4 min

The disconnect is structural

This week, the Toronto Star has been running a series called “Sham-ocracy,” as in, the decline of our democratic institutions in this country. Part one dealt with our MPs’ “spending secrets,” and part two dealt with Access to Information delays (which is all the more significant today as the Information Commissioner suddenly resigned, citing personal reasons). Both are interesting reading.

But yesterday’s piece was on the political disconnect felt by youth, and it was centred around one particular 19-year old dual Canadian-American citizen who didn’t feel compelled to vote in this country because she didn’t feel it made a tangible difference, but rather helped out at soup kitchens instead because it felt like she was making a difference there. (That said, she still felt compelled to cast an absentee ballot for Obama, even though she doesn’t live in the States. The sidebar to the story largely debunked the supposed huge swell in previously apathetic voters that Obama attracted).

But what bothered me in reading the story was not the fact that it pointed to the fact that youth often don’t know who to vote for or what the issues are, and that they feel the electoral process isn’t accessible. But it completely left out the reason why this is the case, and that is our completely poor system of political education in this country. Now, I’ve written about this topic in the past, and rather than rehash my arguments let me simply say this – the reason the youth feel disconnected from the process is because we aren’t teaching them what the process is. We don’t teach them about the roles that parties play, and what it means to join one and work at a grassroots level to see your issues brought to light.

I look at the student interviewed in the Star’s piece, and I look at the interview I did in my previous piece with the riding association president (who is gay and very involved in the community), and I don’t see that big of a gulf between them. He says that all you need is an issue, and it becomes your gateway to meaningful political interaction. But we’re not teaching students that.  A few weeks on the barest-of-bones look at the mechanics of our system before moving on to studying the economic system of Brazil isn’t teaching them anything about the system as it really is. It doesn’t show them how to engage. I would bet that if we actually taught them how the system works, and brought in people like this riding president to talk to the students about the process and how to get involved, then we would find a lot less apathetic or disconnected youth.

Elsewhere, the post-sitting self-flagellation is in full swing as Justin Trudeau, Shelly Glover and the ensembley-challenged Megan Leslie moan to The Canadian Press about how awful Parliament is and how it needs to change. Glover thinks we need to abolish Question Period and have more closed-door committee meetings so that there’s less grandstanding. So, more secrecy is the answer – coming from someone in the party of “transparency” and “accountability.” Come again?

But seriously. Few of these MPs seem to realise that the minority situation we find ourselves in is part of the problem. When all parties are constantly engaged in electioneering because they know they could be back to the polls in weeks or months does far more to raise the tension in the Chamber than the presence of cameras ever will.

Observing the proceedings in the Senate chamber today, I realised that part of why they can get along without all of the rank partisanship is because they’re not electioneering. It’s less to do with not having cameras in the Senate chamber, as their committee meetings are all televised and on the web – and yet we see precious little evidence of grand-standing in those hearings either.

So it seems to me that what MPs like Glover are looking for is actually less democracy, which I would have to say is not something anyone is looking for. Partisanship and point scoring is unfortunately part of the game, and even more so in a minority situation. But it’s more than that. Something Don Newman said on his final show was that in the old days, when Parliament used to sit late into the night, MPs would go to dinner with one another in the Parliamentary Restaurant, and that doesn’t happen any longer. They’re not building up these collegial relationships because of it, and that has changed the atmosphere more than anything.

And while yes, we can still tweak Parliament to make things better – such as Bob Rae’s suggestion of an electronic voting system for MPs to instantly cast votes rather than spending 90 minutes per day of stand-up, sit-down voting – abolishing Question Period is not the answer. And neither is Leslie’s coping mechanism of avoiding paying attention to it either.

Back to the topic of the Senate, they had actually cancelled Senate Question Period yesterday because of a special session of the Committee of the Whole to ask questions of the person nominated as the new Commissioner of Lobbying, but some of my observations were that it was far less partisan, far more orderly, and the fact that they had longer periods to speak helped keep the tone and pace civil.

Also, Senator Andreychuk is probably the best dressed and has the best hair, while Senator Brown is possibly the most dull and uninspiring speaker that I have ever had to listen to. Also, lesbian Senator Nancy Ruth is down to business, immediately reading over the supply bills the moment she sat down at her desk.

Up today: It’s the last day of the Senate before the summer, so I’ll catch the final Senate Question Period of the season, just to see how much differently they do things than in the Other Place.