Review: Li’l Helper

Samara, a well-meaning charity based in Toronto, wanted to gauge the state of Canadian democracy. They commissioned a poll. This is not useful. It’s like surveying Canadians on the capital gains tax or municipal fire code.  These are complex, technical systems that cannot be repaired by poll when they malfunction.

The fact of democracy is tolerance of dissent and a citizen’s ability to correct a wrong; the form of democracy is the hubbub of elections, vague perceptions and colourful Twitter messages. Samara confuses the two.

The result is Canadian Democracy From The Ground Up, a mother’s little helper guide in which academics use Samara surveys and other data to scrutinize the least relevant aspects of our system. An example: political scientist Quinn Albaugh of McGill, and journalism professor Christopher Waddell of Carleton University, examined use of the hashtag #cdnpoli over a six-week period in 2011.

“Twitter has a much stronger impact than other social media on news media,” they wrote; “Television news often displays Twitter posts during broadcasts.” Authors found 18,594 Tweets. A majority, 54 percent, were written by fewer than 3 percent of users. One single user accounted for more than 4,000 Tweets.

Authors acknowledged Twitter “is the most feasible social media site to study.” Perhaps they might have examined AM radio talk-shows, foreign-language weeklies or notes posted on laundromat bulletin boards, but that would have been work.

Here is where we stand. The 41st Parliament has broken the law many times, enacting bills it knew to be unconstitutional. The 41st Parliament does not even have any mechanism to block speedy passage of a bill MPs have not read; last December Bill C-47 The Miscellaneous Statute Amendment Act passed in four minutes. Nor does Parliament tolerate dissent; when a bill commemorating the fall of Saigon went to Senate hearings, lawmakers refused to hear testimony from a single witness opposed to the measure.

How’s this for democracy: in the past five weeks the Supreme Court has struck down three cabinet initiatives as illegal. They were a ban on RCMP unions, a limit on public employees’ right to strike, and an Act forcing 27,000 law firms to snoop on clients for the Department of Finance. In all three cases plaintiffs fought exhausting, costly court battles to correct a wrong. The lawyers’ case spent 14 years in litigation. If you do not have 14 years to spend in court, tough luck Charlie.

Samara might have asked, what kind of democracy rests on the fitness of individuals willing to devote years in proving the Government of Canada violated the Constitution? Canadian Democracy does not ask the question. It focuses instead on the margins.

So, readers learn that 57 percent of Canadians surveyed are “satisfied with the way that democracy works”; it’s better than Mexico (45 percent) but lower than Poland (68 percent). Asked for reasons why they are dissatisfied, 25 percent said they didn’t know.

Contributors chew over voter turnout figures, and count the number of foreign-born Canadians in the House of Commons, and ask focus groups in Mississauga what words come to mind when they think of politics: “The Canadians with whom we spoke held an almost universally dim view,” Canadian Democracy reported. “When asked to describe what politics meant to them, both non-engaged and engaged participants gravitated towards negative descriptors”; “boring”; “greedy”; “untrustworthy”.

If Canadian democracy is mediocre – and the 41st Parliament appears to be a low-water mark – surely academia can document the fact by digging a little deeper.

By Tom Korski

Canadian Democracy From The Ground Up: Perceptions and Performance, edited by Elisabeth Gidengil & Heather Bastedo; University of British Columbia Press; 320 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-28253; $32.95

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