A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
Contact us at democracyunderfire@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Assets & Liabilities – April 09

A monthly look at actions that add or subtract from our Democracy

Liability - The Conservative government for outsourcing the manufacturing of maple leaf pins to China. The latest shipment of maple leaf lapel pins to Parliamentary offices has arrived with ‘Made in China’ product labels.

Asset - Thomas Walkom for his article “The quiet unravelling of Canadian democracy” and to those bloggers that picked up upon it.

Liability - The Conservative Governments refusal to assist and protect Canadian citizens in difficult situations abroad and appealing the latest court decision regarding the repatriation of the lone Canadian remaining in captivity from the Iraq war.

Asset - Judge Gomery for his recent remarks that unnecessary delays or outright denials of requests under the Access to Information Act are creating a lack of transparency in government and that this type of transparency is crucial to the Canadian public, to democracy and to society at large.

Liability – Our PM for finding it necessary to hire two U.S media advisors (at $25,00 per week) to help him scrip and disseminate his views to the foreign media whilst at the same time limiting access for Canadian media.

Feel free to add your own thoughts to the list, I just wish it were as easy to find things for the asset side of the ledger as it is to find liabilities. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The BC Referendum

My blogging partner Monique, for whom this is not just an academic exercise but a real and important choice to be made on May 12th , says she is much too passionate on this issue to blog objectively about it. Whilst I do feel that change is most defiantly needed in the manner in which we are represented I am not certain that changes to the way we elect our MLA/MPPs (or MPs) will have an enormous effect. However even as one of those who is becoming an ever increasing minority (the rural resident) I still believe in proportionality and thus basically support any move towards that goal and did in fact vote for the (failed) MMP proposal in Ontario. That is not however the choice in BC, there the Citizens Assembly chose STV as the alternative.

It is perhaps as much about the rejection of the current system and the results it has produced as a great enthusiasm about the proposed new voting method; more an effort to reign in the excesses of our political partys and make them more accountable than simply an effort to inject more proportionality into the results.

The process is perhaps just as important as the result. That the proposal has been arrived at democratically by a coalition of citizens largely unencumbered by political pressures and that the citizens at large then vote to accept or reject their recommendations is not only commendable but necessary. Some have said that the threshold for adoption of 60% of the total votes in BC AND 50% of the votes in 51 of the 85 districts is overly high and that it should be 51% across the board. However when it passes, as all indications indicate that it will, there will be no room for doubt that not only a majority have decided but an overwhelming majority want change.

When considering your choice it is important to realise that there are strong views on both sides and much spin and misinformation out there. Two such arguments are the comparison with the Irish system and the contention that STV will cure all ills. Neither is necessarily true; as in all proportional voting systems it is the details that are important. The proposed system is not the same as the Irish system in the counting and seat distribution methods; how can a system from such a relatively small country be compared with such a large province such as BC? There is little comparison - do not be mislead. Should STV become the method of choice for electing your MLA do not expect it to make them more honest, less partisan, or even more accountable. There may be some small movement towards these things by the proportional nature of the results and the availability of more than one MLA to contact for your area and perhaps the inclusion of one or more of the minority partys. However these are the same politicians and it’s a bit like expecting a tiger to loose his stripes overnight - it may happen but it will probably take a long time and depends upon the environment they find themselves in.

Many people have said that even after studying the method of selecting the MLA's they still don't fully understand the math (my blog partner found it took about an hour of her time to understand it - possibly more time than most people will give themselves). This is however not that important so long as they have faith that it is free of the possibility of manipulation and that the result will more closely reflect the electorates wishes. All you really have to understand is that you can if you wish rate all the candidates in order of choice (1st choice, 2nd choice etc) and that such 2nd, 3rd or more choices will have an impact upon that candidates chances of being elected. You may also chose not to rate a candidate which would have the effect of reducing his or her chances of being elected. This may in fact have more impact than a low rating; it's sort of like a "none of the above" vote.

