Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Democratic Deficit

Yesterday, Ontario's Liberal government brought in their first provincial budget. And with it, they pretty much eliminated the need for voters to ever pay attention during elections ever again. During the campaign, there was nothing that the Liberals could not do, if only voters gave them a chance. Then, once they had it, they had to admit that things were so bad they'd have to put aside all those promises. And we end up with health premiums (the equivalent of a 13% income tax increase), delisting of some medical services, like chiropractic and physio treatments, and frozen spending on most government programs.

Let me say up front, I'm not necessarily opposed or in favour of some of the measures announced in the budget. Government does have to make hard decision, no question. But what galls me is that politicians no longer even pretend that they should try to be accountable for what they say. So it's perfectly fine to rail against doing something, only to do exactly that once they're given the keys to the office. They don't even pretend to apologize any more.

This is not unique to Ontario. We've also seen it in Newfoundland, BC, and Saskatchewan, where economic reality has rendered irrelevant campaign platforms and promises. But for me, the Ontario Liberals have finally put to rest the notion that politicians are ever accountable for what they say during an election campaign or in opposition. While this is hardly news, voters have always been willing to ignore history at election time and listen to politicians' promises as if they were serious. So last year, we heard Dalton McGuinty solemnly pledge not to raise taxes and even go so far as to sign a document to that effect. That was only one of his most obvious promises. There were plenty of others. It seems there was nothing he would not pledge his new government would do, and he promised they would be capable of fulfilling all these various promises because they were really, really smart, honest and hard-working. And it worked. He won the election.

Alas, it wasn't long before the backtracking started and everyone from the media to the former government began shrieking about how McGuinty had lied to everyone. But the fact that McGuinty had made those promises to get elected, and that subsequent events had forced him to recant almost all of them, are not really the point. Instead, it's the cavalier way that the Liberals dismiss criticism by saying that they have no option. Finance Minister Greg Sobara says reality has forced his hand. The fact that he might be doing the exact opposite of what he promised is not relevant, he says. It's just a job he's got to do. While he didn't come right out and say it, his comments come close to saying, "Come on, we both know that election promises are not real promises." (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink!)

Politicians argue that economic reality trumps any moral commitments they might have made. Indeed, moral arguments that include things like honesty and integrity are seen as quaint, but out-dated. Modern governments can't afford niceties like that. But that attitude has ruined the electoral process. Voter apathy is increasing and experts predict dire consequences for our democracy as it continues. The truth is, our elections have become shams. Fewer voters mean more predictable campaigns. We are being manipulated by professionals who are intent on making sure that the outcome is predictable. Sure, there may be a short-term PR problem with parachuting candidates into a riding, instead of letting the local members choose, but that's not a long-term problem. By election day, it won't be an issue. And if fewer people vote, that's all right, because that just means we can spend our money on a more select group and influence their opinions.

And let's not harbour any illusions here. Money makes this election machinery go around. With few exceptions, the more money that is spent, the more likely a candidate will win. This works in every democracy. There are ideas for reforms that might limit this reality, such as proportional representation, etc., but they're not likely to get very far. Radical electoral reform will only happen if a sitting government allows it. And given the recent cynical nature of federal politics in recent months, I'm confident that a new Liberal government is not likely to lead that charge.

So where are we now? As a reasonably informed voter, who watches most political events carefully, I see my vote as less and less significant. I no longer see candidates at my door. In the last provincial election, not a single candidate graced my doorstep. Coverage of election issues was focused on what the leaders said each day. And thanks to high-speed communications, any comments by local candidates just repeated the party line. And as events since the election have demonstrated, there is no connection between what was said during the campaign and what happens after. No, the "running of government" takes precedence over any silly things like promises or signed pledges or expressions of support.

Our relationship with our elected representatives is getting stranger. No longer do we even pretend that we take anything they say seriously. Lying is now allowed. In fact, it's expected. When you're in opposition, you are against everything the government says or does. That's your job. If, by some miracle, you get to be the government, you no longer have to stand behind your comments. Sure, you'll take flak from the new opposition, but that's all right. They're busy saying all the things that they'll then be able to ignore once the pendulum swings and they're in the driver's seat in a few years. There is no constructive debate between our political parties. Question Period and spending estimate debates are meaningless. The business of governing rolls on regardless of which party is in power.

I admit I'm growing more cynical. I am one of the disaffected voters who wonders, "What's the point?" Should I even pay attention to the upcoming federal election? Or should we just leave it to the professional pollsters to explain what will happen and let it go at that? Does it really matter which party forms the government? I just don't know any more. I'm sure that in the weeks to come, I'll be thinking about this a lot and probably writing more about it. Maybe, once I start hearing a few good promises, I'll be able to put aside my cynicism and enjoy the campaign. I hope so.

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