Jonathan Manthorpe’s new book is Restoring Democracy in an Age of Populism and Pestilence.
Canadians can be very complacent, and for most of the country’s history they have had much to be complacent about.
The land and the waters have been bountiful. A form of liberal democracy has been crafted, which seems to work reasonably well.
The opportunities for the country and its people have appeared endless. Even making the wrong choice has seldom seemed irredeemable. There were always plenty of resources, time and space to put things right. And if not now, then someday. There is plenty of time.
But Canada’s age of insouciance is coming to an end. Canada’s internal social and political compact may still look exceptional in comparison with those of neighbours and democracies farther afield. But there is continuing deterioration in Canada’s political institutions and their relationship with the citizenry.
Canada has a serious democratic deficit.
Parliament and the legislatures have become largely devoid of relevance as venues for the debate and resolution of issues facing the country. For some of this, MPs and MLAs have no one to blame but themselves. On social issues, in particular, they have abrogated their responsibilities and left decisions to the Supreme Court and senior courts of the provinces.
As a result, Canadians trust the courts more than Parliament and the legislatures as the forums where social questions are resolved.
Equally pernicious, Canada’s political parties have been seduced by celebrity culture and become fixated with the brand established by the public performances of the leader. The prime example is the central role that televised debates take in election campaigns. These are nothing but refashioned game shows, staged with the hope and expectation that there will be a “gotcha” moment on which the election will be decided.
That’s no way to run a democracy.
Obsession with the leader’s celebrity has diminished and in some instances obliterated the role of MPs, MLAs and, in extreme cases, even cabinet ministers in the daily business of government and the internal workings of party caucuses.
The public senses the essential vacuity of the people they have chosen to represent their interests in government.
There are plenty of examples in Canada of the festering and potentially destabilizing sense of abandonment and voicelessness felt by large segments of the populations of the United States and several European countries.
Globalization, rapid technological change, the unresolved dislocation of groups within society and shifting patterns of demand for Canada’s resources have created pockets of insecurity and despair.
These are the feeding grounds for populists and political extremists. Some Canadian voters had opted for outlier populists before the pandemic changed the agenda.
But as Canada emerges from the health crisis, the question of whether the current political culture is fit for the purpose will become more intense. Ottawa and the provinces have been shovelling money out the door in order to encourage compliance with public-health dictates. One day the piper must be paid, and that is going to be a testing time for Canada’s political cohesion.
This is all happening in a world where the global power structure is shifting away from the United States. This is partly because the U.S. is drawing in on itself as the polarization of domestic politics and society at large becomes ever more intense and violent. It is also because of the rising economic, political, military and diplomatic authority of the People’s Republic of China and other regional powers such as India, Brazil, Turkey and Russia.
Not all of these rising powers, and China especially, espouse the international values and institutions that have been in place since the Second World War.
The international pressure from authoritarian states on the civic values essential to Canada’s character is already being felt. That pressure will become more intense in coming years.
Canada can no longer count on its traditional minders, Britain and the U.S., both of which have gone rogue.
For its own survival, Canada needs with some urgency to promote the construction of an alliance of middle-power democracies in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and Africa.
And as that is being done, the insights and opportunities presented by the disruption of COVID-19 to revitalize Canadian democracy should be grabbed.
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