I will not even try to present the pro and cons of the two systems; there are many others who have done that from their individual perspectives, but for the most part it is all opinion. I can and will put a few questions before you that you may wish to consider when trying to decide upon you preference.

How do you believe that the larger ridings will affect the urban verses rural vote?

Will the availability of several MLA's representing you improve your chance of receiving better representation?

How will the number of candidates fielded from each party affect the outcome if at all?

Will those parties with the ability to cover the larger ridings with “advertising” have an advantage over smaller partys or individuals?

Will a ballot with 10, 20 or possibly more names totally confuse some voters or will they simply rate those they know of?

Will the proportionality negate any of the above concerns and more properly represent the peoples wishes?

Will there be a need for MLA's to establish satellite offices in more distant communities or will modern communications render that unnecessary?

How will the major parties spin, twist and manipulate the system to their advantage or is that not possible?

Each of you who must make this choice must make it upon the facts and upon how you think it will work for you in your district, not upon the opinions of those with a vested interest in the outcome. Difficult to do, but as probably one of the most important decisions made in years in regard to the future of governance not only in BC but with a impact on future possibilities across the country, it is one that must be made from a position of knowledge.

Please do not forget that this time around you must also elect your representatives under the existing system and even if you are not optimistic that the results will reflect the true wishes of the electorate, you must never the less protect the democratic process by voting for the best available candidate in your area. Remember these are the folks who will actually implement and pass into law any new system if it passes the threshold in the referendum.

“Democracy demands vigilance, and a willingness to pose difficult questions and to take risks. I do not mean by that only taking to the streets to complain about what is wrong, but also advocating constructive alternatives.” David Kilgore
Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Coalition Governments in Canada

Earlier I posted a piece by Duncan Cameron that raised some questions regarding minority governments, here is another opininion regarding coalition governments in Canada origionaly posted in Kerstens Kolumn . This subject will no doubt come up again as minority governments seem more and more probable on the federal scene and should BC go to STV voting (more on that in my next post) then there is an increased probability of minority coalition government there next time around.

[T]here is good reason to believe that the possibility of coalition government will remain with Canadians sometime.” That is what William Cross, a well respected Canadian political scientist, wrote in the Globe and Mail a couple of months ago. Last week Cross also held a roundtable discussion on the issue of coalitions and their future in Canada, a lecture that included Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, Dr. David Docherty as well the coalition expert, Kaare Strom.

The idea of supporting the coalition was quite a contentious issue for Canadians. The idea that the nation would have a PM who they had readily and dramatically rejected just six weeks prior made Canadians extremely uncomfortable. It was a perplexing situation. As Segal described it, “what happened in Canada was a joint partisan disengagement. The Conservatives made the either “miscalculation or awful misjudgement” of cutting public funding to parties.

In response, dramatic action was matched with dramatic and a coalition was forged with lasting consequences for both sides. The Conservative Government, after implicitly labelling Quebecers as separatists in his attempt to defeat the coalition, has lost absolutely any chance at gaining seats in the province. Harper also has to face a much stronger voice and confident leader in Michael Ignatieff, whose rise to power he helped accelerate with this anti-coaliton fervour. On the Liberal side, Stephane Dion’s political career was left in ruins and Bob Rae, who would have been key in an NDP-Liberal Government – possibly even PM after the May leadership race, will now never reach Liberal leadership.

Segal maintained that “both sides lost grip of essential fairness of Parliamentary system.” But was that what happened? Did the Liberals and NDP really lose their grip of fairness? The flip side is that coalitions are inherently fair and democratic. They are prevalent – if not the norm – in many European nations. In Canada, they aren’t as new as the public was led to believe. Consider Docherty’s examples from Canada’s history: the Borden-Union Federal Government that formed prior to 1917 election; in Ontario 1919-1923; the Manitoba Government in 1931 which lasted until after the war; 1941 in BC with Liberals and Conservatives in coalition; and the Liberal-NDP coalition under Bob Rae in Ontario. Certainly, we wouldn’t call these governments undemocratic.

