Canada needs a Tahrir moment

One of the first maxims I internalized as an aspiring journalist, is that “journalism is the engine of democracy.”

The duty of journalists, in other words, is to inform the public, such that they’re empowered to make conscientious decisions in their own best interests. And while some journalists provide opinions on, evaluate, or filter the information that makes its way to readers, listeners and viewers, the fundamental mission of journalism is to disseminate facts and truth, encourage critical thinking, and ultimately, help to promote an enlightened citizenry and a robust democracy. In turn, it is hoped, enlightened citizens will elect enlightened leaders to make consequential decisions on behalf of society, and then hold to account the leaders they’ve chosen, espousing viewpoints grounded in verifiable fact.

In Canada, however, our democracy has failed in monumental fashion. And rather than enlightened leaders at the federal level, Canadians are saddled with a profoundly unenlightened sort.

As we all know, in 2011, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives achieved a majority of seats in the House of Commons, in spite of attaining only 39 per cent of the popular vote. This detail in itself is not inherently problematic; in theory it should not matter which party the members of the House belong to, provided they continue to fulfill the basic duty that is their charge: namely, to serve and voice the concerns of the constituents who elected them.

Under our current electoral system, however, this is not what happens most of the time.

“Party discipline,” enforced by party whips, is regarded as a virtue among most parliamentarians rather than a vice, and Stephen Harper – though neither alone in nor a pioneer of this practice – is notorious for demanding total compliance among his ranks. In such a parliamentary arrangement, the voice of the people may easily be subjugated to the whims of a rogue party leader.

With that understood, a key question arises: If parliamentarians are obliged to vote as their leader votes, or face crippling reprisals in the form of impediments to the advancement of their political careers, do affiliated members of parliament  – other than party leaders – truly serve any purpose whatsoever? And if so, what is it?

Strip away the facade of “liberal,” “representative,” Westminster democracy, and we are left with what author and journalist Frances Russell terms “electoral democracy” – a system in which a party is voted into power, and the leader of that party makes all the decisions until a fresh election is called.

In contemporary Canada, we effectively vote for party leaders, not members of parliament who represent our views and concerns – what the system is ostensibly designed to feature. Our press radiates a constant limelight on the leaders, attendant to their every public manoeuvre, perpetuating the paramountcy of those leaders in the public eye, obsequiously and often uncritically replicating their statements. Our alleged democracy has delivered a prime minister with virtually unchecked power, who rams unwieldy omnibus bills down our throats, dismantles environmental protections in the name of enhanced profits for natural resource firms, renders decisions grounded primarily in ideology rather than facticity, and now enjoys the support – based on public-opinion polling – of less than 30 per cent of the Canadian electorate.

Tahrir - Hossam el-Hamalawy

In the summer of 2011, Egyptians flooded Tahrir Square to demand the removal of Hosni Mubarak from office. Their revolt continues. Image c/o Hossam el-Hamalawy / Flickr

Canada, at the federal level, has become a DINO – democracy in name only. And in the absence of democracy, political journalism that fails to challenge the established order can hardly be regarded as journalism at all. In this sorry state of affairs, the purveyors of information in the Canadian journalistic establishment have a responsibility to raise hell on a daily basis, until real democracy prevails. But with a few notable exceptions, Canada’s mainstream journalistic establishments simply aren’t doing that.

“Politics,” to many editorial teams at Canada’s major corporate news outlets, consists of the frigid, amoral language of electoral strategy. How will Stephen Harper’s (repugnant) behaviour affect his chances in 2015?, some ponder. Can Stephen Harper “fix” the drag on his polling numbers inflicted by the growing array of scandals under his purview? Will our Prime Minister manage to add a notch to his belt in the form of a new trade treaty, like the CETA with Europe? Will this be enough to redeem him in the eyes of voters and ensure his re-election?

As this dog-and-pony show drags on, crucial questions are left unasked, vital points unstated. There is precious little debate in the mainstream press over whether trade deals like the CETA and TPP – which include sweeping corporate intellectual property provisions with the potential to bankrupt Canada’s public health care system – may in fact be detrimental to our country. And seldom is the view entertained that Stephen Harper may not be the kind of man who is apt to “fix” his ruling party’s missteps.

