Guest Post: Democracy Should Be for Election Losers as well as Winners

Hi all. Posting has been sporadic, to put it mildly, as I wrap up my dissertation. In the meantime, I’m happy to present this thought-provoking overview of the health of Canada’s democracy by UBC alumnus Chris Tenove. Chris is now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics and Munk School of Global Affairs. He lives in Vancouver.

By Chris Tenove

Whatever happens in Monday’s election, many Canadians will wake up disappointed on Tuesday. The local representative we voted for will have lost, or our preferred party will not form government. It’s therefore worth remembering why democracy is the best political system for those who are on the losing side of elections, and not just for the winners.

Three features make losing more palatable and less dangerous in democracies – the legitimacy of elections, checks and balances on executive power, and a democratic culture of inclusion. Unfortunately, the Conservative government has undermined all three.

First, in functioning democracies, elections produce a government that is legitimate. We may be disappointed but we do not feel cheated, since each person had an equal opportunity to vote and each vote counted (more or less) equally.

However, with the misnamed Fair Elections Act, the Conservative government undermined fair and equal participation. The Act reduces Elections Canada’s programs to encourage voting, and takes away vouching or Voter Information Cards as sufficient proof of identification at polling stations. These changes are expected to make voting more difficult for thousands of people, with a greater impact on people less likely to vote Conservative, including student, indigenous and poor voters. The Act also reduces Elections Canada’s role in policing electoral laws.

Beginning Tuesday, we need to see how these changes affected the election. If people have faced unequal obstacles to voting, and if any party violated electoral laws as the Conservative party has in the past, we need to root out failings. Whether or not we pursue new voting systems, as the NDP and Liberals have proposed, we need to make sure that Canadian elections are increasingly equal, open and fair.

Second, elected governments face several institutional checks and balances, which help protect vulnerable groups and those on the losing side of elections.

Chief among these is the division of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Stephen Harper’s record here is clear: he has consolidated power in the Prime Minister’s Office to a degree not seen previously in Canadian history. The legislative branch is a ghost of its former self, with honest debate stifled in the House of Commons and Committees, with omnibus bills rammed through without sufficient time for study, and with MPs given little independence or authority.

The judicial branch has been threatened (including public attacks on Chief Justice McLachlin), and its rulings have sometimes been subverted or ignored. For instance, the Federal Court found the Conservative policy limiting health care for refugee claimants to be “cruel and unusual,” and ordered the government to reinstate preexisting coverage until there was a new policy or a successful appeal. Instead, the government simply disregarded the ruling, not only harming this vulnerable group but the rule of law itself.

The Senate, too, is supposed to act as a check and balance. Its ability to represent Canada’s regions and improve policies was compromised before Stephen Harper became prime minister. But as we learned from the Mike Duffy trial, the Prime Minister’s Office put great effort into corrupting the Senate in private, while publicly attacking its credibility and delaying meaningful reform.

The Conservative government has also chipped away at the quality and openness of the public service. We want our public servants to develop policies in a transparent, innovative and evidence-based manner. Instead, we have seen knowledge smothered, facts ignored, and government units re-purposed as advertising agencies for Conservative ministers.

Beginning Tuesday, we will need to reinvigorate these institutions that improve our public programs and restrain an overly powerful executive office.

This takes me to our democracy’s third major defense of those who are on the losing side of elections, one that is even more fundamental than fair elections and democratic institutions. That is a culture of tolerance, curiosity and care among our diverse citizens. Such a culture prompts us to work together with citizens on the goals and problems we share, and to aid those who are attacked or neglected.

This is why electoral tactics of stigmatization and dishonesty by the Conservatives has been so galling. Whether singling out wearers of the niqab as un-Canadian, promoting xenophobia through a “barbaric cultural practice” hot line, or spreading falsehoods to targeted audiences (such as advertising in Chinese and Punjabi media that Liberals plan to sell pot to kids), the Conservative party has shown a willingness to win votes by poisoning our political culture. This, too, must now be restored.

Democracy in Canada remains deeply entrenched. Whoever wins the election on Monday will have done so in a fairly legitimate process, will face laws and institutions that help guard against abuse of power, and will govern a country with admirable trust and concern among its diverse citizens. But whoever takes office on Tuesday should reverse the anti-democratic policies that Conservatives have pursued in recent years, and work to make democracy in Canada stronger.

