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Watching Democratic Infrastructure CrumbleWatching Democratic Infrastructure Crumble

Watching Democratic Infrastructure Crumble

The result, as Andrew Coyne pointed out, is we now have mob rule instead of democracy (at least on this question). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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Topics: Elites, Discipline, Institutions
Watching Democratic Infrastructure Crumble April 3, 2013  |  By Ray Pennings
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Anyone following Canadian politics even from a distance is likely aware of the backbench "mutiny" which occurred last week within the ranks of the governing Conservative party. A Private Member's motion was deemed non-votable in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The party leadership wasn't shy about making clear they did not want this debate to happen, and therefore had used the powers they had of controlling the agenda to prevent it. The resulting hubbub has raised lots of questions about the relationship of Members to their parties and the nature of democracy in Canada.

The result, as Andrew Coyne pointed out, is we now have mob rule instead of democracy (at least on this question).

That there is a deep philosophic divide in the abortion debate is beyond dispute. Using polls to determine how many are on either side of the question is difficult, as the results will vary significantly depending on how the question is asked. No matter what position is reflected in public policy, there will be a considerable proportion of the population uncomfortable with the law. But is even the space for this philosophical discussion receding?

Against the odds, some of us still have idealism on democracy being a place where people who disagree can live civilly alongside each other. For us, the protection of these conversations—where and how they will take place—is still a going concern. And above the fray even of an important question like abortion, what last week's Parliamentary kerfuffle illustrated is the brokenness of our existing institutions. They seem incapable of allowing anything that approaches an adult conversation. As a Chronicle Herald editorial wryly observed, we have taken the 'parler' out of Parliament. That leaves it as expensive theatre and an archaic, ritualistic way to let us know when a law is passed. My guess is that those ends won't sustain it.

What of our political parties, then? Political parties have become marketing machines with the single-minded purpose of protecting and promoting the brand under which political activists will compete for election. Apart from leadership campaigns, there are few notions of democracy left in our political parties. Policy resolutions at conventions are practically meaningless; the vetting and recruitment of local candidates and the strict discipline of centralized election campaigns mean that membership in a political party simply is volunteering to receive the repeated fundraising letters and calls from party HQ. Although notionally there still is enough brand differentiation that indicates particularized approaches to governing and policy questions, the differences between our parties are about as meaningful as the differences between our coffee chains: some prefer Tim's, others Starbucks or Second Cup.

Canadian politics today sadly is being reduced to the flexing of financial, political, and marketing muscle. We're getting back to pre-democratic notions of "might makes right," except for the fact that we've replaced swords for marketing slogans and lawyer's robes. Most pretence of democratic respect for difference is being cynically thrown overboard.

There are ebbs and flows in public life, and care needs to be taken not to overreact or be unnecessarily alarmist. Parliaments throughout history have been subjected to manipulation and found a way to reassert themselves. Perhaps this "mutiny," too, will prompt a more fundamental engagement on the deterioration of our political infrastructure and what might be done to renew it.

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