In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests, nay, exclaims, that Stephen Harper is not an individual of virtue at all – that he is rather a conniving, obsessive control-monger anxious to maintain and expand his clout, along with that of his constituency in the oil and gas sector, at exorbitant expense to the rest of us, and with little heed paid to democratic principles. His lack of integrity, credibility, perspicacity, compassion and foresight is evident in the bulk of the policies he chooses to pursue, the lies he chooses to perpetuate, the dubious priorities he emphasizes, the juvenile, cowardly smears he launches against political adversaries from the safety and anonymity of the prime minister’s office. His government’s mad dash to liquidate many of Canada’s raw materials – including the Athabasca oil sands and even domestic gold stocks – is setting the table for the impoverishment of our country in decades to come. And his inability or unwillingness to confront the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change, even as record flood waters ravage Alberta, represents a menace to the livelihood of not only future generations, but increasingly to the present one as well.

Simply stated, it is insane to appoint a man like Stephen Harper custodian of our country’s present and future for any length of time. However, as of this moment, that’s exactly where we stand.

Stephen Harper and his henchmen have a vision for Canada, alright: one in which citizens can expect far less of their government, not only in terms of basic programs and services, but evidently in terms of leadership, integrity, honesty, competence and maturity too.

Canadians continue to foot the bill for a multi-billion dollar recapitalization of our major chartered banks, as the CMHC bought up masses of mortgages during the financial crisis – a bailout that contributed in no small proportion to a record federal deficit in 2009. Canada’s national net worth now exceeds $7 trillion, many of our corporate executives are receiving multi-million-dollar annual compensation, our state-rescued financial institutions are enjoying near-record profits, and yet a record number of Canadians sought the services of food banks last year. Gross domestic product is cresting at an all-time high, and yet Harper et al. insist that this is a time of “fiscal restraint” – often little more than an ideological disciplinary tool, as in the case of wounded Canadian Forces soldier Glen Kirkland, or the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs. In the same vein, First Nations reserves on which half or more of the children live in poverty, and infrastructure is in a state of terminal decay, have become commonplace – yet another symptom of the regime’s negligence, and refusal to abide by the tenets of Canada’s foundational treaties.

All the while, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars are allocated to a propaganda campaign advertising Harper’s questionable Economic Action Plan, in an effort to recover the allegiances of disenchanted voters.

At this point, volumes could be indited detailing the Harper regime’s failings. But the point is, Canadians deserve better than a government that treats them like pawns in an agenda of corporate hegemony. And the situation in which Harper’s many opponents find ourselves is urgent; in fact, if we await the 2015 election to make our voices heard at the ballot box, we will likely have spoken too softly to defeat his agenda, too ineffectively to impel the extensive reforms to our governmental institutions necessary to avert a future blight of parliamentary authoritarianism, and too late to undo the revolutionary changes Harper is foisting on us from his castle on Parliament Hill.

One of the authors of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, espoused the notion that popular revolt was periodically necessary in order for a salubrious form of governance to prevail. Where the people fear their government, Jefferson noted, there is tyranny; only where the inverse is true can liberty prevail.

Jefferson was right.

In countries around the world, many thousands of citizens, from all walks of life, are rising in peaceful indignation, determined to strike at despotism, unaccountability and corruption in the seats of power: Brazil, Chile, Turkey, Bulgaria, the Middle East, Spain, Greece, Malaysia. And the fight has only just begun.

The time has come for Canadians to instill respect for the populace in our federal elected officials once again. As the celebration of our national holiday approaches, let’s send an unambiguous message to Chairman Harper that no prime minister can push Canadians around, without expecting us to push back.

Let’s follow the example of protesters who filled Egypt’s Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of strongman Hosni Mubarak in the summer of 2011.

Let’s resuscitate genuine democracy, and put it into action.

National Stop Harper Day is June 28, across Canada.

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