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Penny Collenette

Penny Collenette

PENNY COLLENETTE

What Canada can learn from the U.S. shutdown: Democracy is a work in progress Add to ...

Canadians who watched U.S. government services shutting down on Tuesday could be forgiven for asking if they were watching a failed state or witnessing a healthy and vibrant democracy.

Has the U.S. democracy become a wounded runner who can barely cross the finish line? Are Americans overwhelmed with hubris, greed and a dysfunctional system of government, in which gridlock between legislative institutions empowers no one, except perhaps rabid members of the Tea Party? Furthermore, have Americans lost their way in a globalized world filled with new alliances and emerging powers?

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Or is the U.S., in fact, playing out in full transparency its hates and disagreements for all to see? Are Americans, in a huge burst of emotion and drama, gathering strength and energy for the years ahead? Is this budget battle – this stalemate between historic institutions – the way a powerful democracy should work? Is this really what was envisioned when the nation’s founders created the famous checks and balances?

The answer really lies with its citizens. What works for them? What price is there to pay for democracy that can shut down federal services? And how does this reflect on Canadian parliamentary democracy, which is facing its own serious questions about election manipulation, scandals and corruption? Citizens in both countries have a right to be concerned about the state of democracy and by extension, our democratic institutions.

Could a shutdown happen in Canada? Technically, a government can be defeated on a budget bill, causing loss of confidence and jump-starting an election (or less likely, but not improbably a coalition government). But that kind of legislative impasse does not result in a freeze of government services.

Several writers have Tweeted that the U.S. has prorogued, taking our much maligned and overused tool of parliamentary democracy and applying it to the American model. It’s a very clever analogy, but it’s not accurate. In Canada, only our Parliament is shut down by the act of proroguing – not our machinery of government.

In the case of the United States, the reverse is true. While its legislative bodies continue to carry on, the actual federal government system has erected a Stop sign. And for enemies of democracy, the symbolism of the shutdown is not good.

For example, the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, both great icons of freedom, can no longer receive tourists because federal workers will not be paid. About 800,000 federal employees (including food inspectors and environmental agency workers) will not be working. National parks and recreational sites are shuttered. Campers were told they had 48 hours to leave.

Canadian have always watched their American neighbours with envy, admiration and a healthy dose of wariness. But in spite of many common values, our disagreements have sometimes been sharp, both between our leaders and our public. Stephen Harper certainly signalled his disdain for the current administration several days ago by stating that he won’t take no for an answer on the highly contentious Keystone XL pipeline debate.

In the fractious and furious free-trade debate during the 1988 election, the Liberal Party lost the vote but won a check mark in the minds of Canadians when a partisan campaign ad showed the border between the U.S. and Canada being erased by the tip of a pencil. The border was magically gone. If free trade went ahead, we would be one giant national entity, according to the argument.

The symbolism wasn’t strong enough to warn Canadians away from free trade but it sparked a powerful debate which to this day echoes with worrying phrases such as inevitable economic and political integration. Just this week, a new book has been released calling for a “merger” of Canada and the U.S.

Yes, the U.S. government has faced this challenge before and overcome it, but not for 17 years. A whole generation of individuals have grown up assuming that the United States will always be there and will always work. But today, sadly, it doesn’t.

Democracies need to be updated, checked, double-checked and verified, constantly. They are a work in progress – and it’s hard work. America’s elected legislators are certainly working, but their government isn’t. Our elected politicians are sometimes not called into their House of Commons. But our government works.

It’s up to you but personally, I prefer to stay on this side of the border and work for a smarter democracy here.

Penny Collenette, a former senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and former director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office under Jean Chrétien, is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law.

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