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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Elizabeth May, the 'consortium' and our democratic dysfunctions


Too many bytes, too much ink and attention devoted to the looming Iggy-Harpo smackdown. (Any time! Any place! Bring it on, mofo!) It may happen, it may not, and I'm still undecided about whether it's a good thing or not.

Lost in the drama, I think, is the discussion of how the door got slammed in Elizabeth May's face.

To be clear, I'm not carrying a brief for Ms. May and the Greens. Non-partisanship is one of this little corner's hallmarks. But you don't have to be a Green supporter to be disgusted, and more than that, deeply disturbed at the implications emerging from how Ms. May came to be excluded from what was originally envisioned as a debate involving all the major party leaders.

Andrew Coyne was all over this yesterday, precipitating this corner's first-ever edition of What Coyne Said, and God love him, he's still at it. There are several offensive and worrisome things arising from this. He's been tweeting about them, as has @jm_mcgrath, but it's worth a recap. In no particular order ...

Why are we leaving control over leaders' debates – an important democratic process, one would think – in the hands of private TV networks? Who died and left them in charge? (And the CBC, for that matter. Just because they did something praiseworthy with their Reality Check doesn't mean they get to skate on this.) Whatever they get out of this, we can't just assume that it coincides with the public interest.

Why should a bunch of wealthy white guys and their hirelings get to decide what the rules are and who gets to play? Why should they get to frame the issues for debate in the first place? We're pretty well ceding the field to them, and allowing them to impose their own narrow and artificial definitions of what's at issue upon everyone else. That means they can unilaterally define the boundaries of acceptable debate, and ensure that ideas that challenge their own interests never enter the discussion. Revolting as their treatment of Elizabeth May is, this goes far beyond just her.

In short, the mysterious and arbitrary "consortium" is acting just like Stephen Harper at his worst: no transparency, no accountability, and dedicated to the perpetuation of an unhealthy and dysfunctional status quo. Its members need to be called out and held up for the public scorn they deserve.

And when you consider one of the lame-ass rationales proffered for the decision – the lack of any Green representation in Parliament – you focus attention on another dysfunction that's lasted far too long: our inexplicable attachment to the anachronism otherwise known as the First Past The Post system (#FPTP on the Tweeter).

Other observers and analysts have written about it in far more detail and in far more engaging ways than I have the scope for here, but it's got to be obvious that the system we have now doesn't come close to accurately reflecting the popular will. When you consider that a majority of Canadians, as measured by party support, are actually opposed to the ideological and political bent of the current government, you have to wonder how we got to this point in the first place.

How can a healthy democracy allow situations wherein a party can win a majority of seats in Parliament without necessarily winning a majority of the votes? Never mind the gross inequities in the way constituency boundaries are drawn, ensuring that ridings with mere handfuls of voters carry just as much weight as much more populous ridings? Or seat allocations that don't reflect relative provincial weight?

That's a serious problem in a democracy. It feeds cynicism, apathy and disengagement, and makes it easier for people to believe that their votes don't matter. And we can't allow it to get lost in all the easy manufactured drama about whether there's going to be a one-on-one smackdown.

Yes, any serious discussion of electoral reform is going to have to consider some form of proportional representation. And yes, that might involve talk of parliamentary coalitions and power-sharing arrangements. Let's just pre-empt the Flying Monkey attack right now and observe that such things are common all over the world, and that they're regular features almost anywhere parliamentary democracies operate.

We can also take a deep breath and allow that yes, it might require us to think a little bit harder about how we cast our votes. There's that civic-engagement thing again. Isn't a system that does a better job of reflecting the popular will worth a little effort?

Maybe we can even have a (please God) mature and rational conversation about it? And if the "consortium" and corporate media won't play, well, who needs them? They're just greasing the skids toward their own irrelevance.

Someone once said that elections are no time for discussions of serious issues. Stay tuned.

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