Thursday, October 11, 2007

Democracy and our broken system

"If you like the Senate, you’ll love this," Mike Duffy chuckled on CTV last night about proposed electoral reform in Ontario. MMP is dead. Nearly two-thirds of the less than 47% of the electorate who actually took part in the referendum voted against it. Long live first-past-the-post. Hey, that's what they've got in…Zimbabwe, right?

Go back to sleep, Ontario, those of you who didn't snore through yesterday's election. Nearly half of you didn't bother showing up to the polls. 42% of the ones who did gave us a majority Liberal government. It was a thumping win—66% of the seats. Liberal majority rule, mandated by less than 22% of the electorate.

Today, as longtime Fair Vote Canada activist Peter Black put it, the press is calling the 37% vote for MMP a crushing defeat, and a 42% vote for the Liberals a massive victory. First-past-the-post. Whoopee! Sorry, didn't mean to wake you.

But the under-35s supported reform by more than two-thirds. They don't take the Mike Duffys of the world very seriously. Anything is better than what we have, which is frankly boring. It's rock versus minuet. They'll take the chance. There is, therefore, some hope. But do we have to wait until Duffy's generation dies off, taking its mouldering ideas with it?

Democracy is in trouble, but too few care, least of all the corporate media, whose lock-step opposition to electoral reform was possibly a deciding factor—but very far from the only one—in the outcome of the referendum. Duffy (wouldn't you like to push that guy off the wall and watch the king's horses and men do their thing?) was typical of the media "pundits" whose groupthink was so evident in the weeks leading up to the referendum. The system's fine as it is. Don't change a thing. God's in his heaven and all's right with the world. Tra-la-bloody-la.

But it would be wrong to blame everything on the scribes, those unreflective, unthinking mouthpieces of the status quo whose job it is to anaesthetize the public. There are also the Pharisees, the high priests of politics who did whatever they could, in the front rooms and the back, to ensure that their privileged access to power remained unimpeded. The Ontario Citizens' Assembly report was never given much play, little or no public education was done, and as a result, six short days ago, only a quarter of the electorate knew very much about MMP.

Now, the tough part. Let's put a chunk of the blame where it really lies: on our own campaign. Yup, I know we worked hard. People strove tirelessly and thanklessly for electoral reform. Letters to the editor were written, signs were put up, meetings held, leaflets distributed, blog-posts crafted. Kudos to everyone who busied themselves heart and soul to make democratic change a reality. We did everything—except involve, at the outset, the very people who made the final decision.

I shall have more to say on this in an article that is to appear in the next issue of the CCPA Monitor. But let me just note a couple of things for now: the mandate of the Ontario Citizens' Assembly was very broad. We had the opportunity to look at comprehensive, across-the-board democratic renewal. We could have organized community workshops across Ontario where people could have been encouraged to develop their own ideas about democracy. Ordinary citizens, not activists, could have contributed input that might have been as startlingly original as MMP or STV or even FPTP once were.

Instead, we used the same-old, same-old campaigning tricks. We were looking for substantial change, but we couldn't drill down to communicate the need for it. People don't vote for serious change unless they personally feel that they have a stake in the outcome. But we didn't ask them for their opinions. We were just another in a chorus of voices telling them what we thought was best for them. We had a new system that they were really gonna like. Only a few could hear us in the general clamour, and other voices opposing us told them that everything was just fine.

Democracy is more than choosing between expert voices. At its most fundamental, it's having your own voice, and seeing something of yourself in the outcome of a process of which you were personally a part. If we really want to remedy the yawning democratic deficit, and by "we" I mean we democratic activists, then it's time to look at new ways of organizing. Because the old tried and true methods, as we have just seen, are as defunct as first-past-the post.

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