On Sept. 23, Maclean’s will present a round table discussion on the subject “Our Democracy Is Broken: How Do We Fix It?” at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto, to be broadcast live nationwide on CPAC, the public affairs channel. Guests will include former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, former prime minister’s chief of staff Eddie Goldenberg, and author John Ralston Saul. Maclean’s columnists Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells will host the evening.
To get things started, this week they discuss what’s wrong with Canadian democracy.
Andrew Coyne: Paul, the title of our little show in Toronto on the 23rd is “Our Democracy is Broken.” This might strike some as provocative, even over the top. Surely “Is Our Democracy Broken?” would have been more, um, Canadian?
But the more I think about it, the more it strikes me as apt. Honestly, is there anything about Canadian democracy that isn’t broken? Elections about nothing, parties that have been reduced to leadership cults, a permanently deadlocked Parliament, record-low voter turnout, and overlaying everything an atmosphere of coarseness, cynicism and mindless partisanship. And that’s the good news! The impotence of ordinary MPs, the irrelevance of Parliament, the near dictatorial powers of the Prime Minister: if we were writing about a Third World country with a system like ours, we would be careful to refer to the “largely ceremonial” Parliament and “sham” elections. Only force of habit prevents us from applying the same terms here.
Oh, and did I mention our appointed upper house?
I assume you feel much the same as I do. So my question to you off the top is: which is the worst of Canadian democracy’s many flaws? Where should we start?
Paul Wells: Well, Andrew, I’m not sure the House of Commons is the worst of our problems, but I find it’s handy to start at the centre and work outward. And the Canadian centre clearly cannot hold. At least in developing countries you run into the occasional “largely ceremonial” parliament. Ceremony implies some element of decorum, at least. If ours were to become ceremonial, it would be a step up.
Take Monday’s hijinks. Jack Layton, the NDP leader who has voted against this government at every opportunity, was suddenly lecturing the other opposition leaders about “making Parliament work.” (Brian Topp, his best strategist, managed to claim with a straight face that Layton “doesn’t run with the opposition crowd.” This would be the same Jack Layton whose party has never governed.) Meanwhile, it’s Michael Ignatieff who’s taken Layton’s place as the guy who’s eager to oppose whatever the government does, before he knows what that is.
What’s most striking about all of this is that none of it is about public policy. It’s pure tactics. Layton decided to back the government because Ignatieff had decided to stop, and Ignatieff decided to stop because he had already done too much backing.
This is how it’s been for five years. You once wrote a column arguing that minority governments are good for compromise and deliberation. That sounded sensible at the time, but I don’t see a lot of compromise and deliberation going on, or at least none that’s about the goal of better governance. But here’s the hard question: is that because of the personalities involved, or is there actually anything to be done about it?