Canadian Democracy in Theory and Practice: The Roots of Semi-Representative Liberalism

By Carter Vance
2016, Vol. 8 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |


This article explores the nature of Canada’s political system as an evolving consequence of its roots in classical liberal thinking coupled with the self-protecting instincts of a variety of elite interest groups. In performing this exploration, through the political economy of such issues as free trade and public versus private service provision, it argues that this system deliberately closes down certain political possibilities by institutionally underrepresenting particular communities and restricting policy sovereignty via international agreements. This creates disconnects between the common conception of democracy and its example as practiced in Canada, in both the contemporary and historical contexts. This tendency is further reinforced by the use of bureaucratic-technocratic forms of government policy management, which have the function of obscuring government function to the average citizen. In making this argument, the paper takes the perspective that Canada is better termed “semi-representative liberalism” in its political character, concluding with the possibility of what a more truly democratic system might look like.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban caused something of a diplomatic ruckus when, in the summer of 2014 and fresh off of a landslide electoral win, he announced that he intended to end “liberal democracy” in Hungary (Simon, 2014). In its place, he would substitute something that, once translated from an idiomatic Hungarian term, was rendered in the English-language press as “illiberal democracy,” citing the examples of Vladimir Putin's Russian Federation and the current Turkish government as the models he would emulate. Understandably, for an EU country which had not twenty-five years before cast off an authoritarian communist regime, this pronouncement was received with a mixture of befuddlement and grave concern on the part of both the press and other European leaders (Simon, 2014). Nevertheless, it is when confronted with such a moment that we may begin to reflect on what democracy really is, what it truly means and ought to mean when a state is said to be democractic.

Do we as citizens wish to be governed,
or to do the governing?

Merriam-Webster's dictionary (n.d.), defines “democracy” as “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” Whilst this may provide a sort of baseline around the notion of popular sovereignty, it is also true that when the popular imagination thinks of a democratic nation, they have more than simply this in mind. An idealized vision of democracy seems to rest on a delicate balance of power-sharing between institutions (legislature, courts, executive, etc.), an open civil society upon which the government minimally intrudes, a set of fundamental rights (usually enshrined in a constitution) upon which the state cannot intrude, even if it would be the popular will to do so, and meaningful choice for the electorate between political options when voting (Greene et al., 1997; Hurtig, 1994).

One of the key principles underlying the notion of representative democracy, as opposed to direct democracy, is that the elected representatives of the populace will, in actuality, represent them. Which is to say, the manner in which participants in the legislative body vote on legislation will reflect the opinion of the population which elected them on that same legislation (Dupuis-Deri, 2009). There are contradictions in this notion even considered in the most basic manner, however; for example, should a legislator consult their electorate on every single bill they vote on, and how so? What if the electorate is split in exactly equal proportions on a bill?This is to say nothing of the myriad of complications which result from interlocking types of oppression, the increasingly global nature of many public policy issues (e.g. climate change) and contradictions within the expressed desires of the public (Milner, 2013). In attempting to resolve these issues, Canada has developed over time a system which might be best termed as semi-representative liberalism, rather than democracy in the direct sense, characterized by a mixture of democratic, elite-protecting and rights-based elements and institutions (Studlar, & Christensen, 2006; Weinrib, 2007).

The problem with this system, in the broad sense, is that it has the effect of simultaneously over-representing the interests of some groups, whilst under-representing others, and subsuming very real conflicts over power and resources within Canadian society under a false notion of a general national interest. It should come as no surprise that the representational patterns within this system track historical and ongoing patterns of social oppression characteristic of Western capitalist societies, that of men over women, for instance (Waltman, 2010). Thus, to the extent that Canada can be called a democracy, it is one which is deeply undermined in terms of its representative capacity both institutionally and in a failure to grapple with the extent of social exclusion occurring under its auspices.

It is interesting to note that unlike other states commonly termed democratic, such as France or more recently the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe, Canada's formation as a state was not characterised by democratic aspirations or principles. In fact, the Fathers of Confederation, all men of large means and elite stock, viewed democracy in a very suspicious manner (Dupuis-Deri, 2009). Partly, this was due to their hostility towards the United States, which had instituted universal suffrage for white males, but there was also a more philosophical bent to this. Bodies such as the Senate were explicitly designed with the goal of controlling and managing the popular will in order to protect elite classes from harm by the majority (Dupuis-Deri, 2009).