Another argument in this vein is that voters do not choose governments, they choose parliamentarians and that Government, in turn, is chosen by Parliamentarians, not citizens. While this would appear to be the case, in a nation that relies on precedence, or “constitutional conventions” to underlie what is constitutionally appropriate or not, we must consider that precedence has reinforced Canadians not voting for their MP. They vote for the party or for the leader. And it would be inconceivable – if not politically disastrous – to convince them that they shouldn’t do so, that their perceived purpose of vote does not matter or isn’t based on reality.

Another problem that we must consider is when it is democratic for a coalition is formed. Most people can agree that in principle, coalitions can promote democratic principles, particularly greater representation and cooperation. But is there a difference in the democratic worth of a coalition formed before or after an election? If you believe that a voters cannot choose Governments, this is a moot point. But for others, consider, from a Senator who has worked to promote Proportional Representation, that forming a coalition to the exclusion of the largest party and voters not knowing who will be in it before the election is may have be “just as undemocratic as the public funding proposal.”

The idea of coalition thus proves to be just as difficult as it was when it was first introduced. But I would suggest that this is not only okay, but a good thing. We need to continue this dialogue on coalitions because they can improve our democracy. It is hard to find someone to disagree with that a proportional representation electoral system increase the chances of having coalition governments, which in turn would increase cooperation and democratic representation. But the devil, is in the details.

In the end, one thing is clear. Canadians must come to grips with these questions and face them head on. The possibility of coalitions is here to stay. As Cross wrote, while “Canadians have largely rejected the proposed coalition, but they should get used to the idea.”

Mark Kersten has a passion for Canadian politics and is interested in Canada’s place in the world and it’s foreign policy, constitutional law, and intergovernmental affairs. He is currently the Compliance and Information Coordinator for the GPC where his job allows him to see and play in the world of political strategy, messaging and campaigning. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


I'm just going to point people to my April 14 post in my falklandgreencorner blog, which is listed on the side (called Her Blog). Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Monday, April 13, 2009

What is Democracy?

A recent exchange on the blog Report on Greens brought home to me the difficulty of expressing exactly what we mean by democracy. My bloging partner and I discussed this before starting this blog and thus far have been unable to come up with a real answer, perhaps because it is different things for different people. For me it is focused upon (but not limited to) Parliamentary democracy, having a process free of undue outside influences that allow the people and their representatives to use the system to truly represent the peoples wishes as best as can be established. For Monique it is she says, more “organic”, the ability to effect change to protect our environment from corporate greed, for others it seems it may be even less clear “we can debate this but not that” was one attitude I came across.

Senator McCoy says for her it is “a multifaceted phenomenon, a much richer texture than just voting” and says that “the rule of law is the single most important aspect of democracy” also that “freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of information and -- of course -- the Senate” are part of the thread, so you see our difficulty in defining it.

Monique thinks that this difficulty stems from the economic theory currently plaguing the world; the seduction that we all deserve to make money from our money without lifting a finger (ie, buying stocks, mutual funds etc. so our money will “grow” regardless of what that does to the environment and to other people), and from this faulty mindset comes a partial democracy, democracy for the people with money.

It seems to me that the difficulty stems from the fact that democracy, whether we are talking parliamentary democracy, democratic debate, societal democracy or whatever is that it is the sum of many parts each of which some believe are necessary for democracy and some are less inclined to include.

If we say we can debate whether to give public money to this industry or that one but will not allow debate upon giving public money to libraries or research scientists for instance, is that democratic? If government trumpets from the rooftops its largess to one organization whist carefully hiding is cuts to another, is that democratic? If a party or organization with a particular view point is able to, because of its ability to buy media exposure, negate an opposing point of view, is that democracy? Is democracy just the ability to vote for those candidates put before us by a limited number of ideologically united groups once in a while? Is the power those groups have over their members that requires them to vote in unison on any particular issue something we must accept as democratic? If the press only publishes one side of the story is that enhancing democracy?

