When my old friend Raffi asked me to speak to issues of democracy and child-honouring, I happily accepted. I love any excuse to come to Salt Spring Island and I am a supporter of the Centre for Child Honouring, so the acceptance came easily. Only as the date approached did it occur to me that the connections between child-honouring and democracy might not seem intuitively linked — but they are.
A society can be measured as civilized to the extent it cares for its most vulnerable members. The poor, the elderly, disabled and children are the most vulnerable. Respecting the rights of children — making their proper care, healthy growth, intellectual stimulation, and emotional and loving support a foundation of all policy — would radically re-organize governmental decision-making. To achieve a radical re-orienting of any government’s policy takes an engaged and effective citizenry. It takes more than a village to raise a child. It takes a strong healthy democracy.
But Canada’s democracy is in a most diseased condition. Only 60 per cent of our citizenry voted on May 2, 2011. (Although here in Saanich-Gulf Islands we achieved 75 per cent turn-out, the highest of any non-PEI riding. They vote a lot in PEI!). In the most recent Ontario election, fewer than 50 per cent of eligible voters bothered. And in our recent municipal elections in B.C., fewer than that low water mark made it to the ballot box.
Low voter turn-out is not saying nearly as much about the people who stayed home as it says about the collective health of the body politic. A disengaged citizenry is a clear indicator of a democracy on the ropes. We need to have high voter turn-out and engaged citizens between elections.
One strong irony is that the demographic that votes least is the one that will be most affected by the decisions its government makes. Youth in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. are voting far less than their grandparents’ generation. And the evidence is worrying that if people do not develop the habits of effective citizenship as youth, they do not start voting when they turn 30.
Meanwhile, other indicators of the health of our democracy are worrying. Parliament is increasingly treated by the current government as a nuisance. As your Member of Parliament, I put the following question to the government in Question Period in early November:
“From 1913 to 1956, a period of over 40 years, time limits on debates were used 10 times. In the last 40 days, it has been used seven times, making a new historical record. What used to be the exception to the rule appears to now be the rule. I would like to ask the government House leader if we can again restore a parliamentary tradition that limits on debates occur only when matters are urgent or otherwise justified, and do not become routine?”
Since I asked that question, debates and review of legislation have been subject to closure and time limits two more times. Debate on the Omnibus Crime Bill (actually nine bills rolled into one) was limited at second reading and again in the Justice Committee. In fact, the government tried to force 200 clauses to be passed based on one day’s hearing. The Opposition filibustered and the compromise allows two more days of review. The proper and thorough review of legislation is the proper role of Parliament. Forcing bills through like bulldozers is anti-democratic — which brings me back to the need for an engaged citizenry.
To create the better world we know is possible, we need the kind of vision and inspiration that Child Honouring brings to society. To make that vision reality, we need a strengthening of democracy. We need to engage in the life of our community, our province and our nation.
Democracy is hard work. If we let it slip between our fingers, we are betraying our children’s future.
The writer is Green MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands.