Ross Urquhart: A Charlie Brown election
Well, another election, and another big decision for those of us who are cynical about whether “serving the public” is the first priority of either party. The B.C. Liberal government has announced a balanced budget as part of their pre-election strategy—and has commercials on TV bragging about it. But, then again, Glen Clark’s NDP government did the same thing once before and it turned, miraculously, into a huge deficit after they won the election. I guess some things only balance when you hold your thumb on one end of the scale.
I’m at a stage, presently, where elections are kind of like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. We know that when he runs up to kick it Lucy will pull the ball away, Charlie’s foot will fly up into the air, and he will land flat on his back as Lucy walks unconcernedly away—but we, like Charlie Brown, participate because there always exists the slim possibility that things may, somehow, be different this time. We appear to have a streak of incurable optimism within us that provides hope for better outcomes than the evidence suggests.
If I were to sit down and attempt to assess the qualities I prefer in an MLA (or MP for that matter) it would no doubt include such things as empathy, intelligence, courage, honesty, and dedication to the electorate they represent, but how many of our politicians actually have these qualities? Very few, I would guess, because the goal in politics is to win elections, and the only way and individual can accomplish this is under the umbrella of a major party—and parties do not like courageously honest, intelligent candidates whose first priority is their constituency. They have a tendency to say things that embarrass the party. The favoured term for them is, I believe, “loose cannons”.
Political parties prefer candidates who are personable and attractive and who toe the party line. Which translates to mean that, regardless of which party is elected, our MLAs won’t represent us as much as they represent the hierarchy of their party—and our “democratically elected” government then, ultimately, becomes a handful of powerful individuals in a circle around the premier.
If you have access to that circle all is well and good, but few of us do and, perhaps, even fewer know how issues are being decided in that circle at any give time. I’ve heard it said that a system is corrupt when truth becomes its enemy and, by that definition, most governments are corrupt because they seem to work hard at hiding things.
Our form of democracy has major flaws, which we have proved incapable of changing, and this is likely the result of the same built in catch-22 situation weakening all modern democratic processes. Although the system needs change, only politicians have the power to change it, but why should they; it’s the very system that put them in power and will likely keep them there. Virtually all politicians promise to bring “transparency”, “introduce accountability”, and, finally, “deliver responsible government” during elections but, once elected, who forces them to keep their promises? Being elected gives them a free hand for up to five years. Makes them untouchable. Why give that up simply to fulfill a campaign promise? Why take their power and privilege and distribute it to the electorate?
Ah! You say, but if they don’t we could punish them during the next election. That may be true in theory but not so much in practice. As bad as any elected politician or political party is they have an incredible advantage when it comes to re-election. They control the agenda and the time line. They have years to prepare and considerable resources at their disposal to confuse the issues. Elections can be manufactured into incredibly disorienting events as a whole industry of experts has been created to do just that. Media consultants, speech writers, policy analysts—all weaving a web of obfuscation, diffusing broken promises and past scandals while spin-doctoring a new and exciting persona for an old government.
Pundits are fond of saying that anything can happen in an election, because it is true. If someone finds a particularly enticing hook and gains the imagination of the public the voters will flock in their direction with enough numbers to carry the day and, again, what was old is now new, with a four or five year mandate to rule the kingdom.
Of course, what makes the whole re-election thing substantially easier, is that the governing party doesn’t have to prove they are the best or, for that matter, even relatively good at what they do. They simply have to convince us that the other side is worse.
A cure does exist, in principle, for these major flaws. If we had the ability to fire our representative at any time we discover they have lied to us, or that their loyalties point in directions away from our best interests; if we could throw them out immediately when we discover that our needs are being sacrificed to benefit powerful interest groups or organizations who support the party; if we had the right to punish them for refusing to give us enough information to make informed judgments—then, I believe, many of the weaknesses in our system would be addressed. Is it really a democracy when all we are doing is giving a small group of secretive and uncooperative individuals the ability to run our lives for no less than four years, regardless of how badly they mess things up—or in spite of how many lies they told to get elected? We need the ability to demand their loyalty, along with their honesty and energy in serving the people they promised to represent, or face the consequence of being turfed at our earliest convenience.
Under some duress, governments did introduce “recall” legislation once upon a time but, for some strange reason, when put in practice it was discovered to be almost impossible to use successfully. And when asked to make changes facilitating this increase in democracy, the government replied that such frivolous events are too disruptive of the political process, and too expensive, elections cost a lot of money, and, besides, our government promises that, soon, after a period of study, we will introduce legislation providing more transparency and more accountability—achieving a responsible government that will heed the wishes of the electorate—so we don’t really need recall.
“Remember Lucy, you promised to hold the ball still this time, and not pull it away when I try and kick it.”
“Yes, Charlie Brown, I won’t move the ball. I’ll let you kick it this time. I promise.”
Mar 27, 2013 at 5:09pm
Voting might seem like pretty much a waste of time ... but elections are all we have.
It's the only thing that governments are concerned about.
Occupy Vancouver (and elsewhere) ... gone as soon as the government turned the heat up.
Idle no More ... losing steam.
But voting can work.
Harper is spending obscene amounts of money on those Action Plan TV ads that we are bombarded with everyday.
Clark is spending megabucks on similar TV ads that are nothing more than publicly funded election ads for her party.
It might seem as futile as Charlie Brown trying to kick a football held by Lucy.
But voting is all we have left.