It is unfortunate that it seems to take a crisis to remind us that our government plays a valuable role. The anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers occurred at the same time as the refugee crisis claimed center stage and that earlier tragedy also provided a powerful message about the importance of government. People suddenly were less enthused about the logic of contracting out airport security to private firms who paid their staff minimum wage. Complaints about overpaid and underworked public servants disappeared, as we watched the heroic effort of police, ambulance workers, and many other public servants on the front lines in response to 9/11.
As Canadians consider how to vote, or whether to vote, in the upcoming federal election, we need to look beyond the prevailing negative views of government and recognize its positive aspects.
For many, government is largely a negative force or factor. It is an institution that takes money from the public, via taxes, and then wastes most of it. This view is found in the oft-repeated political promise to leave money “in the hands of hard-working taxpayers.” It is also reflected in the promotion of the private sector as inherently more efficient and in the push to privatize government operations.
To Act as a Vending Machine
Many others view government primarily from the perspective of what it does for them. What do they get back for the taxes they pay? From this perspective, government is a potential source of financial benefits in the form of subsidies, tax deductions, grants, or other initiatives. It also provides various programs and services that people may want or need. Government, when viewed in this manner, is rather like a vending machine. People put in money (through taxes) and the government dispenses services. The relationship is essentially a commercial transaction, judged on the basis of whether the money spent brought good value. This narrow perspective has been encouraged by governments that have taken to calling their citizens clients or customers and offering them toll free numbers to call with complaints.
To Address Major Issues of Concern
For those who feel strongly about particular issues, government is a potential source of policies, laws, and regulations to respond to environmental concerns, the plight of Native people, the problems of the homeless, the costs of an aging population, the refugee crisis in Europe (to cite the current issue) – or whatever challenges are of concern.
To Embody Canadian Democracy
But there is yet another purpose for government – and it is by far the most important one, if we are, as we believe, citizens of a democratic country. Government is the central and essential mechanism for maintaining our democracy. It is the vehicle that Canadians use to articulate and address their collective interests and concerns. The government represents us, through the members that we elect, and the government is responsible to us and can only stay in office if supported by a majority of those that we elect. Regular elections provide Canadians with an opportunity to choose the political party that best captures our views and concerns, our hopes and aspirations. The result, in theory, is government of the people by the people for the people – as someone named Lincoln once intoned.
To describe this central role of government is to illustrate how far our governing system is from this ideal. Those we elect no longer represent us. Even those who wish to continue doing so after an election are constrained by the need to follow closely the positions taken by the political party to which they belong. This is especially the case with elected members of the governing party who are subject to very strict party discipline. The notion that our governments are responsible to us is also mostly an illusion. When one party wins a majority of the seats in the House of Commons, its leader becomes Prime Minister and (backed by that majority) is able to govern with impunity, functioning almost as a dictator between elections.
Our government system also no longer functions effectively in helping to articulate the collective concerns of the Canadian population. While increasingly sophisticated polling and other data have given political parties an unprecedented amount of information about how Canadians feel about almost every imaginable topic, there is nothing to suggest that this information has been used to gain an improved insight into what is needed for governing Canada. To the contrary, political parties dissect these polls and their own analyses to find specific preferences or concerns that they can address or placate through some policy initiative. Far from nation building initiatives, this approach – especially as perfected by the ruling Conservatives – is to identify small segments of the population that can be brought on side. With enough of these “bits and pieces” a party can accumulate the basis for an election victory.
Are We Ready – To Vote for Democracy?
Government is occasionally wasteful or inefficient. It may not provide what you consider a “good deal” in terms of what you receive for the price you pay in your taxes. It may be slow or ineffective in responding to particular issues that are of special concern to you. These considerations may understandably affect your decision on whether to vote and how to vote. But there is a much more fundamental factor that should be your primary consideration and should prompt you to vote without hesitation in the upcoming election. Canadian democracy is at risk. Our democratic institutions and practices have been undermined at an accelerating rate over the past decade. This is the issue that you need to address with your vote.
We must stop taking our democracy for granted
Some commentators claim that democratic issues are just not that significant a factor in the upcoming election and that “bread and butter issues” are what concern voters. I can only hope, for the sake of this country, that this pessimistic assessment is wrong. Now is the time for Canadians to hold the government to account for its widespread abuses of our democratic principles and practices. Now is the time to demand from any party that seeks our support a commitment to a renewal of Canadian democracy. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to restore the kind of government system and country we once enjoyed and have for too long taken for granted.