“Democracy,” within this context was most often used as a word to signify not popular sovereignty but rather adherence to a certain set of principles defined as “peace, order and good government,” prizing the protection of private property rights within a framework of classical liberalism. This principle of elite management within a framework of restricted political options has echoes through Canada's political history from the post-war work of the Canadian Committee on Industrial Reconstruction (Nerbas, 2013) to the effect of media presentation on public opinion in the present day (Wheeldon & McBrien, 2014).

Access to and influence over policy-makers is also heavily modulated via elite social networks (many of which date back to Canada's founding and are disproportionately European and male) and the ability to provide large campaign donations (Potter & Tavits, 2015). A cumulative effect of all this, when combined with the nature of the first-past-the-post voting system, is that views which may be present in Canadian society but which go against the elite consensus are typically not present within deliberative bodies

(LeDuc, 2011). This may be positive or negative, depending on the particular viewpoint at play (for example, no elected representatives in Canada openly espouse neo-fascist views, unlike some European nations, despite the fact that some percentage of the Canadian public would find such views appealing), but it nevertheless speaks to restrictions on the parameters of available policy options.

The influence of elite networks in terms of restricting the parameters of meaningful political debate has only grown more true with the rise of neoliberalism in the context of the global economy, in two distinct ways. Firstly, at the national level, as assets of government become either privatized or subject to business-indebted New Public Management organizational norms, they become increasingly opaque and obscure to the average citizen (Zuberi & Ptashnick, 2011). This is to some degree intentional on the part of government, outside of budget-cutting considerations or ideological predispositions, as it allows certain responsibilities, and thereby anger from the citizenry if something goes wrong, to be moved away from the government itself and onto arm's-length bodies.

At the same time, it becomes much harder for the motivated citizen to actually influence the functioning of a privatized service, even if it is still being funded through the government, as it is subject to a primarily profit-based incentive structure (in the same way as any business) and is thereby is not actually expected to solicit and incorporate feedback from outside. A good example of the deleterious effects of this phenomenon can be seen by comparing the utility markets of Ontario (which has privatized or otherwise devolved much of its utility market) versus Manitoba (which retains much of it in the form of provincial Crown Corporations). An average consumer of the basic utility bundle (residential heating and electricity, as well as mandatory automobile insurance) pays roughly $5000 less per year in Manitoba versus Ontario (Government of Manitoba, 2013). To be sure, some of this is due to geographic and population distribution features which would differ regardless of the chosen delivery models, but it is also true that a consistent pattern emerges from the data: those citizens in provinces with less privatization of the utility spectrum (Manitoba, as well as Saskatchewan and Quebec) pay less for these essential services. In other words, politicians seem to have a keener interest in being responsive to consumer desires when they are seen as closer to the issue, and thereby more likely to be held to account for it. Neoliberalism, insofar as it prescribes moving traditionally state-based functions into the private or pseudo-private sector, can be seen as something of an attempt by policy-makers to evade this responsibility, which has the effect of making achieving influence on the part of the average citizen a much harder task.

The second significant manner in which neoliberalism has reinforced principles of elite management of politics has been by increasingly moving responsibility for key economic decisions out of the hands of national parliaments and to supra-national organizations such as the WTO and IMF. The presumption therein is that notionally “apolitical” technocrats, sitting above the din of national politics can do a better job of managing these issues; the emphasis is on “expertise” rather than democratic legitimacy (Richards, 2013). At the same time, though these decisions are not made in a democratic fashion, they still have profound impacts on the citizens of involved nations who are then increasingly bewildered as to whom their concerns and wishes ought to be directed. Colin Crouch (2014) has coined the term “post-democracy” to describe this condition, wherein countries and their parliaments retain the forms of a democratic state (elections, competing political parties, etc.), but their meaningful decision-making power is radically curtailed.

A key example of this used by Crouch came in 2005 when the citizens of France and the Netherlands voted in a referendum against ratification of the European Union's Lisbon Treaty (in part due to concerns about its erosion on national sovereignty), but the treaty was still ratified by the parliaments of those nations with only minor modifications afterwards. The overall effect which this demonstrates is one in which national parliaments are very quickly reduced to rather petty squabbling over the narrow range of issues which they actually have control over, while the higher-order decisions affecting the citizens are made elsewhere. Canada is no exception to this phenomenon, being party to a number of treaties and trade agreements, such as NAFTA and the UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs, that deeply restrict the range of action that the elected governments have available if they wish to remain part of the broader “international system.”

