The erosion of Canada's democracy

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I've spent the week fielding an avalanche of emails in response to my column of last week, "What's at stake in this election," that revealed typical Harperite manipulations from the largely ignored field of fisheries. They're from all over Canada, and they're still coming in as I write -- spread by people sending it to their friends, putting it on Facebook, and so on. So, if you're not one of those bored with the subject, let me carry on a bit more on the shaky issue of democracy.

Among the responses was a link sent by a reader that led me to something I almost wish I'd not seen -- an article in Australia's national newspaper, The Australian, entitled "Canada watches its democracy erode."

The author is Ramesh Thakur, a former assistant secretary general of the UN, author of some 30 books on governance, ethics, law and related topics, now affiliated with the University of Waterloo in Ontario and Griffiths University in Australia. Educated in India and Canada, his view is a substantial international one.

"Edmund Burke noted that all that was necessary for evil to triumph was for good men to do nothing," he writes. "Canadians are certainly good and worthy folks, but they suffer an excess of civil obedience, politeness and lack of civic rage that could be harnessed to combat political atrophy. At a time when Arabs risk life and limb for political freedoms, Canadians seem largely apathetic about the erosion of their democracy."

That's rough. But what else is an arm's-length observer to conclude? The Bev Oda affair, to top off a trend, indicates that "lying to Parliament, a cardinal sin of Westminster-style democracy, has become a political tactic," says Thakur. The degradation of Parliament goes on, through its prorogation for political advantage, the "cynically published guidelines to disrupt hostile parliamentary committees," a minister who abuses his public office to court ethnic votes and who attacks a judge for political-ideological reasons, civil servants and diplomats squelched and fired, boards stacked with ideologues, aid groups that don't toe the hard line cut, and generally more abuses than you can shake a stick at. He quotes author and Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin, who describes an "arc of duplicity" which is "remarkable to behold." What would you call it?

In addition, he mentions something that we are indeed too polite to mention ourselves, except in hushed tones. The new Governor General is a respected academic, but that's not mainly why he's there. He's there because he did the prime minister a monumental favour by narrowly drawing up the terms of the Mulroney/Schreiber inquiry to exclude the most potentially damaging questions. Is this another stacked office, and what would it mean if the GG has key decisions to make in the event of another Harper minority?

Yet, to be fair -- and as some of my emailers have reminded me -- it's not all Harper. It's just that he's pushing it dangerously over the top. Thakur puts it this way: "The centralization of power in the hands of the prime minister and political staffers -- with the resulting diminution of the role and status of cabinet, parliaments and parliamentarians -- is common to Anglo-Saxon democracies in Australia, Canada, Britain and the U.S., but the extent to which constitutional conventions, parliamentary etiquette and civil institutions of good governance have been worn away in Canada is cause for concern."

Let me add that another cause for concern is the extent to which the democratic instinct is diminishing among the people. Our sense, growing imperceptibly for decades, is that the governments we elect have less and less actual authority in the face of globalization and the growing power of corporations. Further, we are valuing money over the good of society and its governance. Money is everything -- or as that blowhard tagline on CBC TV keeps repeating ad nauseam: "Greed is good and I love money." It's the billionaire culture, but it has trickled down. It's "me and my money" that counts, not the integrity of the whole. That's why Harper can use a spurious argument -- the economy will collapse if I go -- so effectively, even though the economy, down or up, has little to do with him. It's all about the money and nothing else.

Can we shape up and stop the bleeding before the world really catches on to what's going on? Thakur says it's still not clear whether all this is "an indictment of Canadians' indifference to democratic rights being curtailed or of the opposition parties, which have failed to harness the silent majority's outrage." Time is running short to find out.

Meanwhile, one comment on The Australian's site was from "Reed of Nova Scotia, Canada" who says, "I'm at a loss for why I have to be getting accurate news from the other side of the planet." Good one, Reed.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County in Nova Scotia. This article was originally published in The Chronicle Herald.

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