Photo:B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix walks away from the podium and leaves the stage after conceding defeat in the provincial election in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Everybody’s wrong in Canadian politics

The Conservatives got C-51 wrong. In fact, they got it wrong twice. They had a chance to climb down after the committee stage, when it had become clear that a general mobilization of opposition was under way, including not just among the typical partisan voices but a much more apolitical set of experts on the issue. The bill’s opponents constitute a diverse group. It includes active lawyers and senior public servants whose professional incentives actually push against participation in partisan politics in favour of more neutral policy advice. It also features an array of strong voices within the country’s conservative movement, who obviously must have strong reasons to criticize a government with which they normally identify. That groups see fit to oppose the bill so openly and rigorously speaks to the alarm with which they view it. The latest opinion polls bear this out, with support for the bill slipping even among Conservative voters, and the party may yet rue the day they doubled down on it.

They’re wrong on Iraq and Syria as well, though not totally so. ISIS is not a significant threat to Canada, and it is unsavoury politics, to say the least, to present it as such in what for all the world seems to be an effort to make Canadians fearful in order to gain electoral advantage. That said, human suffering and massive instability in the Middle East is not in Canada’s interests either; had the Conservatives made stabilization of that region its priority, rather than the neutralization of what is (for Canadians) a trumped up security threat, they would arguably be credibly serving the nation’s interests. As it is, a degraded ISIS will either re-emerge the moment Canada and its allies withdraw from the region, or be replaced by something else just as unpleasant. War without the prospect for a political solution is war without end.

The Liberals, meanwhile, managed to get their stances on C-51 and military action in Iraq and Syria exactly backwards. They should be opposing the former to the hilt, and actually calling for a more muscular, but differently constructed intervention in the case of the latter. The “Syraq” mission in fact represented an opportunity to retake the high ground in Canadian foreign policy, to rediscover the liberal principles embodied in the Responsibility to Protect to which the Minister of Defence recently (and in my view incorrectly) invoked. Canada’s current mission is effectively a kind of preventive conflict, designed to degrade what the government views as a serious threat to Canadian security, namely ISIS. Any protection of civilians is at best temporary without a commitment to stay and work with Canada’s allies to return stability to that most unstable of global regions. Given the ongoing commitment to work in an even-handed manner to return stability to that region would constitute a genuine contribution to the security of Canada and the world.

To its credit, the NDP is on the mark in its strong stance against C-51. It errs, however, in focusing solely on humanitarian measures such as refugees support in Syria and Iraq, however, failing to provide a coherent (and easily communicated) view on how it would keep Canadians safe at home, and work to enhance stability abroad. Providing care and comfort for those lucky enough to escape is not enough. Canada can do better, and do so in a manner consistent with international law, rebuilding respect for rule-based international order in the process. The world has become more dangerous in the last decade. Canada can and should be a strong actor working to re-establish rule-governed relations among nations through support of initiatives such as the US-Iran nuclear negotiations, and putting forward some idea of how Canada can contribute to stability in the most unstable regions of the world, helping vulnerable populations in the process. Those are values and goals consistent with an NDP worldview as well.

The Green Party is wrong too. Oh, they’re right about climate change, for sure. It’s the single most pressing issue facing the world to be, and almost certainly remain so throughout my lifetime and beyond. It’s the mother of all collective action problems.  No, they’re wrong about the Westminster system under first past the post. I’ve written previously at some length about how the presence of an environmental option on the ballot may actually have impeded the progress of the environmental movement in Canada. Our system rewards “identity” or “answer” parties, not “issue” or “question” parties. Unless and until Canada shifts to a proportional representation model, we should be pushing all parties all to take climate change seriously, and offering them the chance to win environmental voters as a result. As it stands, parties that actually stand a chance at winning know that they’ll never capture the most green-conscious voters, so they spend no capital trying. (All that said, I hope Elizabeth May stays on as an MP. She’s a hugely important voice in contemporary Canadian politics.)

The media, meanwhile, gets the Duffy trial wrong. While corruption within the governing party is certainly newsworthy, there is little to learn from the trial that we don’t already know. It’s a sideshow, one whose effects on public opinion and our view of government have largely played out already. The ongoing exhaustive focus on it tends to take attention away from less exciting but more significant issues such as the ones discussed above, to say nothing of the significant economic changes under way, both internationally with the continuing rise of Asia, and domestically with the at least temporary stalling of the petroleum industry.

Have I alienated everyone? If so, then my work here is done.

photo credit: Wrong Way via photopin (license)

R2P, Canada, and Syria

Minister Kenney recently described Canada’s mission to degrade ISIS in terms of Responsibility to Protect. He suggests that Canada’s mission there may be considered an example of the emerging international norm, an interesting turn of events considering the norm did not previously matter all that much for this government :

If the responsibility to protect means anything … does it not mean in an instance such as this, preventing genocide, preventing ethnic cleansing, preventing sexual slavery of women and preventing the execution of gay men by throwing them off towers?

