VIEWS

How can we make democracy work between elections? Like this...

GEORGE WOODCOCK April 1 1971
VIEWS

How can we make democracy work between elections? Like this...

GEORGE WOODCOCK April 1 1971

How can we make democracy work between elections? Like this...

VIEWS

GEORGE WOODCOCK

POLITICS HAS ALWAYS been, if not a dirty word, at least a grubby one, more respectable than the four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms, but only slightly so.

Polite people call politics a game, rude ones call it a racket or worse, and the main reason for this nagging suspicion of politicians and their activities, which at times afflicts even the most docile conformist, is the sense that, like death, politics is something about which the ordinary man can do very little.

And the truth is that, in any of the ways in which it is operated in the major countries of the world today, politics does equal frustration. Under a dictatorship it is complete and open; the citizen has no say in policies that affect his life, but at least he knows it. Under a democracy his situation is more ambiguous and the frustration is of a different kind. But it exists and is the cause of a great deal of the unrest that troubles so many countries today.

Consider the average Canadian citizen, the man without wealth or political influence or power through the media. That average citizen, if he has lived as long as the present century,

George Woodcock is editor of the University of British Columbia quarterly Canadian Literature and the author of many books of biography and criticism. His most recent work is The Hudson’s Bay Company.

will have been regarded as politically competent for 50 years. In those 50 years he will have been allowed to exercise his political competence federally on exactly 15 days, the days of the elections since 1921.

During the periods between elections— on an average, well over three years — the citizen has no effective means of influencing the actions of the government he has elected, even to the extent of being able to insist that the promises on which he voted are carried out. If he becomes disillusioned and regrets his choice a year after an election, he is virtually disenfranchised until the next time of voting comes along. And there are the other forms of disenfranchisement. One exists where there is a gerrymandering of constituency boundaries, such as that in Quebec that resulted in the Parti Québécois receiving roughly a third of the seats to which their popular vote appeared to entitle them. Another exists where a region or a minority believes that its local or special interests are ignored because of the indifference or hostility of a government not dependent on its votes.

In an age of rapid social change, the inflexibility of such a system is one of the reasons why marginal groups can feel justified in their frustration in taking the law into their own hands and can even recruit a measure of popular sympathy for violence. One way to deal with the problem is that of the dictators: to resist change and rely on what is euphemistically called law and order. The other is to change the system so as to provide the necessary safety valves. The most important of those safety valves, apart from the scrupulous removal of irregularities from the pattern of representation (with all-party commissions to put an end everywhere to gerrymandering and similar practices), is to give ordinary people a reason to feel that they have a continuing influence on the political process. Once that feeling exists, the appeal of violent groups outside their own tiny circles will decline, and many situations now potentially dangerous will be defused.

How is it to be done? We can learn lessons from Switzerland, the oldest federal democracy in the world. Each of the Swiss cantons or provinces has its own constitution, and in the little cantons of eastern Switzerland there are many experiments in direct democracy that are still in good working order. In Appenzell, for insta'nce, no citizen is called on to delegate his legislative powers to a political repre-

sentative; for 700 years the voters have come down from their mountains to the great folk meetings in the square of the capital, and there all the proposed laws are voted on directly by the people.

There are good population reasons why this method would no longer be practical in Canada, but popular gatherings on a local level could be used effectively in the early stages of two other devices used freely in Switzerland and occasionally in other countries. One is the referendum (used already in Canadian municipal politics) by which a vital or controversial law is referred to a vote of the people that is binding on their representatives. It is the kind of procedure that could and should be used on such issues as taxation reform. The other is the “initiative,” by which a substantial minority can make a proposal for a law and insist that it be put to the general vote. The referendum and initiative system, linked to local general meetings in every centre of population, might be made even more flexible by providing for local referendums and initiatives on issues of federal policy that affect only one region, or only one group of the population, on the basis that people should themselves make the decisions that affect them locally. Self-governing professional groups such as doctors and lawyers already do this, and there is no reason why a great deal more self-regulatory procedures of this kind should not replace action in Ottawa.

It is true that the referendum and initiative were both tried in the United States at various times and largely failed from lack of interest. But times are different now with the development of the mass media and especially of television. Until now, indeed, the effect of television has been to sustain the negative reactions to political frustration by giving them sensational publicity. But there is no reason why, used with responsibility and without sensationalism, it should not foster a real, continuing interest in social and political affairs that would make possible a great deal more direct participation in regulating our lives than we now enjoy.

It might be that in the end the people would not vote very differently from parliament. But they would have an immediate say on vital issues that directly interest them. And when they found that they had the chance to influence their collective existence on more than 15 days in a lifetime, politics might cease to be synonymous with frustration. It might even become a clean word. □

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