I could go on for several pages like this, and I have my own thoughts on each one of them but the overriding question is are all these issues and more part of democracy. I believe they are, but obviously there are those that don’t and it is that point of view that scares me. I believe that democracy requires open, honest, unfettered but polite debate, with nothing hidden, off the table, or unduly influenced by those with power over the system or money to buy that power. Thomas Walkom National Affairs Columnist for The Star recently said “If war is too serious to leave to generals, then surely democracy is too important to delegate to politicians.”. He is correct; democracy requires the input of its citizens - it is in fact the definition of participative democracy.

The reason for this blog is that the authors believe that all of these “parts” of our democracy are gradually being eroded. Judging from the number of web sites and blogs popping up of late on the subject of government accountability, communication, access to information, media bias and similar issues around the interaction between government and citizens, we are not the only ones concerned.

This blog is for you to have a place to express your concerns, or perhaps you think everything is just fine, either way feel free to jump in and say your piece. We welcome dialogue. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Canada's next government

This article By Duncan Cameron originally posted at Rabble.ca raises some interesting questions. Not only that in a minority government situation there is an implied “coalition” but that the PM’s “executive power” stems from the oppositions implied agreement to allow it.

In order to pass laws, any minority government needs a parliamentary majority. Thus, whenever a parliament convenes without one party holding a clear majority, no prime minister can continue to hold power without creating a formal, or (less often) informal coalition. The exercise of executive power by the prime minister requires support by a majority of legislators.
In 80 per cent of cases around the world the link between executive and legislative power is created through coalitions of parties (mainly following elections using some type of proportional representation). Coalition governments have not been part of usual Canadian parliamentary practice. Canada is used to minority governments, which traditionally function on an issue by issue basis, seeking support from one stable partner. This was the case in the two Pearson minority governments (1963, and 1965) and the one Trudeau minority (1972), which depended on the NDP, the third party.

Currently the Harper minority governs with the support of Liberals, the official opposition. The PM has looked to the third party, the Bloc, for support in the past, and presumably could turn to it again. The Liberal-Conservative informal coalition bears some resemblance to the "grand coalition" German government made up of the two largest parliamentary parties, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, and its left-wing partner, the Social Democratic Party.
Last week the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany convened a one-day symposium (covered by rabbletv and CPAC) to examine the politics of informal and formal coalition government with European and Canadian political scientists and parliamentarians as featured speakers.

Professor Barbara Cameron (no relation) of York University, reflecting on the formal coalition agreement reached in December by the Liberals and the NDP, with the support of the Bloc, pointed out that unlike Germany, the Canadian parliament lacked a formal mechanism (such as a vote by parliament) entrusting a prime minister with power. She pointed out: "we rely on constitutional conventions that obscure the responsibility of the executive branch to the elected legislature and, in certain situations, give to the Governor General a larger role than an unelected official should have or probably wants."
The irony in this, said Cameron, is that constitutional conventions work well when they are not needed -- so long as majority governments are the rule we know who becomes prime minister. These conventions do not work well when the situation is unclear -- as can arise in minority parliaments when governments are defeated.

The constitutional practice is that Canadians elect a parliament, and parliament chooses the government. In minority situations, the leader of the largest party governs only so long as she or he maintains the confidence of the House of Commons.
The basic constitutional workings of Canada are obscured by what is referred to as the reserve powers of the Governor General. Once the prime minister has been defeated on a motion of confidence in the House, she or he is no longer prime minister, and the reserve power allows the Governor General to ignore a request by the former prime minister to call an election, and to invite another party leader to become prime minister, that is to say, meet the House, and seek its confidence.

