Dr. David Suzuki is an author, broadcaster and environmentalist and founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. He hosts The Nature of Things on CBC, Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET, and will be speaking (with daughter Severn Cullis-Suzuki) as part of the “Unique Lives and Experiences” series at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Feb. 25.
A recent research paper found 55 per cent of Canadians polled were satisfied with democracy in the country. This was a drop of 20 percentage points in less than a decade. Does that surprise you?
No, not at all. You can count me as one of the ones in the drop.
I take the right to vote as an absolutely sacred privilege that we have in a democracy. When you have something like robo-calls to divert people from polling booths, that just drives me wild. I would have thought that every party would have been saying, “We’ve got to get to the bottom of this! This is outrageous!” This is an attack at the very heart of what democracy is all about.
Yes. It is a big concern for me that people are elected by only a minority of the people who vote, but that a huge percentage of people aren’t even bothering to vote at all. This is an undermining of the whole democratic process.
The thing that disturbs me a great deal about Canada is that we are following along the lines of the United States in allowing greater and greater influence of lobbyists. I think any candidate who meets certain standards should be supported. Let the tax dollars support candidates. People would then have a responsibility to the people who paid for their campaigns. Corporations and very wealthy people put a huge amount of money in to support candidates and then they’ve got direct access to those candidates when they are elected. That really does get us off what I think democracy is all about.
Is democracy served by a first-past-the-post electoral victory?
I don’t think so. There are very few democracies now that have our system. Most have gone over to proportional representation, which we desperately need.
Should the Senate become a democratically elected body or be abolished?
I personally see no reason for the existence of the Senate.
Abolition would require a constitutional amendment, which would be highly unlikely.
Well, I’m all for constitutional amendments. We, the foundation that I started, are campaigning for a constitutional amendment to make the right to a healthy environment a part of our constitutionally guaranteed rights.
In aid of democracy, should party strictures be loosened to allow more free votes in Parliament?
I had thought that, in a parliamentary system, when you run and say, “If you elect me, this is my plank,” this is what [you] will be obligated to enact. Now, under Stephen Harper, now that he has his majority, he thinks he can do whatever he wants. A lot of the issues that we are now seeing decided, that are making Canada an energy superpower based on the tar sands and wanting to reduce environmental regulations, we never voted on any of this.
Given that, do we in fact live in a democracy?
Well, I think that a lot of things are being done now to undermine that process. When you have omnibus bills that ram through all kinds of new legislation that isn’t even discussed in Parliament, I don’t think this is what I see as a democracy any longer.
Can you cite any places where, in your experience, they get democracy right?
Well, there are countries that work a hell of a lot better than ours. There are the Scandinavians – thank God for the Scandinavians. In a lot of the issues I’m concerned with, Germany is a leader. Holland. Europe is much further along because they don’t have the resource base that we do in North America and they have to face up to some realities.
I’ve just come back from Bhutan and I’m very, very excited by this tiny country in the Himalayas. It was isolated for 300 years. The country is in explosive transition, but saying, “Can we agree that economic growth is not the be-all and end-all? Economic growth is a means to something else. Surely we have a higher aspiration? How about the well-being and happiness of the people?”
Is democracy found in nature? Isn’t it a human construct? There is no democracy in a baboon troop or an ant colony.
It’s definitely a human construct, which is why I consider it a magnificent thing. We’re all very, very different genetically, but the idea that we all have equal rights, that is human. We don’t allow the “nature” in “human nature” to govern what we do.
What one thing would you suggest to change Canadians’ perceived slide from democracy?
To me, it is to move towards proportional representation. But the second thing is to stop the influence of money on elections. We have got to stop private and corporate donations to campaigns.
Do you see that happening under Mr. Harper?
No, absolutely no.
In your lifetime?
I hope. But I’m getting old.