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Canada's Pallid Democracy

Stephen Gowans

to the editors of the Globe and Mail. Take a Valium. Alliance's referenda proposal poses no threat to Canada's pallid democracy.

Some people are having conniptions over the Alliance's proposal to introduce U.S.-style ballot-initiatives to Canada. They think -- wrongly -- that referenda are going to let, my gosh!, the public actually have a direct say in political decision-making.

Among those agitated by the thought of Canadians trooping off the polls to vote on specific referenda questions are the editors of the Globe and Mail. This can't be allowed to happen, they declare. Canadians are, well....they're too stupid to be involved in political decision-making. Better to leave these things to "representatives who will spend the time and effort to understand complex issues, or the complexity of seemingly simple issues, and who will recognize that popular isn't always right and unpopular isn't always wrong."

If these guys were on the political Left they'd be Leninists for sure. In a curious piece of logic, the editors write that our current representative system works best because we can vote for candidates who can be counted on to represent our interests in Parliament. Now, presumably decisions that represent our interests are popular and decisions that don't represent our interests are unpopular, assuming, of course, that we recognize our own interests in the first place, an assumption, I'll grant, the Globe and Mail would contest. For while these representatives have trooped off to Ottawa to represent our interests (a popular thing to do) they are also expected -- and do -- make decisions that aren't always popular and, therefore, presumably don't represent our interests, (again, assuming that Canadians know their interests and have elected their representatives accordingly, as the Globe says.) But then, if that were true, representatives wouldn't be making unpopular (therefore unrepresentative) decisions, would they?

Oh, it's so confusing, but then, consistency, and logic, are the hobgoblins of us simple folk.

But there's more. The Globe assures us that Canada's electoral system transcends special-interests and encourages compromise. This view represents wishful thinking, a comforting falsehood, more than a cold, hard truth. Sure, everyone has a say, once every few years, to elect representatives who will decide what is right or wrong, without regard to what is popular, but you would have to be grossly naive, or terribly disingenuous, to suggest that how representatives decide what is right or wrong is not influenced by who's footing the bill for upcoming campaigns, who's paying for lobbyists, and who, by virtue of their economic position, can influence the public opinion that can get representatives elected or frozen out at the next election. In other words, this view, while comforting if you're doing well by the current system, misses two critical points: the wealthy have special-interests too, and they have the means, more so than anyone else, to see that those interests are vigorously pursued in the political arena. And if you don't think the wealthy have been having stunning success, you haven't been paying attention.

Take an example of recent vintage. The latest Ipsos-Reid poll shows that health-care and education, in that order, not tax cuts, are the number one and two issues for Canadians. The pre-election mini-budget shows that in the political arena, tax cuts, not health-care or education, is the number one issue. When you consider that the mini-budget contains cuts to capital gains taxes, cuts in corporate taxes, and adjustments to income tax that will benefit the wealthy the most -- and still health care and education funding lag 1993 levels, despite a mountainous surplus -- who's interests are being represented most vigorously here?

If you think that the right decisions are the ones that match the interests of the wealthy best, well, you line up pretty well with the editors of the Globe and Mail.

Decades ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, not one for comforting myths, and not someone who would have been welcome in the Globe's newsroom, summed it all up when he warned: you can have great concentrations of wealth, or you can have democracy, but you can't have both.

So, to all of you who are worrying about the Alliance's referenda proposal upsetting the apple-cart, don't. U.S.-style ballot initiatives, every much as open to being dominated by the wealthy as elections or day to day political decision-making, won't threaten in any way one of the most pallid democracies imaginable -- our own.

Sure, it might mean that even more money has to be shelled out to dominate the process, because the process would have expanded to include referenda, but since great concentrations of wealth aren't going away any time soon, great concentrations of political clout won't be going away any time soon either, whether we have elections plus referenda, or elections alone.

You can't turn a horse into a human by putting a straw hat on its head, and you can't turn a plutocracy into a democracy by adorning it with elections and referenda.

So breathe easier. The Alliance's proposals won't move the rabble any closer to power. The Golden Rule -- he who has the gold, rules -- is safe.

Steve Gowans calls himself a radical, but others just call him contrary and a pain-in-the-ass. He can be reached at

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