Time to Reboot our Democracy

By Ben Bull
Published August 30, 2009

As I was re-booting my laptop for the 10th time on Friday, I flipped through the latest copy of the Star. Ted Kennedy's funeral... Harper's senate appointments... and Christopher Hume.

"International observers are fretting..." noted Hume, "about the legitimacy of the recent Afghanistan election; according to some reports, only 30 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot."

Oh dear. He went on: "Makes you wonder what those same observers would think if they came here?"

In 2006, the last time an election was held in Mississauga, even fewer voters - 26 per cent - managed to drag themselves to a polling station. Toronto figures are marginally higher, but only just.

Good point. But that wasn't all. Citing the worsening figures for municipal voting in particular, Hume questioned why our city politicians are all but ignored: "Municipal politicians...possess serious power. Indeed, they are the ones whose work most affects our daily lives." So true.

The power of incumbency, combined with widespread apathy, makes it all too easy for voters to resist the contempt bred by familiarity. Indifference makes the world go around.

Yes again. At this point my laptop sputtered back to life. Hooray! Now, did I remember to save that spreadsheet...?

As I desperately tried to recover my files I ran through the rest of the column:

Given the dysfunctional state of civic politics it's hard to imagine how a two-term limit, say, could make things any worse. In Toronto that would amount to eight years in office; surely enough time to figure out how to get things done. Perhaps limits would also speed the glacial pace of municipal decision-making.

Uh Oh: Fixed terms. I've never been convinced by this idea. There appears to be very little evidence that fixed terms will add anything to our political interest, or make any difference at all.

In the face of insubstantial supporting evidence, proponents often seem to suggest, as Hume does here, that, 'it can't hurt to try', as if this is reason enough to try them.

I'm all for tinkering with our democracy - God knows it's broken - but I'm not sure fixed terms are the way to go. I would rather see mandatory voting put in place first (after all, why is it mandatory to sit on a jury and yet not to vote?) and voting status given to landed immigrants. This would at least change the voting landscape and force people to pay attention.

The underlying problem of course, is that people are disillusioned and detached. They see the two faces of politics - what goes on during elections (promises, photo-ops and polls) and what goes on in between (secrecy and spin) - and give up.

Our 142 year old democracy is still a work in progress, but it's barely clunking along. It's like a bad piece of trial software, spontaneously re-booting and running - really slow. What we need to do is find a way to crank out another version, and quickly, before this beta one we have craps out altogether.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By jason (registered) | Posted August 30, 2009 at 21:39:46

I'm all for term limits. I can't stand these career politicians who are only interested in their careers and not the public. In the rare event that we get a 'great one' that would actually make a great long-term politician, so be it. I'll cut my losses and say goodbye sooner than I'd like to because the fact is, that won't happen often during a lifetime.

As for low voter turnout. Give us an option. People would flock to the polls if there were any legit options to vote for.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 07:04:06

To me democracy means a movement of the people, that will affect change, for the betterment of all. But more often then not, when the people do rise, even in civil , non violent movements, that the forces of the government sweep down and use force.

They are many incidents across the globe where this happens, even in our own country it has happened where the government calls in the police to use brute force in trying to deny the people's voices to be heard.

We need to look at ourselves, how can we say we are democratic when you read some of the stories out there about the practices of some Canadian companies operating on a global scale?

Should profits always trump human rights? I do not think so, so why does it happen? Has man learned anything, given all the wars, strive and destruction we have done?


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By LL (registered) - website | Posted August 31, 2009 at 20:14:20

Hear hear grassroots. "Movement of the people." Parties and elections are not democracy. Anyone who has been violated by the state while assembling peacefully knows this. By the time we get to the voting booth to "participate" in "our democracy" for roughly 30 seconds every five years, there have already been several layers of decision making that only the rich and the insiders have been part of.

In a real democracy, decision making would take place in popular assemblies where everyone could take part. Instead of professional "representatives" for higher level coordination, you would have "delegates" from the assemblies. Instead of a big salary, they would recieve a stipend. In addition to term limits, they would be subject to immediate recall. They would have severely limited power themselves and merely deliver the votes and concerns of the assembly.

For example, the Paris Commune...


...or the more recent example in Buenos Aires:


Real democracy is always direct and federated. From ancient Athens when they kicked out the oligarchs out and started the first "democracy", to the town halls of revolutionary New England, to the various revolutions in France --- even the Soviet councils of 1905 and 1917 before the Bolsheviks took over.

Hey, we also need democracy in the workplace.


Democracy is Good :) I just haven't experienced much of it in my life :(

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 21:28:33

Grassroots >> To me democracy means a movement of the people, that will affect change, for the betterment of all.

Where did you come up with that? Democracy is about stealing money from people who come up with innovative ideas and giving it to people who don't.

>> Should profits always trump human rights?

What rights are you talking about?

LL >> In a real democracy, decision making would take place in popular assemblies where everyone could take part.

Why is it that your "real" democracies seem to always fizzle out so quickly?

>> Democracy is Good :) I just haven't experienced much of it in my life :(

Does democracy trump the individual's right to make multilateral agreements that don't involve the rest of society?

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By LL (registered) - website | Posted August 31, 2009 at 22:43:45

"Why is it that your "real" democracies seem to always fizzle out so quickly?"

That's a fair question. The ancient democracy - in Athens and a few other greek cities - lasted several decades and coincided with a great flourishing of civic culture. The Paris Commune was defeated militarily and its activists were executed. The American democracy was defeated from within, when the founding fathers made the constitution - which they were clear was not democratic, but rather a mix of democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. That's basically the system that all "democracies" have today. The Soviets were also defeated from within. When Lenin, Trotsky and the rest of the Bolsheviks came back from exile to take part in the revolution that was already happening, they persuaded the Soviet councils to give up their popular sovereignty in return for "Peace, Bread, and Land". Seemed like a good idea at the time, eh. The Argentinian example is still happening just under the surface, though establishment rule has stabilized since 2001.

Of course it's the legacy that lives on. Time-and-again, this democratic, federal way of self-government keeps resurfacing. That most of them were defeated by the power hungry - and not through their own incompetence - shows that they were actually a legitimate threat to class rule, unlike populist or social-democratic parties that periodically get people excited about elections.

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By janoallen (anonymous) | Posted August 31, 2009 at 22:53:11

I'm all for mandatory voting. If people are forced to vote in elections, it will only take one or two of them before people start demanding much better options to vote for.

Voting is one of the admission tickets to living in a modern democratic state. If you earn income, you are not allowed to get away with not paying taxes - the same should be true about voting. If you are a citizen, the COST of being such, should be that you are required to take part in the responsibilities of citizenship.

The system works quite nicely in Australia - and believe me - the people would not stand for any more than one or two more elections with the kind of choices they have now. There would be change driven from the grass roots.

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