Reading the news these days makes one nostalgic for the days when “robo-calls” referred to an Autobot battle-cry, rather than an electoral dirty trick.

But the unfolding investigation by Elections Canada into suggestions that potentially thousands of voters in close-call districts during the last federal election received automated calls confusing them and sending them to incorrect voting locations has much more ominous implications for Canada’s democracy. As the Globe and Mail reports, Liberals and NDP have accused the Conservatives of masterminding that campaign; the Conservatives have denied this.

But the incident extends beyond the simple question of whether the robo-calls were authorized, and if so by whom. It speaks to a wider democratic crisis in Canada, characterized by two main issues: the bureaucratization of accountability, and the lack of effective oversight bodies to provide enforceable checks and balances.

Bureaucracy: more than just red tape

The problem of bureaucracy extends beyond the simple everyday complaints people levy against needless red-tape and call centres that never seem able to give a proper answer. It extends too beyond the cost of bureaucracy, a perennial favourite of politicians trying to assert their cutback capabilities. Many scholars have identified bureaucracy as a key factor in the ability of a state to authorize destructive – sometimes even self-destructive – lapses in judgement and humanity. Hannah Arendt pinpointed bureaucracy as being a key factor in Nazi Germany’s descent into terror, brutality and fascism. Reducing state actions to a series of regulations, policy practices, statistics and circuitous chains of command carried out by careerist bureaucrats seeking promotion means people lose sight of the big picture, and become lost in the minutiae of whatever bureaucratic component it is they’re dealing with. Accountability and responsibility – on the big scale – disappear in bureaucracies. Decisions cease to be accompanied by ‘big picture’ questions, and get broken down into individual actions which don’t seem that bad in and of themselves. Until you put them all together.

Phenomena like the descent to fascism that occurred in so many countries in the first half of the twentieth century don’t happen in the sort of dramatic ways we generally think they do, but by tiny, incremental policy events. By themselves, none of them seem to signal ‘the end’, but when they’re all added up at the end of the day, a society realizes that without even noticing it, they’ve lost their democratic rights and the country they thought they lived in has been irrevocably transformed.

…at the end of the day, a society realizes that without even noticing it, they’ve lost their democratic rights and the country they thought they lived in has been irrevocably transformed.

Irene Silverblatt has documented the same process as underlying the Spanish Inquisition. Contrary to Monty Python’s comedy skits (and popular public perception), the Inquisition wasn’t directed by nefarious networks of religious fanatics backed up by spy networks and teams of eager torturers. On the contrary, the Spanish Inquisition was, fundamentally, a bureaucracy organized by the Spanish state to protect its own national security interests from perceived threats (primarily, in their view, Jews, although this also sometimes included fears over supposed Muslim or Protestant agents and saboteurs). In fact, inquisitors themselves – as clergymen – were not even permitted to conduct torture. Instead they had to contract it out to those governed by less “humane” ethical sanctions, which they did through bureaucratic processes evocative of those used in sanctioning the present-day overseas torture of innocent people like Canadian citizen Mahar Arar.

In the case of the robo-calls, there is a danger that in carrying out its investigation, Elections Canada may become absorbed by the bureaucratic minutiae of its operations. Who authorized what and when? How many calls were made and how many votes were misdirected? These are important questions, certainly, but not the only ones.

What matters is not just the details. What matters is that – if proven to have happened – the partisans of a political party engaged in actions that were completely antithetical to the spirit of our democratic government. And the question needs to be: if it turns out to have been Conservative members, can a political party tainted by such actions continue to legitimately serve in democratic office? Can a prime minister who cannot even prevent his subordinates from committing heinous acts designed to undermine the democratic rights of other citizens, purport to legitimately act as the head of state? It is not merely facts and data – the raw materials of a bureaucracy – that need to be investigated here. It is principle, and ethical and moral authority.

An issue of oversight

The other issue is the matter of oversight. Recent political events in Canada have raised an unpleasant question: what do we do in the event the federal government exceeds its democratic authority? For that matter, how do we even determine when that has happened?

It’s a difficult question, because in many ways we tend to think of the federal government as being the national authority – and it’s hard to exceed your authority when you are the authority. But by the same token, there are certain implied standards in a democratic country. And a growing chorus of voices is suggesting that the Conservatives have pushed the boundaries of those implied standards of democratic conduct to an unacceptable degree.

What do we do, as a country, if those in political authority are found to have exceeded their moral democratic authority? As Jello Biafra once put it: “Who babysits the babysitters?”

This challenge is made even more difficult by the fact that the few checks and balances our democratic system provides have been steadily eroded in recent years. Technically, the Governor General has the authority to dissolve parliaments, appoint prime ministers and even veto laws. But, as a holdover from the days of the British Empire, that position has come to be seen more as a rubber-stamping ceremonial position only, not an effective check-and-balance to the federal government. Indeed, even when a strong case for removing the Conservative minority government existed during the prorogation crisis, the Governor General balked at taking a step she considered to be extreme. And, given that the federal government recommends the Governor General (the current one is Harper’s own recommendation) their objective ability to act as a check-and balance is further undermined.

Calls for a public inquiry are a start. But, if enough pressure is raised to force an inquiry, what teeth will it be given? Will it be able to authorize a new election if it is demonstrated the previous one was tainted?

Then there’s the Senate. It was originally established to provide a counter-weight to the populist, elected Parliament; a house of “sober second thought”, as it was famously put. Yet recent governments have spent so much time attacking the credibility of a non-elected institution that it has lost much of the gumption it once had. There was a time – as recently as the 1980s – that the Senate would reject bills passed by the House of Commons. And that’s their role. Yet we’ve been swept up by such a wave of Americanizing media frenzy about the need to have elections every four years, that we’ve ceased to see the point of balancing a populist, regularly elected institution (Parliament) with an appointed – and therefore less vulnerable to the vagaries of public opinion – institution (Senate). And all three major parties are guilty of engaging in this reckless attack on the Senate’s role. Obviously, we don’t want our democratic state to be run by unelected officials. But by providing a diversity of governing institutions – some elected, some selected on other criteria – we create more effective checks and balances to uphold the system when it runs into crisis.

And democracy in Canada is in crisis. Much like the crises that characterized Weimar Germany before it lost its democracy, and much like the crises which presaged the current mess in which the United States finds itself, no single scandal in recent years constitutes a democratic crisis in its own right. But taken as a sum total, we are in trouble, and we need a direction out of this crisis before it erodes faith in our democracy entirely.

Canadians are starting to wake up to this reality, and to its very grave implications. Calls for a public inquiry are a start. But, if enough pressure is raised to force an inquiry, what teeth will it be given? Will it be able to authorize a new election if it is demonstrated the previous one was tainted?

After all, if it turns out the prime minister was unable to prevent his own party members from breaking the law for the advantage of the party, and if he does not take personal responsibility for this, how can we expect him to demonstrate and exercise the responsibility to run a country?