Losing Confidence: Power, Politics, and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy

Losing Confidence: Power, Politics, and the Crisis in Canadian Democracy
Elizabeth May
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
2009, 268 pages

As I read Elizabeth May’s Losing Confidence, I thought about Uruguay, a nation that once boasted a flourishing democracy.

You’d be forgiven if you wonder what May, the well-known environmentalist and leader of Canada’s Green Party, and her book have to do with some small South American country.

But her description of Canada’s eroding democracy brought back to me my wonderment at how, about 50 years ago, Uruguayans allowed their democratically elected government to be pushed aside by dictators who stripped the nation of its social programs, eviscerated its economy and abused its citizenry.

May doesn’t say Canada risks a Latin American style coup d’état, nor does she label Prime Minister Stephen Harper a dictator, but her dislike for the man, his tactics and actions, is palpable.

This bombshell of a book is at once a lesson in Canadian governance and a call to action. Provocatively, she writes, “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” before advising readers that it’s time for Canadian politicians and voters alike to reclaim democracy by taking back the power that has become dangerously con- centrated in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

The tone of May’s warning will make staid Canadians who have faith in the tenets of peace, order and good governance mighty uncomfortable. Described as they are in quick succession from this slim text in May’s energetic prose, the threats to our political process are disturbing.

The power of the prime minister, she points out, exceeds that of a US president, who faces separate legislative and judicial branches. When coupled with the trend toward “false majority” governments – those elected with the majority of seats, but a minority of the popular vote – there is little in the Canadian system to stop a prime minister from pursuing an agenda that is contrary to the wishes of the majority. Watch out, she implies, if Harper ever finds himself in this position.

May cobbles together a list of Harper’s misdeeds to make her case. The concentration of power in the PMO didn’t begin with him, she says, but his approach is the “very worst of any Canadian prime minister.” She borrows a term from Patrice Dutil, a political scientist at Ryerson University, to describe Harper’s leadership style as “government by thunderbolt,” wherein he makes all the decisions, leaving his cabinet ministers, in the words of National Post columnist Don Martin, to “play the role usually reserved for potted plants.”

She accuses the PM of putting victory in the next election ahead of governing, the result of which is that the parliamentary process “becomes a mere backdrop for non-stop electioneering.” It also leads to decisions that may be good politics, but are often bad policy. She uses Harper’s lowering of the goods and services tax as an example; though popular with many voters, it was panned by economists.

She provides insider details about the In-Out Scandal, which involved the Conservatives’ attempt to increase their election spending by filtering funds through riding offices. She takes exception to Harper’s decision to break his own rule by changing the fixed election date. And she is critical of how the Harper government uses political sabotage to obstruct governance. May writes, “At one point in 2008 over six committees were in gridlock due to filibusters.” In one of the few cases where May goes on a rant, she names the “bad boy” MPs whose heckling is especially belligerent.

One of the more remarkable actions she attributes to Harper is that he “cheated” during the 2008 all-candidates debates. May explains that the rules of the debate were clear: No crib notes or background papers were allowed. However, candidates were told that blank index cards would be available so that they could jot down their thoughts during the discourse. She claims Harper had index cards that were a different size and that were filled with typed notes. She writes, “Looking over from my seat, I remember the shock of realizing he was cheating.”

May is also distressed at the concentration of ownership of the media, and she devotes an entire chapter to explaining how the RCMP influenced the outcome of the 2006 election by investigating the sponsorship scandal during the election and not afterward.

The worryingly low turnout in the last election (58 per cent) is also part of Harper’s grand plan, in May’s opinion. Changes to election rules that makes it mandatory for voters to produce government-issued photo identification with a valid home address (passports won’t do) or have a witness, according to May, are inequitable since they tend to disqualify students who move frequently, as well as senior citizens and low-income Canadians who often don’t have driver’s licences.

Some may dismiss Losing Confidence as an anti-Conservative conspiracy theory. But it isn’t May’s claims about Harper’s misdeeds that I will take away from this book. Instead, I’ll recall her description of what government has been and could be once again.

She writes, “Elections should be about issues and ideas.” She describes how, as an assistant to Tom McMillan when he was Brian Mulroney’s environment minister, it was standard practice for her to brief opposition critics. Later, she describes how, as leader of the Green Party, she tried, but largely failed, to engage other parties in developing cooperative approaches to protecting the environment.

Though May recognizes that it won’t cure Canada’s “democratic deficit,” she promotes a move away from our first-past-the-post system to proportional representation. A fan of coalition governments, she wants all parties to work together rather than view each other as enemies who use filibustering, heckling and cheating in a war in which the victor captures the next election.

Nicola Ross, executive editor of Alternatives Journal, reviewed this book thinking that it was about the environment. This review first appeared in The Globe and Mail, May 13, 2009.

Originally published in Alternatives Journal’s Subscribe to Alternatives Today!

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