmosphere and future of their country, that's not very good. BUT - this is also one of the signs of democracy! You know where is the highest participation of voters? In countries like Cuba or North Korea (I read in communist Transdniestria was participation 105%...). So I wouldn't see it so tragically. Maybe people were satisfied enough with all candidates, so they felt no need to vote :))
Take care
Lorne

Anonymous said...

There's one voting option which is practised by many people but is rarely understood.

They are refusing to vote.

As this is intended as a protest, I think it's tragic because nobody gets it.

Even a journalist like you, Paul, seems to consider the whole protest as they "couldn't be bothered" and berate them for not expending the amount of time required to buy a litre of milk or something.

I agree that it doesn't work. I agree that it's a waste.

But I also grieve for so many people who are thinking it over, reaching a conclusion, and trying to convey a message ... which apparently isn't even noticed. Except to be called something else: indifference, apathy, or laziness. No, it isn't. Not all of it.

Berating these people isn't helping, Paul. Their grievance is legitimate: we arere suffering from electile dysfunction and before it's fixed, there will be many more No-Shows hoping their absence is seen as a statement of political opinion.

.


.

DPL said...

"If you don't vote, don't bitch " It's an old expression but it works for me.

Westcoast Indie News said...

Thanks for bringing this discussion to the table, Paul.

One day just after the election was called, I felt inspired to start a blog, primarily for my riding, Vancouver-Kingsway 2008. This idea arose partly out of the dirty tricks and poor representation we received from David Emerson, Liberal/neoCon plant. It also was inspired by the fact that the mainstream media and political parties do not represent, nor recognize the voices, needs and issues of many - women, young people, immigrants, people of colour, lower socio-economic etc.

http://vancouverkingsway2008.blogspot.com/

In 2008, Canada has elected approximately 22% women to our Parliament. 22%!!!!!! When we make up 52% of the population. That is shameful, as is the lack of diversity of culture and ethnicity of those sitting in our House and Senate. It's more than shameful, it is disgusting.

The mainstream media (MSM) continually fails to represent the views and voices of a more diverse bunch of citizens. And they actively limit and prevent those voices from being heard.

The stranglehold of white middle-aged neoConservative men on political parties and the media is what is killing democracy in Canada. I am no man-hater, I know many men who this system is harming too and those with the power don't represent their interests or voices either.

If you look at the editorial boards, the roster of columnists of MSM outlets, you can see that Canada exists in a whitewash. This is costing Canada much
and making us a joke in the eyes of the world and to many of our own citizens, who aren't too lazy to vote, many simply do not feel anyone adequately, or truthfully represents their interests as Canadians.

My election blog "succeeded" beyond my wildest imagination because there is a thirst for new faces, fresh words and perspectives. That's why I have now started a new media project, Westcoast Indie News, to carry this on, with an invitation to others to collaborate and improve Canada's media, whether the old guys in the Big Boy pants like it, or not. There's a reason some of them are trying to control the Internet too.

I do not see voter turnout improving until the political systems & MSM are reformed. I know these systems work for a small group of people, but they don't work for the rest of us and people are tired of it and opting out.

What I don't understand about the discussion of electoral reform is why STV is the only form of proportional representation that is being discussed, or proposed. I agree it is better than what we have, first past the post, but Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMPR) is better in my opinion. STV is complicated and is used in few countries and I'm not convinced it returns the best results. It is also very complicated, if people don't turn out now, the complexity of STV will have impacts on voter turnout too. It's important to remember that the Citizen's Assembly was one of Gordon Campbell's little projects and STV was only one system studied, but then that "assembly" became a marketing program for STV. I'd like to know why & how much they've been funded. In any event, if STV would stop, or limit another Gordon Campbell & his party of neoLiberals, I'm all for it. For now.

Thanks for bringing this discussion to the table, Paul.

One day just after the election was called, I felt inspired to start a blog, primarily for my riding, Vancouver-Kingsway 2008. This idea arose partly out of the dirty tricks and poor representation we received from David Emerson, Liberal/neoCon plant. It also was inspired by the fact that the mainstream media and political parties do not represent, nor recognize the voices, needs and issues of many - women, young people, immigrants, people of colour, lower socio-economic etc.

http://vancouverkingsway2008.blogspot.com/

In 2008, Canada has elected approximately 22% women to our Parliament. 22%!!!!!! When we make up 52% of the population. That is shameful, as is the lack of diversity of culture and ethnicity of those sitting in our House and Senate. It's more than shameful, it is disgusting.

The mainstream media (MSM) continually fails to represent the views and voices of a more diverse bunch of citizens. And they actively limit and prevent those voices from being heard.

The stranglehold of white middle-aged neoConservative men on political parties and the media is what is killing democracy in Canada. I am no man-hater, I know many men who this system is harming too and those with the power don't represent their interests or voices either.

If you look at the editorial boards, the roster of columnists of MSM outlets, you can see that Canada exists in a whitewash and that this is costing Canada much
and making us a joke in the eyes of the world and many of our own citizens, who aren't too lazy to vote, many simply do not feel anyone adequately, or truthfully represents their interests as Canadians.

My election blog "succeeded" beyond my wildest imagination because there is a thirst for new faces, fresh words and perspectives. That's why I have now started a new media project, Westcoast Indie News, to carry this on, with an invitation to others to collaborate and improve Canada's media, whether the old guys in the Big Boy pants like it, or not. There's a reason some of them are trying to control the Internet too.

I do not see voter turnout improving until the political systems & MSM are reformed. I know these systems work for a small group of people, but they don't work for the rest of us and people are tired of it and opting out.

What I don't understand about the discussion of electoral reform is why STV is the only form of proportional representation that is being discussed, or prosed. I agree it is better than what we have, first past the post, but Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMPR) is better in my opinion. STV is complicated and is used in few countries and I'm not convinced it returns the best results. It is also very complicated, if people don't turn out now, the complexity of STV will have impacts on voter turnout too. It's important to remember that the Citizen's Assembly was one of Gordon Campbell's little projects and STV was only one system studied, but then that "assembly" became a marketing program for STV. I'd like to know why & how much they've been funded. In any event, if STV would stop, or limit another Gordon Campbell & his party of neoLiberals, I'm all for it. For now.

http://westcoastindienews.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

One of the commentators above suggests that many of those who choose not to vote are expressing a political protest.

I rather doubt that that accounts for more than a handful of non-voters. After all, the best way to register one's dissatisfaction with the parties and candidates on offer is to spoil one's ballot. That, however, requires some forethought and a sufficient motivation to walk to one's local polling station. I suspect that the vast majority of non-voters give not the slightest thought to politics nor to the obligations of citizenship.

I agree with Paul's lament at this deplorable state of affairs. I also agree that our archaic voting system needs to be scrapped and replaced by one based on proportional representation.