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A couple walks up to a polling station in Saanich-Gulf Islands, near Sidney, B.C., to vote in the federal election on Oct. 14, 2008. (Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail)
A couple walks up to a polling station in Saanich-Gulf Islands, near Sidney, B.C., to vote in the federal election on Oct. 14, 2008. (Deddeda Stemler/Deddeda Stemler for The Globe and Mail)

Douglas Bell

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth... Add to ...

The latest issue of the Literary Review of Canada has in it's pages a feisty series of letters in response to Andrew Potter's savaging review of Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, a book of essays on last fall's coalition fracas. The book's editors, professors Russell and Sossin, defend themselves, historian Michael Bliss weighsin suggesting Potter went too easy on the blackguards and the always stimulating Norman Spector throws down a gauntlet to coalition espousers to debate the issues "in both official languages anywhere in Canada." The UFC couldn't do better in promoting the coming constitutional throw down, which will no doubt ensue during the run up to the next (now, thank God, delayed) election campaign.

And while all of it strikes me as fair if not entirely civil comment, I did wonder this. Coming out the other end of all this, 70 per cent of eligible voters had no interest in pursuing an election a year after the last one. So those calling for a more direct democratic line between "the people" and their elected representatives (as opposed to "parliamentarians" that favoured the coalition) are in essence ringing a number that's been, at least for the moment, disconnected. Yesterday I asked my fellow blogging pals Brian Topp and Norman Spector whether the possibility of mass indifference to the process was cause for concern (leads to balkanization and extremism, etc etc).

Spector A long time ago (that is, when I was in university and you were in grade school) low turnout used to be posited as a sign that everything was ticking along okay.

That said, and without losing sight of that virtue, widespread disaffection from the political process can have negative consequences, including those you mention. But even here, one man's extremist is another's messiah, as we are seeing in the Obama phenomenon. Still, the ideal would be to have a political system with high citizen attachment and regular, though institutionalized, change in policy.

Topp Steadily lower turnout as we've seen in Canadian federal and provincial elections, and disastrously so in U.S. elections (notably mid-term ones) encourages extremism in political parties, since the key to victory becomes turning out motivated partisans instead of moderate-minded folks.

In many parts of North America (rural ridings, the southern United States) this hands politics to angry, elderly white men of the sort who turned up in town halls to yell about 'death panels' all across the U.S. this summer.

The antidote is more civility where the tone of national politics are set -- on the floor of the House of Commons. But all the forces converging there (internal and external, politic and substantive) pull it apart, rather than knitting it together.

Not sure there are any grand solutions. We'll all just have to try to muddle through -- and try to talk to each other a bit more, assuming that isn't "backroom dealing."

My take? Debating these issues, however fractious/parochia and however much some might suggest it's all a bit beside the point, is crucial to Canada's political future in the same way debating global warming is to our environmental future.

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