The biggest threat to our democracy is public apathy.
A public servant recently told me there are more than 100 consultations underway in every area of national policy. After a decade of government that shut out dissenting voices, this is positive. On the surface this is an easy way for the new government to show it’s more open. Careful attention is needed to determine if the change is more than superficial.
As a participant in some of these processes, I sense a lack of clarity about how public input will influence final decisions. Sometimes there is not enough information about the issues and options to provide constructive input. Other discussions are good learning opportunities. The discussion paper on global issues for the International Assistance review, as one example, adds depth to what we read in World Renew or other development stories. Whether these processes lead to long-term change will depend on several factors.
Early responsiveness creates high expectations, which are likely to lead to disappointments in the future. For example, can the National Inquiry into the Deaths and Disappearances of Indigenous Women live up to the high but undefined hopes for a new relationship between the state and indigenous peoples? The PM’s new youth advisory group is a good idea, but it is unrealistic to expect that periodic meetings of a small group will be an accurate reflection of all youth. Hopefully it leads to new ways to engage young people on a regular basis.
Diversity and common ground
Space for a variety of voices to be heard on issues that have diverse angles is positive for the pluralist society that Canada aspires to be. I’m glad that Trudeau is using his bully pulpit to foster respect for diversity and public civility as a healthier climate than the polarization and cultural wars south of our borders.
If identity politics become too focused on differences, however, it can weaken an equally important common base for nation-building. When once-dominant groups react to real or perceived threats of losing power, the level of social cohesion needed for healthy communities can be stretched. The tension between accommodating difference and strengthening common ground is a delicate balancing act for the state and other organizations, including churches.
The consultation on how we elect our members of parliament involves structural change, which is harder and more important than specific issues. The quality of public discussion between now and December will shape what happens next.
To encourage public dialogue, Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef released a guide for local meetings, available at Canada.ca/democracy. Broad public discussion is essential to avoid the problem of Brexit, where many people did not really understand the choices. I would suggest that even churches have a role to host discussions for members and non-members on how the voting system affects our role as citizens.
One danger is that the discussion will be driven by political partisanship, focused on which system is better for which party. Another is that technical details of the various options draw yawns from average citizens. Helpful public discussion will focus on how to balance elements of a robust democracy.
A healthy democracy needs public space for different worldviews or values to be considered. A system that fosters more political parties could help. The Green party, for example, has brought a clearer voice for care of creation into our politics. Political parties are not helpful when they tend either toward the mushy middle or use polarization to capture just enough seats to hold power, both of which we have seen in Canada. Our Reformed forefathers worked for a multiple party system to create space for a clear Christian or Reformed political witness. That reflected structures in the Netherlands, a very different context. Is that still the best option for Canada today?
Another essential element of democracy is compromise. The question is where it occurs. Is it best to force compromise between MPs or parties who bring distinct positions into parliament? Presently compromise happens within big-tent parties before they go public, without transparency, resulting in limited choice for voters. Or should voters register their own compromises through a ranked ballot of first and second choices?
It will be equally important to build other checks and balances of power in our political system. Expecting too much from a change in the voting system alone is one danger to avoid. We should not be afraid of complexity.
Hopefully public debate will clarify the trade-offs from a voter’s perspective. I’m glad that groups like Lead Now and Fair Vote Canada are also providing public information through the website VoteBetter.ca. I encourage CC readers to check out both websites, and then engage in some way. The biggest threat to our democracy is public apathy.