Is Canada Really a Paragon of Democracy?
Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
One of the courses I've been teaching this term deals with the politics of post-Communist central and eastern Europe.
These countries emerged from 40 years of totalitarian rule after 1989 and had to craft new democratic constitutions from scratch.
They examined various models, including the American separation-of-powers presidential system; the British "
In the end, most adopted variations of either the parliamentary or semi-presidential version of government.
As for their electoral systems, most put into place either some type of proportional representation system, where the number of votes won by a party more or less equals the number of members they elect to an assembly; or a mixed-member-proportional system, one where some candidates are elected from geographic constituencies but where parties are also allocated seats based on their percentage of the overall total vote cast in the country.
Canadians often consider our country a paragon of democracy, a template that others might be wise to follow. But needless to say, none of these new democracies showed any interest in the following aspects of our system:
- A hereditary monarch who resides in a distant country (where she is a genuine head of state) and who only periodically visits one of her other realms,
- A 'stand-in' representative of this head of state, called a governor general, who is selected by the head of government of the day in a partisan manner, with little transparency or input by either the citizenry, the elected parliament, or even other members of the prime minister's ruling party.
- An upper house which, though technically mandated to represent the constituent parts of the federation, does no such thing, since its members are appointed by the central government along partisan lines, with little regard for the wishes of the citizenry or the elected assemblies of the provinces where vacancies occur.
As well, the numerical composition of this Senate makes no sense; some smaller entities (say,
- A lower house, though popularly elected, whose members need gain only a plurality of votes in their individual ridings, so that many who become members of this House of Commons, in our first-past-the-post system, win with as little as 30-35 per cent of the total vote.
Thus a party gaining about 40 per cent of the national vote may, in this winner-take-all system, capture a comfortable majority of the seats.
(The Liberals did so three times, in 1993, 1997, and 2000.)
By the same token, parties that may have polled as much as 10 per cent of the national vote may fail to gain even a single seat, leaving all of their supporters without any representation.
And given our strict party discipline and the adversarial style of politics which pits government against opposition, the party that wins a majority of seats then rules as though it has won a mandate from the entire country.
Of course all constitutions, no matter how perfectly written at the time they are promulgated, eventually need to reflect changes in the political culture of a country as the years go by.
So, as Nobel laureate Douglass North has observed, it is essential to have a way to modify political structures. The society that is willing to revise its rules through trial and error, he writes, "will be most likely to solve problems through time."
The new European democracies have taken this advice to heart; in the past two decades they have 'fine-tuned' their charters and constitutions. As political scientist Ray Taras has observed, none of them "is guilty of institutional ossification."
The two attempts made to amend the Constitution, the
But can such a state of affairs last forever? Can a country adhere to a foundational document that is completely 'frozen'?
After all, as the eminent historian Michael Bliss remarked recently,
Due to the H1N1 'swine flu' pandemic, we have all become familiar with the term 'underlying health condition'. People already weakened by other ailments may fall prey to a disease more readily than those in good health.
The same holds true for countries: those with 'underlying political conditions' may find it harder to surmount future crises than those whose institutions more adequately reflect the democratic will of the citizenry.
Wisely, none of the new democracies in