In the conventional language of today’s political science, Canada is a prime example of a democracy because of its political stability, free elections, and extensive civil liberties.
I, however, mean to imply something deeper with this question. Democracy, in its Greek roots, means “rule by the people,” but are Canadians the ones who are really calling the shots in Canada? Is this democratic parliamentary system truly democratic?
If you think these are just musings of a far-left socialist unsatisfied with bourgeois democracy, think again. For now there are thousands of Canadians asking themselves this question.
In the last two weeks, we’ve witnessed two events that have cast doubt over people’s trust in this “democratic” system.
First, after the House of Commons voted for a very moderate Climate Change Accountability Act, it was the unelected Senate that killed the bill without debate in a snap vote. Parliamentary experts say this is the first time in at least 70 years that the Senate has killed legislation from Commons without a hearing. U.K. commentators point that even the House of Lords in their country hasn’t done this for years.
Then Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, with implicit support from the Liberals, decided to skip over the Commons for a decision that was apparently not all that important: keeping 950 soldiers in a “non-combat” role in Afghanistan until 2014. As such, the Harper government is not only going over the Commons’ previous decision to end the mission in 2011, it has done so without even debating the issue in the place that is supposed to be the heart of Canadian democracy.
These events are not accidents, nor are they the result of a Prime Minister who is surprisingly arrogant and dictatorial in his style. These are in fact very consistent with the democratic system in Canada. This is how this system works. This is what democracy in Canada looks like.
One could easily list a good number of reasons why it is not the people who rule in democratic capitalist countries. I point to four here:
1) The real decisions that determine the lives of the majority of people in this country are in fact not made in the House of Commons or even 24 Sussex Drive. Eighty-five per cent of the Canadian economy is controlled by just under 150 banks and corporations. They are the ones who decide whether you’ll have a job, what you will buy, and how high your living standard is.
2) It’s not very hard to see the revolving door between government and business in capitalist countries. Jim Prentice, Harper’s former environment minister, just left “public service” to join CIBC in Toronto. It’s debatable in which position he would be more useful. The reality is that the agendas of the Conservative and Liberal parties are primarily set by corporate interests. He who pays the musician, sets the tune. This is why, in 1933, farmers and workers in this country decided to launch a political party of their own that would represent their own interests. This was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which later fused with the Canadian Labour Congress to become the New Democratic Party. This was, to quote its founder Tommy Douglas, “a party of mice” as opposed to two parties of black and white cats. But the party that was supposed to radically alter this system (according to its founding Regina Manifesto) hasn’t yet done so and is not exactly trying either.
3) The NDP has learned, as have other socialist parties around the world, that the capitalist state can’t just be appropriated and used by a socialist party that aims to destroy it and bring about real, participatory democracy. Suppose the NDP came to power in Canada tomorrow. What would really change? How can it change the enormous apparatus called the State? You can vote to elect your MP and MPP, sure. But have you ever thought of the massive bureaucracies that work independently of the people you just voted in? They are the ones who really run the show. How many times have you voted to elect your local policeman, judges, or public corporation CEO?
4) Canada, like every other capitalist democracy, has what I call “Safety valves.” Just in case a socialist party actually came to power bringing about real empowerment and democracy to people, there are quite a few unelected obstacles who have “emergency” powers to stop it from doing so: the Senate is one of them. The other more important one, is the Governor General who is but a humble “representative” of the Queen of England. And if you think the Governor General doesn’t have any “real” power, try to remember how Mr. Harper made a cursory call to Michelle Jean to prorogue the parliament, twice in less than two years.
These are the realities that every Canadian has to think about. These are the facts that remind us we don’t really run the show in this “democracy.”
Fuming about the Senate killing the climate change bill, NDP leader Jack Layton shouted that: “The Senate should be abolished!” He is right. The New Democratic Party should aim not only to rid Canada of this 19th century relic of tyranny, but should also work to overthrow the modern tyranny of bourgeois “democracy.”
Arash Azizi is a member of University of Toronto New Democratic Party Club’s executive and a co-chair of the Marxist Discussion Club.