Sunday, September 14, 2008

Canada Almost Failed Major Test Of Democracy

Tory-NDP power play to exclude May revealed willingness to block out alternative viewpoints

Thomas Axworthy

One definition of a pessimist is an optimist with information. The old boys club's refusal to invite Elizabeth May to the leaders debate, only to be so overwhelmed by public outrage that they beat a hasty retreat within 48 hours, is ground for both optimism and pessimism.

Optimism, because the majority of decent Canadians reacted instantaneously. Opinion polls revealed that two-thirds of Canadians felt that the Green party deserved participation. NDP supporters made it clear to Jack Layton that he had betrayed his party's heritage, and well-known Canadians, like former Progressive Conservative PM Joe Clark, urged Stephen Harper to withdraw his opposition if May was invited.

Our Centre for the Study of Democracy booked space at Queen's University, invited all the leaders to an inclusive town hall debate for Sept. 29, and had supporters of all parties backing the initiative, when the news came that Layton and Harper had backed down.

Pessimism, because the alliance between the Conservative and NDP leaders to prevent the Green party from having the chance to speak, and the supine acquiescence of the television networks in kowtowing to this blackmail (no journalistic Profile in Courage award will ever be granted to this media consortium) says volumes about the decline of civility in our current political establishment.

Decent Canadians pushed back against the macho, win-at-all-costs Ottawa mentality but that corrosive spirit daily drips away, weakening the foundations of our political institutions.

The Ottawa political mentality is obsessed with winning. This is understandable because the prospect of power is an overwhelming aphrodisiac. (The problem is not Canada's alone; a similar debate on the purposes of politics is wonderfully articulated in an exchange of letters between the poet Wendell Berry and the prominent American politician Daniel Kemmis in The Way of Ignorance.)

In a democracy, the first responsibility of a party is not to win at all costs, but to respond honestly to the issues of the day and the needs and wants of self-governing citizens. The first responsibility of parties is to make the system itself work.

Parties are conveyor belts that transmit the varying values of millions of citizens and peacefully organize this process to achieve an outcome and create a government. But today's political players are so consumed with the game that they have forgotten what the game is all about.

Democracy began in Athens 2,500 years ago, and in Canada this year we are celebrating our first legislative elections, which were held in Nova Scotia 250 years ago.

That first contest in Nova Scotia, like elections ever since, required citizens to engage, to think about the commonweal, and to ask honest, open questions of those who would lead them. It required political leaders, in turn, to listen carefully to those questions, and to do their best to persuade citizens to make those leaders' values their own.

Self-government is a system built on respect and trust and, in that special process, both citizens and leaders reach beyond themselves to learn mutually that others might be right.

A test for a democracy, then, is how fairly it treats different points of view. Is the system inclusive or exclusive? This is a test that Canada nearly failed when the networks cravenly bowed to the short-term political instincts of the Conservative and the NDP leaders.

The Green party plays by all the rules: It has thousands of dedicated volunteers who helped it win the support of more than 600,000 Canadians in 2006; unlike the Bloc Québécois, it runs candidates in every riding, and it has a distinct point of view worth hearing.

Fair democracies encourage citizens to use the system to make their voices heard, and in so doing, channel frustration into positive outcomes. The emergence of new parties, such as the Greens, certainly is disconcerting for the established party system, but the ability to create and sustain a new party is integral to the political system, as a whole.

We cannot allow leaders debates ever to be put at risk again. The United States, for example, has created a non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates that has sponsored all American presidential and vice-presidential debates since 1988. Never again should we allow an informal, secretive old boys club to run this critical aspect of elections.

Further, such a commission should move beyond the single focus of leaders debates and should sponsor a weekly party debate aired on the news channels on issues like the economy, foreign policy, social exclusion, etc.

Beyond the leaders, Canadians should have the chance to judge the parties' national representatives on the election's most critical themes. After all, we have a Parliament with a cabinet, not a presidential system, so we should also have the chance to judge a party's team. Impartially organized and issue-themed debates are a crucial part of a future reform agenda.

Sir John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister, said: "An election is like a horse race, in that you can tell more about it the next day."

In the wake of the attempted exclusion of Elizabeth May, we know that the organization of televised leaders debates in Canada must change. We know, too, that those leaders who attempted to exclude her need to learn the lesson that self-government is, in the words of Kemmis, "not arrogant; it is humble." It respects the views of the other and, therefore, must always strive, at a minimum, to ensure that the other is heard.

Thomas S. Axworthy is chair of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University.

Source: TheStar.Com

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