Two caveats are necessary on this front, however: the first is that, though they are by nature anti-democratic, at least in the basic terms of eroding national popular sovereignty, international agreements are not necessarily negative from a progressive political perspective. Indeed, in many recent cases wherein countries have aggressively reasserted their sovereignty it has been to do things such as subvert the ban on cluster munitions (Hinton, 2009) or to introduce immigration laws which violate refugee norms (Hellström & Hervik, 2014). Complete national sovereignty shares the same essential concern as having a democracy with no checks or balances against majority power: the possibility of a tyranny of the majority forming with no recourse for a threatened minority. Thus, it is not that having an international system in and of itself, or even a system of international trade with certain governing rules in and of itself, is a bad thing, but rather the value incentives and structures are too slanted towards large countries and business investment above all other concerns.

The second caveat is that, in the case of Canada, public opinion surrounding free trade is ambiguous. Recent polling by Nanos Research (Grenier, 2012) has indicated that a majority of Canadians do support “free trade” as a concept, but when it comes to actual trade agreements, a more mixed set of attitudes comes through. Only 28 percent of those polled believed that being a part of NAFTA had made Canada “better off” and only 33 percent believed the same of the prior Canada-US FTA. Interestingly, 40 percent did express support for the Canada-EU Free Trade Agreement currently in the works, though this should be taken lightly as its exact details are not yet known. Conceptually, it seems, Canadians do support free trade, perhaps due to elite media messaging of it as an inherently positive thing (Strate & Sellars, 1993), but when it comes to the practical experience of it, as in NAFTA, it is far from clear that a more democratic nation would have signed-on.

The nature of where within the system power, funding and control are located also has the effect of disadvantaging rural, remote and Northern communities (Thomas et al., 2013). The centres of both the provincial and federal governments are, in terms of Ontario, physically located within the South, and given the concentration of policy-making power within these institutions, it is no surprise that Northern concerns are often ignored, particularly as relates to economic and trade policies (Froese-Germain, 2013). Again, the assumption being that the two broad communities (South and North) share fundamental interests which the government can advance, which is to highly questionable to say the least. Furthermore, powers delegated to the local level where unique community interests might be best articulated are limited to mainly basic infrastructural and social service matters, with little ability to effect large change. This points to a conflict with the nature of democracy between levels of government, as a proportional representation electoral system, whilst it would make Canada more democratic overall, would also further exclude the North due to its sparse population numbers (Couture, 2014).

The fact that Northern ridings, despite their large geographic area, do, on average, have a smaller population count than Southern ridings, means that, in a mathematical sense, any single vote in a Northern riding will have more “power” in deciding the member elected for that riding (Thomas et al., 2013). This, in the purely mathematical sense, would seem to indicate an anti-democratic bias in favour of the North, but this notion is undermined by a number of other factors. Firstly, due to the diffuse geographic size and number of encompassed communities, which may not share interests between themselves or may indeed even have opposed interests, of any one Northern riding, the ability of even the most earnest Northern MP to represent their constituency is quite limited. People living in a more concentrated geographic area, regardless of their numbers, tend to have convergent interests in terms of sharing an economic base that more diffuse communities do not.

An easy example of this notion would be an Northern MP whose riding contains one population centre wherein the main industry is steel production and another where mineral extraction is the main employer. In this scenario, in order to properly represent constituent interests, should the MP seek policies which ensure high mineral resource prices (which would benefit the mining town) or lower resource prices (which would benefit the steel production centre by lowering their input costs)? Obviously, competing interests will vie for the attention of government regardless of the scenario, and it would be false to say that all people in one particular community would be in favour of these policies (some in the mining community would object to the environmental damage caused by greater extraction in the event of higher prices, for instance). Nevertheless, these ambiguities of representation are seen more clearly in the North than in other areas and are further exacerbated by the extremely limited power to make economic policy at the local government level.

Furthermore, it should be noted that practical experiences with proportional representation systems do not necessarily result in more democratic outcomes in terms of actual government formation and policy direction. For example, Israel's legislative body, the Knesset, is elected entirely by proportional representation, and thereby is one of the most “democratic,” in the direct sense, in the world (Akirav et al, 2010). At the same time, because of this system and a proliferation of political parties, the task of forming a governing majority in Israel involves the cobbling-together of a number of parties with diverse ideologies into one government. Though this may sound like a solid exercise in moderation and collaboration, in practice it has led to certain small parties and the social groups they represent (mainly the Haredi Ultra-Orthodox population) being able to play kingmaker and wield disproportionate influence in policy against the wishes of the rest of the electorate (Cohen & Susser, 2010). Thus, though the democratic distortion shifts in nature from one of geography to social and ideological identity, it is nevertheless still present.

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