The partisan benefits of weak democratic processes

Standards of Democracy only work with massive public support. Please tell everyone you know.

Since 2006 I’ve been talking to people about tightening up the loose ends in democratic processes and their responses range from polite disregard to concern for my social life. In the week of April 14 however, it seems that others are beginning to see the structural problems too. Some smart folks have escalated their feelings about the poor quality our government from disgruntled to concerned. We can all get upset with individual policies from time to time, but these folks are suffering a profound loss of faith about the overall virtue of our government.

I want to thank Prime Minister Stephen Harper for accelerating this process of public dismay, but I also want to remind this noteworthy group that the party in power is not the problem, it’s just the symptom. They’re just the latest government that’s decided to maximize the partisan benefits that weak democratic processes provide. We are now seeing a clear trend of declining ethical concern among politicians. A corresponding trend of increasing abuse of power will therefore ensue. A similar situation occurred under George Bush and with luck and a bit more common sense, I hope that Canadians will resist the temptation to get all Tea Partied up. There is a ‘basic’ solution available, but it exists in the implementation of good management control of government processes, not in drawing simplistic battle lines and getting medieval on each other.

And who are these noteworthy people? Seasoned political journalist Susan Delacourt wrote this week about about the 30th anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She wondered, if we didn’t already have one, could we even get a new charter of rights under the current government. Sadly her conclusion was the same as mine…probably not. David Suzuki who’s spent a life time banging against “the system” to improve environmental protection and awareness, stepped down from the board of his own foundation. His comments opposing government policy were bringing ever more strident threats of a tax audit and revocation of it’s charitable status. Then Clayton Ruby went so far as to announce splitting Forest Ethics into two parts. One to continue work on sustainable forest policy and the other to directly fight the government.

I’m sorry too that such prominent people are having such a public loss of faith in government, but we should see this as a call to renovation not confrontation. There isn’t much point in preparing for battle if you’re still trying to play by the same old broken rules. The playing field isn’t fair and you’ll never win a lasting victory. The government hasn’t provided a complete set of rules to play by and is actively discarding even more of them. For instance, the proposed Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and Trans Mountain pipelines are being reviewed by an incomplete environmental assessment process, that assures approval in spite of broad public opposition.

So what could we possibly change that would make this better in some lasting way? There’s been a rollback of environmental law, but let’s face it, they weren’t good enough to start with. No person or company should be allowed to even propose damaging the viability of my living space, especially just for short term economic gain. A guarantee of a sustainable environment should be a specific right added to the Charter, it has been 30 years since we looked at it. Then we need a scientifically rigorous set of standards that define what constitutes damage to the environment, these documents have been sitting on the shelf waiting to be used. Environmental assessment applications need to address such standards and the public needs to agree that the project is a benefit to them.

On the other hand we could continue to spend our resources on issue by issue battles. They bring in loads of money for NGO’s, they make great TV and we get to repeat the familiar script. Enter the perpetual antagonist, a secret selection committee, under vague criteria, with a track record of never rejecting an application. Our usual climax occurs when there are serious environmental costs, then citizens with no meaningful input will be forced to pay for the damage. So sad. And for the denouement, those that made the decisions and took the profits, will not face any form of liability or punishment.

This environmental example is currently repeated across all manner of government activity, immigration law, privacy, justice, law enforcement, corrections, elections, health care, military spending, foreign policy and so on. Over the years we’ve allowed the checks and balances to be slowly gutted. If we fought to have EVERY department and committee of government equipped with the same protections in the form of transparency, effective management controls, management responsibility, independent oversight and consequences for abuse, we would have lasting benefits for the trouble of only one political battle.

I’m not advocating for a whole new political system. I just want to ensure that a few common sense rules are always in place to allow democracy to operate as we imagine it should. The sorts of changes that counteract the concentration of power, the conflict of interest, political action without mandate, sloppy money management et al. Then all of our needs can flow through that functional, strong and fair system and everyone can go back to making money, taking pictures of whales and walking among the trees.
So Susan, David, Clayton and who ever else understands, why don’t you give me a call and let’s talk about how we can get this done? Let’s restore Canada to a leadership role in good governance and human rights.

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Standards of Democracy only work with massive public support. Please tell everyone you know.

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