Reflections On democracy

The state of political parties today

On the evening of September 19, I (along with about twenty other people) was treated to a panel discussion at the University of Winnipeg focusing on whether or not Canada’s political party system contributes or detracts from a healthy and vibrant democratic process.

At the heart of the debate, I thought, was ambiguity about what exactly that ‘tick’ on the ballot means in terms of larger issues facing the electorate and the public at large.

Two of the panelists were independent members of Parliament: Brent Rathgeber, a former Conservative MP, and Bruce Hyer, a former New Democratic MP.  Both were ejected from their respective positions for defying their caucuses on a point of principle. They seemed to uphold the standard vision that the individual candidate is there to represent his community to defend the policy priorities they campaigned for in the election.

The reality, it seems, is that partisan politicians are beholden to their parties even when those parties depart from the policy positions and values they campaigned for. In other words, loyalty to the party trumps indebtedness to the community that put it in power.

Ultimately, all the panelists seemed to agree that political parties play a central role in fundraising and messaging during elections. The event, though, was less a debate than a roundtable airing different recommendations for reforming the system and making it more respectful towards the autonomy of individual Parliamentarians.

The conversation had some interesting moments. There was widespread praise of the two visiting MP’s who defied their parties to the detriment of their political careers. In an era when Canadians routinely dismiss politicians as opportunists who are in politics for themselves, it is hard to discern a cynical motive in Rathgeber and Hyer’s decisions to walk away from prestigious positions and salaries.

While engaging, I thought the discussion centred too much on elections as a measure of democratic engagement. After all, elections themselves are not political barometers – they are exercises in manipulation.

Regardless of the stated aims of the political parties, the demands of the modern election campaign will compel professional campaigners to manipulate the perceptions and appetites of the electorate.

Furthermore, media and commercial advertising plays too prominent a role in shaping the priorities of a society. Media, largely a creature of the advertisers that sponsor it, furnish the poignant imagery, simplistic analysis and exaggerated fears that fosters a political culture that wants to, for example, get ‘tough on crime’ or promote material consumption as the route to prosperity.

True democratic participation cannot be measured by adherence to the quadrennial election ritual. We require communities to address and articulate mutual concerns on an ongoing basis, participate in over-the-fence discussions and make appearances before City Committees.

A larger discussion on democratic engagement featuring Elizabeth May is planned for October 8 at Broadway Disciples United Church. Hopefully the talk will at some point transcend the limited debate around how to more effectively navigate between and among two or three governing entities.

Michael Welch is the News Director at the University of Winnipeg-based radio station CKUW 95.9FM.

Published in Volume 68, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 10, 2013)

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