A better system of democracy

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday March 06 2013 in Opinion
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Have we stopped searching for a better system of democracy? One gets the feeling that we have. We go through the motion every so often of having commissions of inquiry or similar exercises but nothing seem to change. We end up largely back where we started – maybe with a slightly different look, like the re-make of a movie – but nothing substantial.


Dictionaries tell us that the word “democracy” evolved from the ancient Greek and Latin words which mean rule by the people.


One of the most famous quotes on this subject comes from Sir Winston Churchill who is reported to have said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”


In our modern day context, we elect a few people to sit in an assembly of some kind to make and implement decisions on our behalf to make our lives and co-existence better. We don’t always get what we want. So, every four or five years in most “democracies” we try again. We either renew the mandate of the party or people in power and keep our fingers crossed that they will give us some semblance of what we want, or we change the people who represent us with the same “fingers-crossed” attitude.


Is this the best we can do?


The institutional set-up to carry out this act of governing is complex and frustrating and tiresome…I could go on, but I think you get the picture. We have seen how these bodies work in different nations. Most of them are variations on what has become known as the Westminster model, so named for the British parliamentary system of government. The fascinating aspect of this model is that there are two houses – or bicameral – to this system, one elected, the House of Commons, and the other, the House of Lords which – well, let us just say “appointed” for ease of discussion, although it is largely hereditary.


The House of Lords is largely built on the sense that the UK is divided into the hands of a few people who oversee the activities of the Commons, mainly to ensure that what they do is not in conflict with their ownership and wealth.


The United States’ variation is the Congress – the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both houses are elected. The U.S. system complicates matters by having three branches of government – the executive, Congress and the judiciary. The president has executive powers (the Crown largely has none in the UK or Canada) but the Congress controls the purse. The judiciary ensures the constitutionality of laws passed. As you can see, if you have been following the news, that can cause serious logger-headedness.


In Canada, we have a bicameral parliament – the Senate and the House of Commons. I would bet that most people would be at pains to name, say, a half dozen senators, even including the ones now been questioned about their expenses. Constitutionally, they have a role as the “House of sober second thought”, meaning that they review laws passed by the House of Commons. They can also initiate laws as well.


The Senate of Canada has largely become a dumping ground of appreciation for some of the faithful of the party in power. Not having held power, the New Democratic Party has never appointed a senator.


For the past number of years, the argument about what to do about the senate has crept into the discussion. Should it be elected, reformed or dumped? All questions lead to its relevancy and the answers proposed are unconvincing, to say the least.


In the end, the larger question is: Are we getting what we want from this form of democracy? Some people are.


Are African Canadians getting what they want, or need, from this form of democracy, particularly in a country like Canada? From the point of view in Ontario, there are three levels of government: the federal, the provincial and the municipal. The current federal government has rarely looked at the concerns of African Canadians with the possible exception of how to deal with criminality – how to make tougher laws for those who carry and use guns illegally and how to control immigration.


Successive provincial governments have launched studies and royal commissions and formulated reports on the status and needs of the African Canadian community. The reports have largely been left on the shelf, and those recommendations that have been implemented have lived for a short time and ended as part of some budget determination.


The bottom line of this form of democracy appears to be this: There are competing interests and the interests of those that are best served are the ones that have the most influence. Large corporations have the ability to pay individuals or other organizations to represent their interests with the decision makers. The latter are called “lobbyists”. Non-corporations have influence by the ability to garner large financial and other supports for the election of parties.


The African Canadian communities have not operated within these realities. Thus, our needs fall essentially to the bottom of the remedies lists.


Democracy therefore, or more importantly, its results, can be interpreted as better for those who can afford it financially.


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