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.
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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Threats to Democracy (repost)

“An obstacle to democracy is that the value of its name often exceeds the principles of its practice.”

From an old speech by former MP David Kilgore - In his speech, of which this is but a few small extracts, he was talking about democracy across the world but it is applicable to our own democracy, particularly given recent events.

In 1947, Winston Churchill said: "Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect... Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Churchill’s words were prophetic.

Democracy is a difficult and necessarily arduous process. It is about citizens and states organizing through an institutional core in a common effort for societal betterment and justice. We democrats know that our system is not easy; nor has it been perfected. But it is in this very difficulty and imperfection that the strengths of democracy are present. It is in our struggle to maintain the democratic systems some have enjoyed for hundreds of years; it is in our fight to consolidate flourishing new democracies. Indeed in gatherings such as this one the richness and strengths of the democratic process are evident………..

Threats to Democracy
If there is one overriding truth about democracy, it is that it is precious but vulnerable. The twentieth century shows that the enemies of democracy are as numerous as they are threatening. Over the course of my 21 years as a parliamentarian and through travels as Canada’s Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, I have witnessed many threats to democracy. While many are obvious, the most dangerous are subtle. It is not empty stomachs, impunity or corruption alone that necessarily jeopardize democracy; it is their accumulated effects. The greatest threat to democracy does not always come from the barrel of a gun, but from the collected effects of poverty, apathy, and economic insecurity.

Another obstacle to democracy is that the value of its name often exceeds the principles of its practice. The past century demonstrated that the banner of democracy was used to sustain just about any system. Democracy does not include oppression, corruption, division, segregation, terror and murder. A genuinely democratic nation thrives on diversity and difference, through which it builds on its collective wisdom and strengths. We must now forge a new trail in the twenty-first century where the merits of democracy are not in its name alone, but in its non-negotiable, irrefutable truths……………..

Rule of Law
Fundamental to a healthy democracy is a strong judiciary. Alexander Hamilton noted that there could be no liberty if the power of the judiciary is not separated from the legislative and executive branches of government. In some cases, the tyranny of legislatures was considered to be the most formidable impediment to the proper development and functioning of constitutional democracy.

In Canada we feel that an independent judiciary, with real power to review acts passed by legislators, is a safeguard against potential harms that may be caused to the rights of individuals. The rule of law and independent judiciaries, consistent with international human rights standards, are not present in all democracies. Judges are dismissed in some jurisdictions if they do not pass judgments that are acceptable to the government, and more obsequious replacements are found. There may be threats of violence against judges in order to persuade them to act in accordance to the will of a dictator. Under these conditions, there can be no impartiality as judges must choose between their own personal safety and the rights of an individual or a group of individuals. This is an extreme example; but more subtle means are deployed by regimes that seek to project an image of a constitutional democracy, and yet rule as a dictatorship of the legislature or executive.

Striking an appropriate balance between majority rule and protection of individual and minorities’ rights is one of democracy’s most enduring challenges. John Locke expressed the notion of inalienable rights in a society: those rights which are so fundamental to the well being and happiness of an individual that a state has very limited rights to infringe upon them. In more modern times these inalienable rights have taken the title of fundamental rights or human rights in the perspective of international law. One needs only to look at a newspaper to find instances where individual and group rights are being infringed.

Democracy’s reliance on a vigorous judiciary makes it possible for minorities and marginalized groups within a state to live peacefully as full members of society. Such groups are no less entitled to live a happy and fulfilling life than those of us who had been lucky enough to be born into freedom. All nations give their judges and lawyers the authority to ensure justice for all, even in the face of mob anger and prejudice.

Canada, Multilateralism and Democracy
What has Canada learned from its experiences in the Commonwealth, the OAS and La Francophonie? I think that we first have concluded that there is no single model for how to address threats to democracy. In the contexts of the Commonwealth and the Americas, CMAG and the OAS have respectively worked well. For Canada, engaging global partners in democracy through multilateral institutions has been our preferred approach.

The second conclusion is that each threat to democracy must be addressed in its own context. In many cases, the best approach is one of what we might call accompaniment. That is, we need to be supportive of local initiatives and ideas on how to strengthen democracy and send a message that external actors are there to support, and not necessarily to force change. Wherever possible, we should let local actors take the lead in resolving their own challenges. In other cases, however, particularly when there are violations of fundamental principles, we must be prepared to take stronger measures. This again argues against universal models, but instead supports the idea of taking a country-level approach to democracy strengthening.

Third, our experience has shown that while in a few cases, threats to democracy can be resolved in short order, most of the time, we must travel a long road and have patience. As external supporters, we need to be ready to listen, enter into dialogue, and provide technical advice and assistance where needed, and be willing to do so over an extended period.

Finally, we must always be careful that in our efforts to be creative and supportive, we do not compromise basic principles or offer bad advice, and keep our actions in-line with the promotion and protection of human rights consistent with international human rights law. Otherwise, we will not have democracy and we will have betrayed the people we are trying to help. While the threats to democracy may seem great, we must never let them overwhelm us. As I stated earlier, the strength of democracy is in the struggle. It is a struggle to build the conditions in which democracy can grow and it is a continual struggle to maintain it where it is strong. With a full appreciation and understanding of what threatens democracy, let us continue the critical endeavour of strengthening it.

David Kilgour was one of the two longest-serving MPs in the House of Commons for the 38th Parliament. First elected in 1979 in the riding of Edmonton Strathcona, he was re-elected seven times.

Unfortunately we cannot dismiss his comments as being only applicable for emerging democracy’s when our government is constantly challenging our courts, our “independent” watchdog commissions and departments and indeed even our electoral processes!

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Owen Gray said...

Democracy is thretened on all sides, Rural. And most of us are asleep.

Rural said...

We seem to be going backwards in that department Owen!