[Democracy Watch Logo][Op-ed]

Canadians deserve democracy -- will politicians give it to them?

(The following opinion piece, by Duff Conacher, Coordinator of Democracy Watch, was published in slightly different form in The Toronto Staron December 29, 2004 and in the Hill Times on January 10, 2005)

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As in many countries, Canadians are debating democracy more than usual in their streets, homes, bars, legislatures and courts.

What makes a country a democracy?  Many United Nations and other international organizations are actively debating the definition of democracy, trying to set new standards that would allow countries that act undemocratically to be penalized in various ways by other countries.  However, given that politicians are defining democracy for themselves in these forums, their proposed standards are so vague and incomplete that it would be impossible to hold them accountable in most areas.

This game of politicians defining democracy weakly has been going on for decades, with governments usually trying to lower citizens' expectations.

Prime Minister Paul Martin attempted this two years ago when he proposed a very few, very limited reforms to end Canada's "democratic deficit."  Other than increasing ethics enforcement for Cabinet ministers, Martin only proposed to allow Liberal MPs to challenge Liberal Cabinet ministers every so often with a committee report or vote in Parliament.

Martin made these limited proposals because he knew they would do very little to decrease his power, given that most Liberal MPs want to get into Cabinet and know that challenging a Cabinet minister is the one sure way to guarantee you will never end up in Cabinet.  Martin's first year as Prime Minister has shown how weak his proposals were, as Liberal MPs have huffed and puffed but then, in the end, supported the federal Cabinet on several issues.

So what is Canada's actual democratic deficit?  Overall, the lack of comprehensive, easily enforced rights for citizens to participate in the decision-making processes of every organization that makes decisions or takes actions that affect them, and to hold other individuals (and those in these organizations who are responsible for making decisions and taking actions) fully accountable if their decisions or actions violate fundamental human rights, or are dishonest, unethical, unfair, secretive, inefficient, unrepresentative, unresponsive or irresponsible.

If these rights were enforced strongly, all organizations in Canada would be citizen-owned, citizen-controlled, and citizen-driven, and all individuals would be held accountable for wrongdoing.

How far away is Canada from being a society that upholds these fundamental democratic principles?  Canada has built much of the key infrastructure needed for a democratic society, with our Constitution and charter of human rights, relatively equitable economy and social welfare system, independent courts and media, and relatively free and tolerant society.

However, the operation of government institutions and corporations within this infrastructure is often very undemocratic, and directly tied to such dangerous effects as 40% of Canadian voters not voting, billions of dollars of Canadians' money being wasted, and many other horrendous day-to-day abuses of Canadians, communities and the environment.

For example, while politicians have passed laws making it illegal for corporations to bait consumers with false advertisements, it is still legal for politicians and public servants to lie to citizens.  As long as lying remains legal, politicians will continue to conduct "bait and switch" election campaigns in which they bait voters with promises and then switch directions once they have won power, and politicians and public servants will continue to lie to cover-up wrongdoing or to mislead Canadians.

Secret, unlimited donations are legal to candidates in federal elections, and to politicians in many provinces and territories.  Ethics and spending rules for public servants in every government are enforced by other public servants, instead of independent, effective watchdog agencies.  And because of loopholes and lack of effective enforcement, most governments and corporations can keep documents secret that every Canadian has a right to see, again without any penalty.  These three gaps amount to an potent recipe for corruption and waste.

It is legal across Canada for politicians and public servants to become $300-dollar-an-hour corporate lobbyists soon after they leave office, so many spend their time in government positioning themselves to cash in on their next career.  It is also legal for corporate executives and lobbyists to become Cabinet ministers, political staff or public servants and right away watch over the corporations where they used to work.  As long as this revolving door continues to operate, governments will work more for corporations than they will for citizens.

Governments are not required by law to consult with Canadians in meaningful ways before they make most decisions or undertake most actions (and neither are corporations), and unlike in Switzerland and many other countries and many states in the U.S., Canadians cannot initiate through petition a referendum on societal issues.  Meanwhile, corporations are allowed to charge consumers extra costs to make extra profits, profits corporations use to push their agendas through advertising, hiring lobbyists, making political donations, and wining-and-dining politicians and public servants.  As a result, corporations have undue access, influence and power and governments address corporate concerns more than citizen concerns.

Governments can help solve these key democratic deficits by passing strong honesty, ethics, openness, anti-waste, public consultation and referendum requirements for all government institutions and corporations.  But to be effective, these laws need to be enforced by fully independent watchdog agencies with the powers and resources to ensure that all violators will be caught, and the power to issue penalties that are high enough to discourage violations.  In many sectors these agencies either don't exist, or lack independence, powers, or effective penalties.

Citizen empowerment is also key to effective enforcement and accountability.  Canadians do have the power of the vote, but with Canada's flawed voting system usually producing governments that do not accurately represent the will of voters, and with the many barriers shareholders face in nominating and voting for corporate boards, elections have proven to be quite limited as an effective accountability measure.

Beyond making government and corporate voting systems more democratic, to increase accountability governments should expand the citizen right-to-sue so citizens can enforce laws themselves, and should establish effective "whistleblower" protection for anyone reporting any wrongdoing by any government institution or corporation.

Unfortunately, most Canadian politicians lack the integrity needed to act democratically within such an undemocratic system, especially when it comes to enacting the key measures outlined above.

As a result, Canada is somewhat caught in a viciously undemocratic cycle that requires many citizens to push their concerns 24-7 for years before any government or corporation will take action, and often the action taken is incomplete or ineffective.

How do we break this vicious cycle?  One simple, no-cost method that has worked in the U.S. in some sectors would greatly increase Canadians ability to participate in government and corporate decision-making, and to hold governments and corporations accountable.

In this method, governments would require companies in every corporate sector that sends out bills or other mailings to customers and shareholders to enclose a one-page pamphlet that describes a new citizen watchdog group for that sector, and invites customers to join for a low annual fee.  Each watchdog group for each sector would pay all the costs of printing the pamphlet, and adding one page to company mailings would not increase postage costs at all.  Each watchdog group would have a board elected by and from amongst its members.

If Canadian governments did this, 25 million Canadians would be given a very easy way to band together into broad-based, well-resourced groups that would watch over banks, telephone and cable TV companies, airlines,  insurance companies, gas, oil, and water utilities and corporations generally on behalf of customers and individual shareholders.  The groups would also help consumers complain, help ensure regulatory agencies effectively enforce laws, and help the citizen voice be heard in government policy-making processes.

If governments refuse even to use this no-cost method to empower Canadians, it will be a clear sign that Canada is caught in a downward spiral of undemocratic governance.  Large corporate interests will more and more be protected by governments and the public interest more and more ignored, while more and more citizens give up even trying to make their voice heard.

Every poll taken in the past decade has shown that a large majority of Canadians want strong, comprehensive government accountability and corporate responsibility laws that are strictly enforced, and want governments to require corporations to help form the citizen watchdog groups described above.

It is up to our politicians to prove that Canada is actually a democracy by, finally, passing these key measures.  It will be deeply undemocratic for politicians to delay these measures any longer.  Canadians deserve better.  Canadians deserve democracy.

PLEASE NOTE: Limits set by the newspapers on the length of the above op-ed meant that there was not space to mention in the op-ed the following other key undemocratic aspects of Canadian society:

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