To paraphrase the great Inigo Montoya, I do not think that emerging norm means what he thinks it means. Here is the basic premise of R2P, taken from the UN R2P webpage:

The three pillars of the responsibility to protect…are:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

Two quick points, along with an implication for Canadian policy.   First, R2P focuses explicitly (and quite deliberately) on the state as holder of the primary responsibility for the protection of resident populations. The expectation is that sovereignty implies responsibilities, and not just rights, for states.

It is only if the state is unable or unwilling to protect its own populations—and obviously, if the state is the one doing the attacking that qualifies—that the international community has a moral obligation to intervene to “take collective action” to “protect populations.”

Protect populations. That is explicitly and deliberately an expression of human security. To be considered a legitimate instance of R2P, Canada’s mission would need to be conceived and implemented completely differently, with an aim to protecting Syrians and Iraqis not only, or even primarily from ISIS/ISIL, but from the state which currently threatens so many. That is, Canada would need to be protecting the region’s populations from all who threaten them, including Assad.

Of course, Canada’s mission is designed and justified to do something completely different. Here is how the Prime Minister justifies the recent extension of Canada’s military mission to Iraq (and now Syria):

The highest priority of any government must be protecting its citizens from harm. I believe that Canadians realize that we cannot stand on the sidelines while ISIL commits atrocities in the Middle East and promotes terrorism in Canada and against our allies. We are therefore seeking the support of Canadian parliamentarians for our decision to extend and expand Canada’s military mission, with our allies, to fight Islamic jihadism which threatens national and global security. We intend to continue to degrade and disrupt ISIL as well as provide humanitarian and stabilization support to help alleviate the suffering this terrorist group is inflicting.

This sounds much more like a mission of preventive conflict, one not designed to protect Syrians and Iraqis at all, but rather to protect Canadians. We are fighting ISIS over there, because they are said to pose a threat us over here. Such a mission may be called many things, but it is not an example of R2P in action.

There are many other ironies points worth noting—such as the prominence of international law in the form of the UN charter—in the above pillars, but that’s all I have time for for now.

You Were Lucky. When Tasha Kheiriddin was young…

There are lots of ways to carve up the population for democratic purposes. Some make obvious, intuitive sense, like geography.  Others are harder to map onto political debates, despite their significance.

A particularly tricky issue to deal with is age. We love and hate generational debates. Write a piece online about generational politics, and you can expect a) lots of clicks, and b) lots of comments along the following lines: “Generational stereotypes are dumb! They don’t capture me at all! Also, everyone in generation [blank] is out to lunch!”

In yesterday’s National Post, Continue reading

Auditing reactions to Ford’s Return. (Trigger Warning: Sitting Toronto Mayor-based content)

I noted today that the Globe and Mail ran a video pondering “who benefits” from the return of the titular mayor of Canada’s largest city. (Please note, I provide the link for reference. I’m not advising that anyone actually click it. Incidentally, isn’t newspaper video just the best? Who doesn’t enjoy taking four minutes to learn something obtainable from a 15 second skim?)

Despite having sworn off all such content months ago, I couldn’t help but take a look at what the national papers were saying.
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On Ranked Ballots (aka Alternative Vote): A Conversation with Michael MacKenzie

This is another “good parts version” of a conversation I had while writing a recent op-ed—this time my analysis of the Ontario election and its potential implications for the cause of democratic reform in Canada.

Initial pleasantries and irrelevant bits—irrelevantries?—have been deleted, and I’ve done some editing for flow. I provide clarifying comments as necessary in brackets. [Not parentheses.] See? Just like that.

My email interlocutor was Michael MacKenzie, a former grad student at UBC now at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, where he specializes in what you might call applied democratic theory. You can read about his current project, Participedia, here.
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Have at you!

Facebookposium: More voters? Or more sophisticated voters? (And much, much more)

[Note: The following is a summary of an impromptu Facebook symposium debating, among other things, the relative merits of mandatory voting and the need for “better citizens” in Canadian democracy. My friend and fellow UBC graduate student Edana Beauvais pulled it together on the basis of contributions from various students in the department. It’s all pretty self-explanatory, and at times quite heated! It’s also pretty long, so consider yourself warned.

The debate, I’m pleased to say, continues to percolate. For those who followed the original discussion on Facebook, I am pleased to announce that there is NEW, PREVIOUSLY UNRELEASED MATERIAL in the form of closing statements from a couple of the participants near the bottom below. Other contributors have promised to contribute additional contributions in the near future; I will post them, or links to them here. I intend to weigh in with some final thoughts of my own at some point. Others who would like to contribute in whatever form are welcome to do so. Happy reading!—SP]

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