Once a prime minister is defeated in the House, she or he is no longer the advisor to the Governor General. Only then may the Governor General ask another leader if they are able to form a government.
What Cameron suggests is that prior to the delivery of the speech from the throne, and after an election, parliament be asked to confirm by secret ballot the nomination of the prime minister by the party with the largest number of seats. This would make it clear that only parliament can confer, or withdraw, the powers of office of the prime minister. Cameron says: "the effect would be to force negotiations among the parties before the House meets, and could result in more formal and positive agreements that the majority of elected members are committed to supporting." This could be a minority government or a coalition government, or an agreement on something in between.

Grant Amyot of Queen's University presented research showing that coalition governments in general spent between 20 and 25 per cent of GDP on social welfare, while non-coalition governments spent less than 20 per cent. In other words, based on what he called this "rough" measure, coalition governments produce more progressive policies than non-coalition governments. He showed how in the case of the Sweden its long run of social democracy began when the Social Democratic Party entered into a formal coalition with a rural-based party.
In Canada, since 1945, the three minority Liberal governments of Pearson and Trudeau were the only progressive governments we have had, which helps explain why there was so much opposition last December from right-wing Liberals, as well as Conservatives, to the idea of a formal Liberal-NDP coalition government.

So long as Canada continues to elect four parties to parliament, Canada is likely to have more minority governments. The lesson from Europe is that the best way to get stable, progressive government is to form a formal coalition.

Duncan Cameron writes from Vancouver. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Senate reform Canadians wanted

Reading Jim Travers' essay yesterday (The quiet unravelling of Canadian democracy), I kept waiting for him to trash the Senate. All the way through his long list of democratic deficits, I held my breath. But not once did he suborn the Senate – not once.

Dare I think that Canadians might agree with him? Actually, yes, I might. In 2007, the Harper government itself commissioned an in-depth report based on Canadians' views of the House of Commons, the Senate, political parties and the electoral system in general. What is most striking about the report, by and large, is that it is not the Senate that generates vehement and critical reviews from Canadians, but the House -- especially the negative and unconstructive partisan fighting amongst our MPs and political parties. Canadians, the report reveals, clearly want to see more cross-party co-operation and a more dignified exchange of ideas between MPs.

When Canadians were queried on their views of the Senate, they were far more positive. Consultations showed that Canadians believe it important for the Senate to continue to preserve and defend minority and regional interests, and to work co-operatively across party lines. Participants also remarked on the more diverse face of the Senate compared to the House, including more women, aboriginal and other ethnic minorities. The consultations also reveal that Canadians find the Senate a useful institution -- a watchdog even -- for safeguarding and fine-tuning legislation put forward by the government.

One facet of the Senate that they didn't mention is our ability to give Canadians an open platform to make their voices heard on a wide variety of issues. We routinely hold lengthy hearings on subjects that affect Canadians in their everyday lives, and reach out to concerned citizens to make sure we hear all sides of every issue. Our committees are currently examining fees paid on credit and debit cards, for example, as well as the Navigable Waters Protection Act and pay equity in the federal civil service. All of these committee hearings are open for comments from concerned Canadians.

Jim Travers concluded his essay by saying "surely democracy is too important to delegate to politicians." I couldn't agree more. We need active participation from all Canadians, and we need it every day. I firmly believe the Senate should be a powerful conduit for that kind of participation, and indeed it is. We may not get to dictate government policy, but that's not the point. What we do is make sure that policy choices are broadly informed by insights from those who are most affected. And we make sure that minority and regional views are fully heard. That's one of the strengths of a fully functioning democracy – and it's why an appointed 'Council of Elders' helps put the "demos" back in democracy.

Elaine McCoy is an independent Progressive Conservative Senator from Alberta. She regularly dialogues with the Canadian public through her blog, http://www.hullabaloo.ca/, and provides analysis on crucial Senate debates and documents at www.savvysenate.ca. You can contact her at mccoye@sen.parl.gc.ca.
Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A matter of Confidence.

