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Fixing democracy

in Featured/To Each Their Own by

Many of us have been watching the events playing out in Turkey, where for over two weeks tens of thousands of protestors in dozens of cities across the country have been withstanding the violent attacks of police armed with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to express their opposition to an increasingly autocratic government.

The events transpiring in Turkey are a profound statement on the power of democracy; that is to say, the power of the people to demand fair and equal say in the governing of their state.

But it also gives us cause to compare our own democracy, and we do not fare well in comparison. Indeed, Canada’s federal Conservatives were elected with even less of a mandate than Turkey’s ruling party, which received almost 50% popular support in the last election. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives received a mere 39.6% of the vote.

And with this paltry mandate, they too have embarked upon a sweeping transformation of Canadian society – to the clear disapproval of the majority of Canada’s people.

So how is it that the people of Turkey have risen against a government that pushes the limits of their power to excess, and in Canada we have not?

Third time’s a charm

Part of the reason, no doubt, lies in the fact that this is the third term of the governing party’s rule in Turkey. The grievances of the people have accumulated over time, and after three terms have reached a boiling point.

There is also the fact that the initial grievance – the loss of a park – was a non-partisan sort of grievance which enabled groups with widely differing agendas to come together. The subsequent violent police attack on peaceful protestors also gave the ideologically vast and diverse opposition groups a common agenda: the right to peaceful protest. These were non-partisan goals, fought for by non-partisan protestors. This created the necessary groundwork for a broad unity among all those opposed to the governing party’s policies.

In Canada, the federal Conservatives have had two terms in office, and only one term – the current one – controlling the majority of the legislature and thus able to do whatever they want (even though the divided opposition parties weren’t much of an opposition even when the Conservatives had a minority government). The disgust and revulsion of Canadians at the Conservatives’ abuse of this mandate has been clear. What is not clear is whether there exists a common ground for unity among the various anti-Conservative groupings, and whether any single party will be able to command a sufficient number of votes to dislodge the Conservatives in this country’s very antiquated and inadequate first-past-the-post electoral system, where remarkably it is not necessary to have the support of the majority of the population in order to achieve majority control of the legislature.

It’s not about winning elections. It’s about governing and maintaining the people’s consent

Turkey isn’t the only place riven by protests. In Brazil, hundreds of thousands of people have been battling riot police over what is essentially a $1.40 increase in public transit fare. Rather than rethink the fare increase, government decided it made more sense to violently counter-attack with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The ongoing protests in Turkey, Brazil, and elsewhere attest to an important lesson. Democracy is not a once-every-few-years event, whereby a party is invested with a license to do whatever they want.

Democracy is about governing with respect for all of society; about pursuing consensus and balance. It’s about maintaining the popular mandate and people’s consent on an ongoing basis. There might indeed arise a need to carry out an ‘unpopular’ measure. But it should be the rarest of exceptions. And there ought to be considerable review of the circumstances after the fact.

Under some of the early Greco-Roman democratic systems, members of government – once their mandate as a public representative was over – could be sued and taken to court to answer for their actions while they were in government. If they were found to have acted for personal gain or against the interests of those they were elected to represent, they could face severe punishment (fines, prison, exile or death).

Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea.

Dunderdale: determined, but not democratic

“I can’t make decisions to be popular.”

“Once Newfoundlanders and Labradorians see the plan working, we believe the views captured in this poll will change.”

“We don’t govern by polls.”

Pro-democracy demonstrations were held in St. John's and Labrador last November in response to the provincial government's handling of Muskrat Falls. Photo by Justin Brake.
Pro-democracy demonstrations were held in St. John’s and Labrador last November in response to Kathy Dunderdale and the Progressive Conservatives’ authoritarian approach to passing Bill 29 and sanctioning Muskrat Falls. Photo by Justin Brake.

These are some of Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale’s responses to the Conservatives’ flattening position in the opinion polls. On hearing such words, the correct response ought to be one of outrage. Dunderdale’s comments are insulting and condescending. The implication is that people are like some sort of children who don’t know better and need to be taught.

Governments are not elected to act as teachers or parents. They are elected to act on our behalf.

It’s an attitude that brings Turkey’s embattled prime minister to mind. Many of the protestors have expressed the same sentiment – that it was not just the policies they disagreed with, but the attitude of the government toward the people, treating them like they were children and the government the teacher.

Such is not the form of a properly functioning democracy. A democracy is meant to install representatives who will act on behalf of the people. That means if the people’s views insist on a particular point, or if those views change, government action ought to mirror that sentiment. Governments need to stop acting like macho thugs, and need to start realizing their proper role: enforcing the people’s will.

Protest and power

Here’s a fact: it’s darn hard to organize a protest. I’ve organized my share, and it can take weeks of pulling out your hair to get 50 people to show up. When tens of thousands – or even just thousands – of people spontaneously pour into the streets, it’s a sign. That something big is afoot. When that many people are willing to go to such an inconvenient length to register their disapproval, that’s a perfectly legitimate rationale to pause and reconsider one’s policies/actions.

When European and North American governments reacted with outrage to the Turkish government’s violent repression of peaceful protestors, the Turkish prime minister lashed out at what he described as hypocrisy, arguing he was doing no differently than those other countries. He actually had a point, although not one that justified his actions. But as our own experience with the G-20 protests (and the Occupy protests in the U.S., and other ongoing protests in Europe) attests, our own governments are also prone to respond with excessive violence to peaceful protest. Not only are such responses a violation of democratic principles, but they also undermine any credibility we have in criticizing other authoritarian regimes.

There’s a real problem with democracy in this day and age, and it’s getting worse. Here are some steps we can take toward fixing it:

1) Governments need to recognize that election to office is not a free license to do whatever they want. It is a sacred responsibility to govern on behalf of the people.

2) Governments must recognize that ongoing consent is just as important as the initial ballot that delivered them to office. They must ensure their actions are open and transparent, in order for the public to monitor their activities.

3) When there is widespread disapproval – as demonstrated through petitions or protests – governments must take that opposition seriously. It might mean scuttling a beloved plan of theirs. But democracy is more important than any blue, red or orange book.

Our opposition has a role to play too. It’s also become a recurrent pattern for opposition parties to denounce governments for their undemocratic acts, but then once they are elected themselves, they take advantage of the very same mechanisms. We need to hear – loudly and clearly – the opposition parties dismiss and reject the approaches of undemocratic governments, and commit themselves to legislative reform that will bind government to respect the people’s will (without tear gas and rubber bullets).

We need, in other words, an opposition party that is willing to commit itself to curbing its own power and authority once elected.

Which party will heed that call?

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