Roy Green: It’s my party and I’ll vote if I want to


More citizenry engagement, less apathy

At the time of this writing Canadians were being subjected to target marketing by federal political parties and their surrogates.

No one really wanted a $300 million, possibly $400 million, election campaign, but the default messaging declared going to the polls may just be unavoidable given the miserable, ethically-challenged and value-abusing performance of the other guys (and gals).

Voter response? Largely indifference. That is if a national radio talk show audience provides a credible measure of real, if unscientific feedback. Oh sure, there are “I will definitely vote for” views, but even those are mostly emotional flat-liners.

Whether or not campaign buses and aircraft are criss-crossing the nation as you read this is irrelevant to the gist of this column. Perception of political parties and their immoderate performance in managing the affairs of the nation are changed little if at all during the mad chase for the keys to the PMO and 24 Sussex Drive.

One expressed opinion? “New lawn signs, same liars.” Ouch!

The six weeks of undisguised party panhandling for voter support is invariably dismissed by about 40 per cent of the eligible electorate. Four of 10 Canadians are simply apathetic to vote. This group far too conveniently and frequently is labelled as the problem. “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain later” is a standard refrain.

Following many poorly attended votes (and at all levels of governance) there has been reflexive buy in to this view. The eligible who declined were shirking their civic responsibility. Better we address that. Perhaps consider the passage of “must vote or be penalized financially” legislation as exists in Australia.
Not so fast. If four of 10 eligible Canadians decline the right to engage in participatory democracy, isn’t the message supporting that decision worthy of investigation? A message perhaps not carried on the wings of ignorance and/or apathy.

Is there an even moderately successful business which would cavalierly dismiss 40 per cent of an available yet absent client base by defining such a base as intentionally uninformed and apathetically disengaged? Of course not. Not unless the business model was predicated on a death wish.

How then might interest be generated among the four of 10 Canadians who may choose a 50 per cent off sale at the mall over heading for the polling station? How about beginning to answer that question with a question? What is the most common public image of federally elected representatives of the people?
Might it be members of Canada’s Parliament engaging in grandstanding and gratuitous exchange of insult during Question Period? The unashamed offerings of the worst of those exchanges are documented daily in Hansard. Read and you may literally weep.

Rumblings of discontent also echo over perceived elitist behaviour in the “chateau by the Rideau”.

While few Canadians begrudge parliamentarians and their salaries, the same cannot be said about the gold plated MP/Senator pension plan which delivers $4.50 from the taxpayer to the MP/Senator for each dollar the MP/Senator contributes. On the post recessionary national public radar the plan is viewed as a particularly egregious example of profligate self-directed spending, particularly by a national population dealing increasingly with an absence of any private pension plan opportunity.

That eligibility for such pensionable income is based on either two electoral victories or six years in office increases the disconnect. A backbench MP who retains his or her seat for perhaps 15 years and therefore acquires eligibility for a lifetime pension beginning at age 55, with annual payouts likely exceeding $70,000 bears what resemblance to even the most generous non-public sector working Canadian?

The repugnant refusal of federal political parties to submit to a full and publicly available audit of expense account spending by MPs and Senators raised suspicion. How could it not? Some 200-plus U.K. parliamentarians were found to be in violation of ethical expense spending regulations and closer to home, three former cabinet ministers of the Newfoundland and Labrador legislature, as well as a backbencher were jailed for criminal expense misspending.

Meanwhile, the RCMP is investigating one current and four former members of the Nova Scotia legislature on conclusion of a forensic audit of their spending habits.

The annual budget to operate parliament stands at $500 million, yet the eventually agreed-to federal Auditor General partial review of MP/Senator expense spending was reached grudgingly and only because of unremitting public outrage.  Michael Ignatieff’s sanctimonious declaration the “Auditor General serves at the pleasure of parliament” might cause a taxpayer to request context for the word “pleasure” in that statement by the federal Liberal leader.

Be it an issue of legislation or a question more generic parliamentary decision making, Canadian voters with few notable exceptions remain consigned to the sidelines between elections.  Free to express views, mostly powerless to influence decisions.

It can only be to Canada’s benefit for a more engaging and mutually dependent relationship to develop between the nation’s citizenry and its elected political managers.

It is time to investigate options in this regard.

A model for possible review? Switzerland’s constitutionally representative democracy.

Swiss parliamentarians are part-timers and the nation’s citizenry delivers thumbs up or thumbs down verdicts on major federal legislative initiatives during several regularly scheduled annual referenda.

If by majority Swiss voters reject a proposed law the government must either submit a modified version or drop it. Example? A purchase of new fighter jets for the Swiss air force was refused by the citizenry. No new jets were ordered. By contrast Canadian politicians remain involved in an accusatory multi-year wrangle over the purchase of the F-35 fighter here. Canada’s population remains on the sidelines.

Any Swiss citizen may introduce an initiative for national consideration. Should 100,000 Swiss sign on, the initiative proceeds to the referendum stage. If a majority vote in favour, Switzerland’s federal government must constitutionally begin to process this private citizen initiative for legislative action.
A side benefit of direct democracy in Switzerland is governments carefully consider laws before proposing them to the electorate.

Referenda have been engaged to determine Canada’s future and quite recently. Most famously or infamously the 1980 and 1995 Quebec plebiscites on sovereignty. 

The Charlottetown Accord of 1992 proposed a series of constitutional amendments approved by federal, provincial and territorial governments, members of the Assembly of First Nations and other groups.

A review of the preceding decade will remind that constitutional amendments had been an issue of contentious political debate. Accusations of back room deals echoed around the Meech Lake Accord and so Charlottetown would be determined by national referendum.

Following an energetic campaign punctuated by memorable exchanges between supporters and those opposed, including the sitting but by then unpopular Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Canadians declined the Charlottetown Accord by 54.3 per cent.

Most recently, registered voters of British Columbia participated in a citizen initiative to reject the province’s Harmonized Sales Tax agreement with Ottawa. The initiative was made possible by B.C.’s Recall and Initiatives Act. 

The anti-HST campaign cost Premier Gordon Campbell his job even though Campbell eventually agreed to allow a straight forward simple plurality of votes referendum scheduled for September. Campbell’s successor Christy Clark has suggested a referendum be moved forward to June.

A citizenry empowered to engage in regular management and course setting of a nation while simultaneously retaining the option to remind elected officials of the requirement for fidelity to principles may be more likely to engage in election campaigns and view those campaigns as a positive component of the overall process.

Roy Green is a contributor to the National Post and the host of the Roy Green Show, a national program weekends on the Corus radio network.