Conspicuously absent: democratic reform and the election

Robert Roach

Robert Roach

Remember when democratic reform was a big election issue in Canada? No?

Neither do I. But it should be.

Our democracy is like an old car that has never been serviced. The tires are bald. The oil is like sludge.

But it is still running, so we keep ignoring the “service now” light.

Our political leaders act as if this jalopy is a mint condition 1965 Mustang. What’s worse is that they are acting this way while tramping around the country randomly handing out goodies as if Canadians were children on Christmas morning.

Rome may not be on fire, but we are certainly fiddling while our democratic system deteriorates.

Why, for example, are there no policy pronouncements about addressing the dangerous and undemocratic concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister that has been eroding the role of Cabinet and MPs since at least the time of Trudeau?

Why are the leaders adding stress to the country’s regional fault lines rather than proposing structural changes to ensure better regional representation? Why is low voter turnout not a major campaign issue? Why is the future state of federal-provincial relations not a key talking point?

The blame lies with us – the voters.

As a group, our eyes glaze over when the mechanics of our democracy are discussed. It is tempting to place all the blame on our political leaders, but they are just responding to what voters seem to want.

We are simply not that interested in what goes on under the hood of our political system. Now and then we might have a conversation around the water cooler about the pros and cons of proportional representation, campaign fundraising rules or, if we have had way too much coffee, the role of the Canadian Senate, but these democratic reform issues don’t capture the imagination of most voters.

Can you imagine a party leader using their opening and closing comments at a televised debate to outline the benefits of proportional representation or Senate reform?

This does not mean that the “d” word is not thrown around with great gusto. Political leaders routinely claim to be the chief defenders of democracy against the anti-democratic ways of their rivals. This makes for a good show but it is mostly just convenient rhetoric.

This leads to a key question: what should elections be about?

Arguably, there is no single right answer. Elections can and should be about many things. But perhaps it is time to carve out some space in this election – or the next one – to talk seriously and at length about the democratic processes and structures that we rely on to ensure the “good” government we all want.

This would mean fewer ribbon cutting opportunities and it would require voters to submit themselves to some fairly dry debates, but the result would be a long overdue examination of what makes our democracy tick and what needs repair.

If we keep ignoring the “service now” light on our democratic dashboard, we are taking a huge risk. The last thing Canada needs is a political crisis caused by a sudden breakdown of our democratic system.

Imagine, to cite but one example, an unelected Senate blocking the will of a future minority government.

But the real damage is more subtle and more long-term as Canadians become more apathetic, as power becomes more concentrated, as debate becomes even less substantive, as scandals become routine and as the light to the world that is Canadian democracy becomes dimmer and dimmer.

Let’s start calling for a robust debate about reforming our democratic system even if this means a hefty repair bill and some time away from other concerns. A fair, strong, and effective government system is more than worth the cost and effort.

Robert Roach is the Director of the Canada West Foundation’s The West in Canada Project. His column is distributed through Troy Media.