In ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, they practised ‘direct’ democracy where ordinary citizens participated in decision-making; as opposed to ‘representative’ democracy, that came later in the western world, where leaders were elected to do so. Back then, Athenian male citizens over the age of thirty were selected by lottery, a hundred at a time, for terms of office of one year. As a result, as many as half of the population of male Athenians participated directly in democracy in their lifetimes.
Fast forward to modern times, where we are ruled by politicians, generally making a career of it, and by elected governments who govern according to their various ideological beliefs, with retaining power as a top priority.
With their own sets of ideals, these governments are backed by political parties with conservative, liberal and socialist roots. For true democracy to work, the aspirations of the elected political party should be consistent with those of the electorate that voted them in. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Unfortunately, our elections fall far short of that objective. For example, in the 2017 Nova Scotia election less than 54 per cent of registered voters actually voted, and the Liberal party was victorious with just 39 per cent of those voters, which meant only one in five of registered voters voted for the Liberals, who nevertheless achieved majority government status, with all the power that came with it.
Similarly, on the federal scene, Liberals also gained majority government status in 2015, with support from 39 per cent of voters, but with a 66 per cent turnout a little more than one in four of eligible voters cast votes in their favour.
And the margin of victory can involve just a handful of voters who make the difference between one party’s victory over another. For example, in the 2017 Nova Scotia election, just 15,000 more votes for the Liberals over the Conservatives, out of a total vote count of 387,000, awarded the Liberals a majority government.
The upcoming October federal election is likely to produce equally dubious results if, as is likely, minority Liberal or Conservative governments are elected in.
Also, political parties typically maintain tight control of the political agenda, with elected members rarely allowed to stray from the party line. This partisan emphasis on “toeing the party line” often restricts the ability of our locally elected representatives to support what they feel is best for their constituents.
And this is a real test of the democratic process that promises “rule by the people”, not by political party strategists. And as someone once opined – “all politics is local”. In other words – politicians, stay close to the needs of your constituency, its where you can be of most value.
Thankfully, we have non-partisan arrangements of government at the municipal level across the land. Elected councillors, with no overt political affiliation, represent the interests of their citizens, and important decisions are made without the rough and tumble of partisan politics.
The government of Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory, deliberately opted to forgo political parties, with legislative decisions based on a consensus reached by its 22 elected “independent” members. Nunavut’s premier is also chosen by this membership, not by a political party apparatus; and they have the power to remove the premier from office for cause, by a majority vote of the members, which is exactly what they did two years ago.
Last week’s decisions by Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott to run as independents... now cast a stronger spotlight on this form of leadership role.
I don’t see a flock of independent representatives populating parliamentary and provincial legislatures soon. But I see the moves of these two outstanding women as signalling the eventual demise of political parties, as voters and their financial support, drift away to more meaningful democratic options.
James Aylward, past leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of PEI, captured what this vision of consensus government at the provincial level could look like. “MLAs would be elected on an individual, independent basis. No party platforms, no party advertising, premiers chosen by elected members, not by a party apparatus, no focus on politics over policy, no backbenchers, no formal opposition. Just good people elected by each district playing a full and active role in decision-making that is consistent with the priorities of their communities.”
Yes, this is how democracy should work!
Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at email@example.com.