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Democracy for Sale

October 6, 2011

Democracy week may have come and gone with very little notice in Canada but this turns out to be Election Week. In Alberta, the PC party selected a new leader and thus a new premier; a woman for the first time ever in Alberta . In Manitoba, the NDP returned for the fourth consecutive time in a landslide win. In PEI, the Liberals were returned to power and on Thursday Ontario will hold it’s provincial election.

HuffingtonPost is asking Canadians why they vote (or don’t), so I thought I’d give my answer. I’ve written in the past about why many Canadians don’t vote:  it might be they can’t find a party or candidate they agree with, they think the entire system is biased or unfair, or they worry that their one vote has very little impact. Voting can be very disheartening in our winner-take-all system where the candidate with the most votes wins regardless of what proportion of the total vote they receive.

There are many reasons why I vote: I see it as duty as a citizen akin to jury duty, paying taxes and serving to defend our country if needed. Voting is probably the easiest of these to do. It’s also important to participate in the system that runs our society. You pay taxes into anyways so you might as well try to influence things to be run the way you’d prefer.

Sometimes these arguments aren’t enough to convince a skeptical non-voter, but until today there was still one final desperate argument that democratic optimists like myself could use to try to cajole our cynical friends to vote: it was the per-vote party subsidy.

Every party that met the threshold of 5% support everywhere they ran was given $2 per vote they received each year after the election. This policy guaranteed that at the very least, when you voted for a party, they would get some support for later campaigning, even if they didn’t win the seat. It was the only proportional part of our voting system where every vote counted and counted equally. This was great because it was a relatively cheap system but it was concrete, it equalized parties somewhat and it meant you literally could not say your vote didn’t count.

I’m using the past tense because soon the per-vote subsidy will be no more. Inside the huge crime bill introduced by the Conservative government on Tuesday is a single paragraph that does away with the per-vote subsidy. This is a particularly offensive way to get rid of if since it caused a crisis in 2008 when the minority government tried to get rid of public financing during a minority parliament.  In order to avoid a snap election or, gasp!, a coalition, the Prime Minister needed to take the unprecedented step of proroguing parliament to avoid defeat.

Some people think it’s a great move. Take Tim Powers at the Globe and Mail, for example:

If what you are selling is worth buying the money will come.

Of course, that assumes the people you are ‘selling’ to, the voters, have money to spare. Many families work multiple jobs and struggle to find money to pay the bills, let alone to support a party that might look out for their interests.  Do these kinds of parties not matter? Do these voters not matter? The levers of power are already biased towards those with money, education and influence. Why in the world would we take away one of the only equalizing parts of our system?

Democracy shouldn’t be about money (no, seriously), it should be about people, policy and ideas. That’s why public financing is (was) a good thing, that’s why limits on donations are a good thing.

It was always clear once the Conservative’s won a majority that they were going to slash the per-vote subsidy. The way they have chosen to achieve this indicates they aren’t even willing to stand up and treat it as its own issue. They aren’t willing to put it forward as a separate bill, debate it publicly and force it through with their majority. What does this say? It doesn’t seem to say the Conservatives are proud to do kill it. It seem to say they are hope no one will notice that they are changing the rules to favour themselves in future elections.

May the party with the richest supporters in the most strategically focussed regions win.

Ah…democracy.

This post can also be seen on The Huffington Post Canada.

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