Democratic reform should be the central issue of this election

From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Apr. 13, 2011 2:00AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Apr. 13, 2011 4:50AM EDT

Gordon Gibson

We are now well into one of our occasionally scheduled games of “futures markets in stolen property,” otherwise known as an election. (Thank you, H.L. Mencken.) The promises are flying.

Stripped of all the fine words, the parties all come to us with a remarkable proposition: “We will confiscate a goodly portion of your hard-earned money and remove it to Ottawa. There we will launder and shrink it and then return some of it to you. We will also issue a series of orders called laws and regulations that will tell you what to do with your lives. You may now say thank you.”

More related to this story

Strangely, we mostly buy into this pitchman’s plan. This is partly because much of what government does is necessary, even good. But alas, much of what government does is also stupid or wasteful or improperly gives the advantage to one region or group over others to buy votes. This doesn’t sound attractive, but the politicians are so cunning in their packaging, the issues are so complex, the media so lazy and the voters so resigned or so busy with other things that the shiny tinsel looks good enough to draw support for one party or another.

This is notwithstanding the fact that three of the parties – the Bloc Québécois, the NDP and the Greens – have no conceivable chance of implementing their promises (and so can promise anything at all). By contrast, the Conservatives or Liberals might be able to implement their promises – they just have no believable way of paying for them, short of higher taxes or higher debt – both things, as we know, they’d never, ever do.

Agreed, this is a cynical view of a political system wherein are entrapped many good people who genuinely want to make the world a better place. And it could be a lot worse – one need only look south of the border to see a great nation now struggling with a truly sick democracy. So we must get past the cynicism, look at what we have and ask, “How can we make it better?”

That should be a central issue of this election – democratic reform. The available options are well known and researched. At the top of the list is more power to the ordinary MP. After all, this is the only person you get to vote for and thus the only person you can call to account.

The list goes on to more freedom and resources for parliamentary committees (where the iron discipline of the party whip is less in evidence) and a sharp restriction in the matters deemed to be issues of “confidence” (and thus capable of forcing an election) by governments.

There are institutional matters such as electoral reform and campaign finance. And there are things such as a truly muscular freedom-of-information law, so that the knowledge and options available to the government would also be available to the public. Without good information, there can’t be good accountability. Without such knowledge, the shiny tinsel carries the debate.

The trouble is, the reforms that would make our political system work better involve a transfer of power. Some would move power from the Prime Minister’s Office to Parliament. Some would move power from governments to voters. Unlikely. An iron rule of politics says no one ever voluntarily gives up power, and the PMO has been centralizing more over the past 40 years. But some great people have voluntarily done so in the past and, more rarely, some great citizens’ movements have forced change. We can hope.

The bottom line is this: The gatekeeper to reform is the prime minister of the day. That’s the person who can make change – or stop it. If you believe that reforming a dysfunctional system is more important than any of the other issues in play, then the thing to do is look at Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff and ask: Which one is the more credible reformer? Which one will make plain-language commitments, no fingers crossed, no cross my heart and hope to die, to institute this or that reform?

Maybe neither. But one thing is certain – if we don’t ask, nay, demand, things will go on as before and perhaps get worse.