A few weeks ago I wrote the Speaker of the House thanking him for his recent attempt to reign in some of the partisan personal attacks being made by some MPs towards other of our elected representatives, and pointing out our general displeasure with this type of behaviour. Here in part is his quite full and clearly individual reply to my letter.

“ The behaviour which concerns you and clearly many other Canadians (as evidenced by the statistics cited in the Public Consultations on Canada's Democratic Institutions and Practices report in your email) occurs almost exclusively during the forty-five minute daily Question Period. The great majority of the House's business is, in fact, conducted with due decorum and consists primarily of reasoned, subject-oriented debate, most of which rarely finds its way to televised news broadcasts.

Because of the collegial character of the House of Commons and of the broad privileges enjoyed by its Members, particularly in the area of freedom of expression, no one - not even the Speaker - can act unilaterally to improve the level of discourse during Question Period.
I understand that many Canadians are frustrated by what may appear to be "inaction" on my part; however, the Speaker's role in presiding over debate is clearly defined and is restricted to ensuring that the rules of order and procedure are respected. This does not mean that nothing can be done to improve the level of decorum in the House, nor does it mean that I have no role to play in this process .

It is important to note that Statements by Members and Question Period are different proceedings, each with its own purpose and rules. During Statements by Members, Members who are not Ministers may address the House for a maximum of one minute on virtually any matter. It is understood that such statements will not include offensive remarks, defamatory comments or personal attacks. The Standing Orders of the House of Commons (S.O. 31) specifically empower the Speaker to "order a Member to resume his or her seat if, in the opinion of the Speaker, improper use is made of this Standing Order." It is on this basis that I and my fellow presiding officers have found it appropriate to intervene on a number of recent occasions during Statements by Members.

Question Period, however, is another matter altogether. It is in its very essence a confrontational dialogue in which the government is held to account for· its policies and performance. In order that Members may challenge the government without hindrance, they enjoy complete freedom of speech subject only to those limitations to which they themselves have corporately agreed. In enforcing these limitations, the Speaker must exercise great care not to interfere with the free interchange of questions and replies.

Of course, Canadians have every right to express their wish for improved decorum during Question Period. I wish that it were possible for me to bring this about on my own, but the reality is that any meaningful improvement would require a kind of co-operation that cannot be imposed. It is this state of affairs that has inspired my persistent ongoing efforts to build a consensus among individual MPs and their parties aimed at a more civilized culture of discourse in the House of Commons.”

I note that “Question Period, however, is another matter altogether.” and that “It is this state of affairs that has inspired my persistent ongoing efforts to build a consensus among individual MPs and their parties aimed at a more civilized culture of discourse in the House of Commons. “
Good luck with that Mr Milliken! Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Assets & Liabilities – March 09

A monthly look at actions that add or subtract from our Parliamentary Democracy

Asset – Senator McCoy and her colleagues efforts to split the omnibus budget bill into sections so that each measure can be debated and voted upon on its own merits.

Liabilities – Minister Flaherty for appearing before the Senate to pressure them to pass said bill “immediately” without examining and considering each section, much of which is not budgetary issues.

Asset – The several citizen web sites springing up that attempt to enhance our access to information or allow better internal government communication.

Liabilities – The attempts to reduce or eliminate the Parliamentary Budget Officers ability to produce independent reports and make them public.

Asset - Commons Speaker Peter Milliken for standing firm in his efforts to stop the “debate” during question period from descending into a series of personal attacks upon various MP’s.

Liabilities - Officials of the Privy Council Office for their narrow view of the auditor general's mandate and expressing their view that aspects of the recent report “go beyond the auditor general's mandate

Liabilities – The governments failure to support our national broadcaster (CBC) in these difficult times whilst considering help for private broadcasters.

Feel free to add your own thoughts to the list, I just wish it were as easy to find things for the asset side of the ledger as it is to find liabilities. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers