Sunday, April 25, 2010

Peace, Order, and Crappy Government

Despite the good intentions of the fathers of Confederation, who enshrined the phrase, ‘peace, order, and good government’ into our constitution as a guiding principle for our governance, I can’t help feel that we have strayed far from this ideal.

In reality, we have crappy government because we are unable to exit from the cul-de-sac of a system of governance that is set up to give domination and control to our two founding charter groups at the expense of having the capacity of delivering what the vast majority of Canadians want: a healthy environment, an effective education system, health care that is there when you need it, and a sense of individual and collective well-being.

I’ll start with an analysis of the problem and then finish with how our elected governments are not meeting the performance requirements that we should expect as citizens from a democratic government.

Canada is a large piece of territory carved out of the Americas as a result of the vagaries of European imperial conquest. When the first settlers arrived, they were met by indigenous peoples who had occupied the territory for thousands of years. We seem to have acquired a collective amnesia over this point, especially if we recognize that aboriginal title to much of Canada has never been extinguished by the state and that according to the principles of common law, as the successor state we are bound to uphold by our own constitution, section 25 of the Charter, the rights stemming from the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which recognizes the rights of First Nations peoples, including land rights.

In short, our political system was modeled on the British system, with an electoral system that initially gave the vote to white, male, property owners to the exclusion of everyone else. Although the right to vote evolved as our conception of human rights evolved, (yes women, people of colour, and non-Christians are also humans) the electoral system still has a geographic bias that gives disproportionate voting power to the descendents of the charter settler groups. For a more detailed explanation see my post: Canada at 150: Ethnocratic Settler State or Multi-ethnic Pluralist Democracy?

In this system, we divide up the territory into electoral districts and the declared winner of each electoral district those who got the most votes becomes the representative. There is no aggregation of votes or of political preferences. We are only concerned with who gets the most votes, not whether a majority has been established.

Given that the rural seats in a vast territory such as Canada comprise the majority of seats and the people who live there are mostly from the ethnic groups who first settled (appropriated?) the land, this electoral system awards effective political control over the territory to these groups at the expense of the democratic principle of one person, one vote. In other words, Canada is still a dominion in which French-Canadian Catholics dominate and control the territory of Quebec and Anglo-Canadian Protestants dominate and control the territory outside of Quebec.

In my view, there is a trade off between control and domination of the charter groups and good government.

At the time of Confederation, the settlers’ principle concerns were to protect borders, secure the territory and exploit the natural resources therein, and the system of governance put into place reflected those concerns. Today, however, we live in a world that is exponentially more complex, and we expect our government to be able to the meet the social and economic challenges within our borders and play a responsible and effective role with regard to global concerns.

Unfortunately, these expectations cannot be met by a political system that reduces the complexity of issues to for or against the question at hand, and a vote for either the red party of the blue party. Yet, that’s what the system gives, and those who have the power to change the system to make it more intelligent, to make it more democratic, prefer to hang onto the outdated system because at the end of the day, they retain the power to decide what makes it onto the nation’s political agenda and how it gets decided.

Take for example Canada’s woeful performance on climate change. How is it that we are signatories to the Kyoto Accord, the majority of the population supports that we respect our international obligations, and the majority of the members of Parliament think likewise, yet we do precious little to meet those obligations?

Put simply, the idea of reducing greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t fit into the Anglo-Canadian Protestant hegemonic idea that nothing can be done if it would cause harm to the economy. Forget science, forget risk management; it is sufficient to raise the spectre of less economic growth and to say this is a bad thing and the descendents of the charter groups fall into order and vote accordingly. Keep in mind that together the Liberals and the Conservatives have little more than the support of only one third of the electorate (38%) and the present government is there thanks to only 23% of the electorate or 17% of the population.

Of course, the situation would be much different if the make-up of parliament actually reflected the popular vote, but to do so would mean moving out of a control and domination mode into a consensual mode of government. Heaven forbid.

Here in Quebec, the electoral system gives us the choices between two government options: the red team, the federalist Quebec Liberal Party, an incompetent and probably the most corrupt government since the days of Duplesis, and the blue team, an equally incompetent party that reduces the complexity of Quebec’s social and economic problems to the question of sovereignty.

Yes, regrettably these are the choices.

Never mind that the public education system is a disgrace, the health care system is a bad joke – this week a fundraising raffle included as a prize, gaining patient status with a family doctor – the province has the highest level of public debt in North America and its citizens are among those who pay the most taxes.

Never mind that the obsession with a Westphalian conception of sovereignty hardly applies to a territory we occupy as a result of European conquest, and that the Council of the Federation, free trade with the European Union, and plans for turning Quebec’s North into the land of milk and honey or whatever cliché that you prefer are essentially political diversions to cover up the real problem: neither the blue team or the red team has the capacity to govern effectively.

If that’s the case let someone else into the game. Let my vote count as well as the hundreds of thousands of other voters here in Quebec and the millions of others in Canada who can think critically and who don’t let their ethnic allegiance determine how they vote.

Until that day arrives, I am and will be the disgruntled democrat.

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