Wednesday, July 05, 2006

April 25, 2006

We don’t devote too much time in our daily lives to caring for our democracy, in Canada or anywhere else in the world. Maybe we think we don’t have to.
But with the news this month that only a third of Canadians believe they’re being governed by “the will of the people” - well, that’s a pretty strong sign that we do. And it’s not just Canada. The figures weren’t much different in several other long-time democracies elsewhere in the world whose citizens were asked the same questions. All over the world, people are feeling disconnected from their governments.
The questions about democracy were part of a much larger global poll that Gallup International conducted a year ago in 68 countries, news of which broke this month with the release of a book on the findings: Voices of the People 2006. Almost 54,000 citizens took part in the poll - the largest in history.
Around the world, almost 80 per cent of those polled said democracy is the best governance system. In Canada, 85 per cent of us affirmed our support for “rule by the people.”
But only 30 per cent of respondents thought that they were actually reaping the benefits of democracy, or being ruled by the will of the people. In Canada, barely a third of us believed that the will of the people was guiding our goverments.
Germany came in at a truly disturbing 18 per cent. The French rated the state of their country’s democracy almost as dismally, at 26 per cent. Mexicans (20 per cent) and Russians (18 per cent) weren’t any happier. Even in the countries that scored the highest on that question - Israel and Kosovo - fully half of the population still didn’t believe they were governed by the will of the people.
A third of Canadians disagreed when asked if Canada had free and fair elections. So did almost that many in France and Israel. In the U.S., almost half said their elections didn’t meet that test.
That’s not good. We appear to love democratic principles, but are clearly becoming convinced that our countries are no longer governing themselves in ways that adhere to those principles. Democracy is on the ropes.
“The gap between those two perceptions. . . leads us to the hypothesis that many mature democracies in the world are undergoing a deep disillusionment about the ability of democracy to deliver rule by the will of the people,” said Marc Leger, the Canadian who supervised the global poll.
The original intent of the Greeks who invented it as a form of governance was that every man (women and slaves were excluded) would participate directly in all decision-making. The Greeks took the literal meaning of “democracy” seriously in governing their ancient city-states.
Other nations would follow the Greeks’ lead, but often with significant modifications. The men who created the United States stopped short of full-on “rule of the people,” and chose instead to elect representatives to run their country. Canada went with the party system, in which whatever political party wins the popular vote gets to declare their leader prime minister.
On the one hand, the voting processes of democracy have never in history been as inclusive as they are now. More of us have the right to vote than ever before , and discriminatory practices against women, ethnic minorities and other disenfranchised groups have largely ended. In terms of providing the most number of people with the opportunity to vote, we’re doing a lot better than the Greeks.
But on the other hand, very little is democratic about our governments beyond that brief casting of votes every four or five years. Royal commissions, inquiries and legislative committees come to town to ask our opinions every now and then, but government rarely acts on our advice. Big money is spent and major decisions made, and the public by and large has no idea about any of it. We have abdicated.
At the time of the Gallup poll last year, Canadians were coping with the grim revelations that were surfacing daily during the Gomery inquiry. Given that time frame, what’s most surprising is that the Gallup pollsters found anybody at all in those terrible weeks who still believed that the will of the people governed our decision-makers.
That’s not to say that all is lost. Less fortunate countries would go to war for a chance at the democratic rights that Canadians enjoy. We’re still a really great country for the majority of the world.
But we can’t go on dreaming idealistically about democracies while our actual governance drifts further and further from the people. We’ve got to seek change. We’ve got to revitalize this most vital of systems. We owe it to all the people who will come behind us as the centuries unfold.
History has shown us in clear and devastating terms the price that nations pay for hubris. Canada won’t be any different. Our only hold on democracy is the will of the people not to let it go.

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