Democracy is Hard Work

Democracy is hard work. And by that I don’t mean just for political candidates who, among many other things, participate in all-candidates’ meetings or debates where they’re asked all kinds of questions on the complex political issues they’re supposed to know everything about. I take my toque off to anybody who has the courage, or whatever it takes, to do that in front of a live, national television audience, or a crowd of several hundred people in a local riding. 

I mean here especially that democracy is hard work for voters, or should be. Bad government is the result of voters not doing their homework and allowing themselves to be manipulated by shallow political policies and campaign tactics; or, worst of all, it’s the result of people not bothering to vote, or even take an interest in the political process.

The problems Canadians are facing today – gun violence in Toronto, an overburdened, under-funded Medicare system, crumbling service infrastructure – are to a large extent the result of deep cuts to social programs and other essential government services in the name of tax cuts, deficit reduction, and less government. That kind of thinking has dominated Canadian politics at the federal and provincial level for more than a decade and done a lot of damage. In the current federal election campaign candidates and leaders of all political stripes are promising to spend billions of dollars, essentially to repair the damage. Yet, they’re still promising tax cuts and balanced budgets. It doesn’t add up, never has. That’s the sort of thing people might want to think about before Jan. 23.

In the best of all possible worlds people who live in a democracy and want to keep it strong and healthy understand they are what it’s all about: it’s on their shoulders, it’s in their hands, and they’re responsible for the government they elect. Millions of people can’t go to Ottawa and sit in the House of Commons on a regular basis. Most of us don’t have the time. Somebody has to keep their hands on the plow, nose to the grindstone, fingers to the keyboard, and wheel to the rubber. Besides, the place isn’t big enough. So, we pick people to go there to act and speak on our behalf. We trust they will help ensure we continue to live in a peaceful, orderly, free, and prosperous society.

So far, for all our mistakes – and some of them are mentioned above – Canadians seem to have done not too badly in the exercising of their democratic responsibility to elect governments. The country still exists; it’s still free; it’s relatively peaceful and law-abiding compared to most other countries in the world; and by all accounts it’s currently one of the most prosperous. We must be doing something right. If enough Canadians keep taking their civic responsibility seriously and thinking things through carefully we should be all right, shouldn’t we?

Yes, if the standing-room only crowd of several hundred people for the all-candidates’ meeting at the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre is any indication. As such events go, it was a good turnout. There were lots of excellent questions from the audience. The questions were filtered through a media panel first and often summarized before being posed by “the professionals.” Not a bad idea. But, like the one man who suddenly rose to complain, I missed the absence of direct questions from the crowd via floor microphones, the better to gauge the mood of voters.

It was a good opportunity for those on hand to judge how well-informed the four Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound candidates are and how well they can express themselves, or not. That’s important because no amount of information matters if you can’t communicate effectively on behalf of your constituents, and add to the overall quality of discussion and debate in Parliament. That’s what the word means, after all.

There were a good number of all-candidates’ meetings this week in the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound and Huron -Bruce ridings. That speaks well for the current democratic health of the Grey-Bruce area, better than the 2004 election, when there was a last-minute push to get more organized. In recent years much concern has been raised about declining voter turnouts for national elections in particular; and in connection with that, the troubling extent to which many Canadians are uninformed about national politics, and indifferent to the political process. Elections Canada has been trying to figure out the reasons why for years. Cynicism about politics in general and a “don’t care” attitude among young people in particular are often cited. A team of top scholars from various Canadian universities is involved in the ongoing Canadian Election Study.  Some of its findings, which were cited in a news report early in the current campaign, were deeply troubling for anyone concerned about the overall health of the democratic process in Canada. A third of the people surveyed following a recent federal election couldn’t attribute a single election promise to the party that made it, no matter how simple. Forty percent didn’t know the difference between “right” and “left” as applied to politics.

Such a large number of uninformed, indifferent voters creates ideal conditions for negative, personal, “attack ad” type campaign tactics that are now all too common in Canadian elections. It doesn’t bode well for the future of Canadian democracy, especially if politicians persist in using such tactics to play to what they imagine to be the lowest common denominator in the electorate.

But, given a chance, people will respond positively and enthusiastically to well-informed, well-articulated ideas and positions put to them by politicians who don’t talk down or otherwise insult the public intelligence. We saw proof of that at the Owen Sound all-candidates’ meeting this week.

All four of the candidates had their good moments, scored some political points and earned some deserved applause. They all contributed to the overall positive tone. Several hundred people listened carefully for two hours, gathered all the information they could, and took advantage of the opportunity to their jobs as voters; that was my impression. So far as I could see nobody got up and left early.

Afterwards, lots of people – most I would say – made a point of stopping to compliment the candidate who had stood out with his sound grasp of the issues and well-articulated ability to express himself. All those stopped to shake his hand may not end up voting for Green Party Candidate Shane Jolley. I didn’t agree with everything he said. And like a lot of other voters, I’m still undecided, still trying to become better informed, still trying to weigh the pros and cons and make a wise choice on Jan. 23. Like I say it’s hard work, and it sure seems like a long campaign.

But I liked Jolley’s style, if that’s the right word; and so did a lot of other people. It was refreshing and encouraging. If he’s an example of the new generation of citizen-politicians coming along, then the future health of the democratic process in Canada doesn’t look so bad after all.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.


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