Lawrence Martin: What Direction for Canada’s Troubled Democracy?


From the Globe & Mail – Feb 1, 2011

by Lawrence Martin

Will the Arab states cascade into the splendid embrace of democracy the way the Soviet states did two decades ago?

tumult in Tunisia and Egypt brings to mind two things. One is those
Soviet years when I was stationed in Moscow for this newspaper. Another
is the weakened state of Canadian democracy and whether we’re prepared
to do anything about it.

When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the politics of glasnost
in 1985, everyone thought it was a ruse, just another blast of Soviet
propaganda. But that policy was what set the stage for freedom’s rise
and the Cold War’s close.

For the Arab states of North Africa and
the Middle East, there’s no grand political overseer who can loosen the
strings as Mr. Gorbachev did. What was remarkable was that he had the
entire Soviet police state apparatus at his disposal, as well as the
military. Despite deteriorating economic conditions, he could have
maintained a totalitarian lock on power. But he was enlightened enough
about the West to know how his system compared.

By coincidence,
the current upheavals take place a year after Canadians took to the
streets to stage, by comparison, their own trifling protests against, by
comparison, smallish abuses of their democratic system by their
government. Specifically, it was Stephen Harper’s government’s decision
to suspend Parliament in the wake of the Afghan detainees controversy
that sparked the protest. But that suspension was only one in a long
line of affronts in recent times.

There’s been so many that
Democracy Watch is calling for a grassroots Coffee Party movement.
Democracy Watch is a small group but, since its inception in 1993, it’s
been one of the most persistent in trying to hold Liberal and
Conservative governments to account. It isn’t government-funded, and it
isn’t easily intimidated.

Most everywhere it turns, it can see
which way our democracy is headed. On the question of openness and
access to information – our very own glasnost – Canada finished
last in a recent survey of five parliamentary democracies. On the
question of political morality, the governing Conservatives have made
personal attack ads, as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May lamented
Monday, the new normal.

The Conservatives had a plan – a good one –
to replace our rancid system of patronage appointments with a public
appointments commission. But it was scuttled. They had hopes our Senate
could be democratized. A good idea, too. But instead, it’s been filled
with Conservative cronies.

Owing to brutal partisanship,
Parliament’s committee system has become increasingly dysfunctional.
Watchdog groups such as the Integrity Commissioner’s Office have been
turned into lapdogs. The public service’s policy development function,
once significant, has been blunted. An unprecedented government-wide
vetting system instituted by the Tories has stifled free speech.

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About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.