Taking Town Halls on the Road

From September 4-13, I held the fall 2013 round of Town Halls in Saanich-Gulf Islands.  The Town Hall meeting is my favourite way to connect directly with voters between elections.  And the fact that the Town Halls attract a large number of engaged and well-informed local citizens is such a joy.  In the course of eight local town halls, just under 800 people showed up to speak up and express their concerns.

At every meeting, the issues of tankers and pipelines was raised (there is no doubt that my mandate as the MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands is to protect our coasts from supertankers loaded with bitumen and diluents) , as well as fish farms (once again, no question as to mandate), and climate change and health care.  Other issues came up now and then – should we shift to electronic voting to increase voter turn-out, particularly among young voters?  What should we do about the Canadian Senate – Reform it? Abolish it? Or just fire all the current Senators and start over?   What should we be doing about the humanitarian crisis in Syria?  And local issues falling outside my federal mandate  —  but important nonetheless – particularly the personal toll being paid by residents living near the appalling non-functional compost facility in Central Saanich.

One question at the root of all other concerns is the most critical question for Canadian citizens today – how to we rescue democracy?  How do we restore public confidence in our democratic institutions?

The Canadian Constitution does not make reference to the existence of the Prime Minister’s Office, nor does it mention political parties.  Westminster Parliamentary democracy pre-existed the creation of political parties.  They did not come into being until about one hundred years ago.  And the creation of the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) is much more recent. Pierre Trudeau found the Cabinet system of government he inherited form Lester Pearson to be a bit disorganized.  So he organized it.  At the time, his Justice Minister, John Turner, told a young and up and coming politico and PMO staffer, Tom Axworthy, to go back and tell the boss he didn’t need the advice of “Junior G-men from the PMO.”  And Trudeau only practiced light management – coordination of ministerial announcements and that sort of thing.

Every Prime Minister since has increased the power of the PMO, centralized control creeping up bit by bit.  Still, none of the other Prime Ministers from Trudeau’s time to now, have exhibited Stephen Harper’s zeal for total and absolute control – not only of his Cabinet members, members of his caucus, but also for scientists, civil servants and even any media susceptible to intimidation. This has allowed the PMO to launch an assault on all Parliamentary institutions.

Pondering this in the face of the most recent prorogation (as noted, the first one to be constitutional), I decided to take the Town Hall concept cross-country.  Figuring out how to rescue democracy is not as simple as ousting Stephen Harper.   We have to figure out how to dismantle the PMO and restore Westminster Parliamentary democracy. And a cross-country democracy tour could help at least spread the word that we are in trouble.

At the same time, I am working on a book about Canada and who we are as a country.  One thing with which I am struggling is how we lost the link between citizens and the state.  It certainly predates Stephen Harper.  When did we stop understanding that government exists by consent of the governed?  When did we stop understanding that it is the “Peoples’ Government” and never the “Harper government?”  The government is not the personal fiefdom of any Prime Minister.

I am trying to pinpoint the moment when we lost an understanding of the supremacy of Parliament.  Or more fundamentally, when did the cord between citizen and government get severed? It seems to coincide with hard-wiring the multinational as the lord and master of government.

I think it has something to do with redefining “citizens in democracy” as “consumers in an economy.”  When our relationship to government is mentioned at all it tends to be as “taxpayers.”  The messaging of citizens as taxpayers is consistent with an effort to undercut the relationship between citizens — empowered to control and limit excesses of state power — to people who play a relatively passive role – but who are likely to object to the way their money is spent.  Hence, the objections to the existence of government are elevated by a Libertarian streak.  “Taxpayers” are inherently less empowered than “citizens.”   The relationship is more transactional. My hunch is that this re-branding of “citizens” as “consumers” and “taxpayers” started a few decades ago.  Certainly that branding was used in the Reagan era, but never under FDR; under Mulroney, but never under Lester Pearson.

I would be grateful for your suggestions.  Not only where and how did we lose the thread of democracy, but how do we restore Parliamentary democracy?  If we do not ask ourselves how we got in this mess, we risk assuming that this is normal.