The trouble with representative democracy

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Scene from Occupy Oakland, October 2011. (Photo:

Many people don't bother to vote, let alone lobby their elected representatives, sit in public galleries, or attend protests.

It's not that people are apathetic or dumb. On the contrary, many people know that their votes and their voices really don’t count for much in our system. Once you cast your ballot you no longer have a say in representative democracy, you don't get to speak at government meetings or cast a vote on the issues.

That is left to the politicians who consult, not with their constituents, but rather with elite sections of the ruling class.

When Dalton McGuinty wanted the provincial budget overhauled did he set up thousands of community council meetings where we could collectively discuss our priorities as the people of Ontario? No, he called in the former vice president and chief economist of the Toronto Dominion Bank, Don Drummond, to head up a commission.

Nothing could be a clearer indication about which class politicians get their marching orders from.

When McGunity prorogued the Ontario legislature this month, there were many columnists, pundits and opposition politicians who thumped their chests with righteous indignation saying it was the death of democracy in Ontario.

The average Ontarian, however, didn't rise up against it. There weren't even the modest-sized protests that Stephen Harper saw when he prorogued parliament in 2008 and 2009 to avoid a Liberal-NDP coalition government and to shut down investigations into the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan respectively.

McGuinty's decision to prorogue is no less controversial as it likewise closed an investigation into why controversial gas-fired power plants were moved out of Liberal ridings, costing the people of Ontario hun­dreds of millions of dollars.

No, far from a democratic uprising, most Ontarians gave a collective shrug to the shuttering of Ontario's political system.

On campuses it can be even harder to achieve even the limited form of democracy that the "big leagues" have. Participation in student elections is generally abysmal.

Take the fact that only five per cent of students at George Brown College (GBC) need to vote in order for a candidate to be elected to the Student Association’s board of directors. In the 2012 spring elections only 1200 students cast ballots out of a total membership of over 24,000 students.

The representative structure of student government is no more participatory than the other levels of parliamentary politics that disdainfully ignore working-class people after an election.

This is the structure that allows the SA board of directors to propose a new $25 student levy to the college's board of governors and afterwards be wined and dined by the GBC Foundation at an exclusive $500-a-ticket black-tie gala.

This is the structure that doesn't need to consult students about a levy that could see almost $6 million of their money spent filling the gap left by a chronic under-funding of post-secondary education by the provincial and federal governments.

The feds contributed only one per cent of funds according to GBC's latest annual report, compare that to the 45 per cent paid by the province and the whopping 47 per cent GBC students pay out of their own pocket.

Will students in Ontario protest when their tuition, already the highest in the country, is increased again by guidelines set in the next provincial budget?

Recently students Quebec won a major victory, rolling back a steep tuition increase, by going on strike for a record 207 days, defying a repressive "special law," building a popular movement and helping force an early election that defeated the Liberal government.

One of they key reasons they were able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of students was that student unionism in Quebec has a radically different model than the rest of Canada. Consisting of general assemblies at the more manageable departmental levels, students in these general assemblies can participate directly in the discussions and then vote directly on proposals.

The question is will students work to build similar bodies of direct democracy in Ontario?

Or will they just give the whole thing a collective shrug? 


This article was originally published with The Dialog and is reprinted here with permission. 

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