Democracy's No-Brainers and False Parallels

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Democracy's no-brainers: It puzzles me that PR, or proportional representation, has such bad PR. A National Post editorial called it Votes For Losers. In The Globe and Mail, Paul Adams said it appeals to academics, and practically fell asleep writing in its favour. PR is the system by which the number of seats reflects actual votes cast. That contrasts to our actual system, where Jean Chrétien or Mike Harris can win successive majorities of seats, while never winning a majority of votes. Or, in the B.C. election, one party can get 57 per cent of the votes but 95 per cent of seats. Back in high school, we learned that vote reform was needed in the nineteenth century because of "pocket" or "rotten" boroughs, where a handful of voters elected the local MP. Today you could call Canada a rotten, or pocket, country. Democratically speaking, PR is a no-brainer.

Another democratic no-brainer is the right of workers to decide which union to join, or get out of. This issue has split Canada's labour movement ever since thousands of workers voted to leave a U.S.-based union and join the Canadian Auto Workers. The CAW was booted out of the "House of Labour" for so-called "raiding," but this week a deal was reached to let them back. We don't know yet if the principle of workers' right to choose was upheld. You could call it the equivalent of proportional representation: an idea whose time should have come long ago, but has yet to arrive.

I always feel incongruous writing in the Globe about union matters on a par with national politics or business, so let me draw a connection. There was lots of talk during the Quebec Summit about the role of "civil society" - i.e., non-governmental groups such as unions, Greenpeace etc. - in the political process. People like Finance Minister Paul Martin said such groups' concerns must be heard and governments ponied up money for an alternate "Peoples' Summit." Others asked scornfully, "Who elected those people?" It was easy to shoot back "Well, who elected George Bush or Jean Chrétien?" since neither won a majority. But, in truth, questions of democracy extend across a society, beyond the formal political sphere. They matter as much in unions as they do in government.

False parallels: For those left dazed or uncomprehending by news from the Mideast, let me try to add, not clarity, but some reasons for confusion. This week's Mitchell report calls for mutual cessation of violence and an end to Israeli building in settlements on occupied land. It sounds simple but:

  • 1. On violence. Israeli leader Ariel Sharon agreed to the call, saying his forces would not attack unless attacked, for which the Globe's Marcus Gee praised him, although "The Palestinians refuse to do the same." But Israeli violence comes mainly from its army. Last week its jets bombed camps and towns. There's an enforceable command structure. Some grief-crazed Israeli pilot isn't likely to hop in his F-16 the way a suicidal Palestinian, who may or may not belong to a political or religious group, will strap on a homemade bomb and go to a mall.

    Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may well calculate the fury and rage in the streets before deciding whether to try to suppress it with his police or implicitly encourage it. But he can't turn it on and off as you can an army. The real parallel is with the violence of Israeli settlers, who are not controlled by their government, though they're generally encouraged and protected. In any other situation in the world they would routinely be called paramilitaries.

  • 2. On settlements. In 1967, Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza and began planting settlements that violate international law. For years, it was widely assumed that eventually all the land would be given back in return for peace. The Oslo Accords abandoned this assumption, leaving the status of settlements to future talks. It was a huge climb-down for the Palestinian side. Israel continued to add settlers, reaching record levels. For the Palestinian side to now accept a mere freeze on settlement construction, as they have, is a vast concession, in light of their historic demands. I suppose I don't need to add that they get little credit for it, or that the Israeli side has refused even this meagre limitation., as in Canadian Alliance? Last week, Peter Mansbridge wondered on air if journalists had paid too much attention to Stockwell Day's leadership trials, implying they might have created the story, not just covered it. Ha! They should live so long and be so creative. Only the Alliance could have done it, devising at least one great scenario per day, each better than the last. Take the Ezra Levant episode. The head of communications threatens to sue his own members, then leaks his letter to the press, then says he resigned voluntarily. When did you hear of anyone who resigned voluntarily saying it was voluntary? Then he goes on air to say he did it because his personality is too aggressive, feisty, kickboxerish - as if those are the very qualities you'd have looked for when you hired someone to do PR.

The CBC responsible?

In their dreams.

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