UnwrittenPosted: June 26, 2012
Reading the Globe and Mail recently, I came across this article. It begins:
“It has been a year since the Conservatives won a majority government, a year in which there have been plenty of ups and downs, the latter including the robo-calls controversy and the Auditor-General’s scathing report of mismanagement and a lack of accountability on the F-35 purchase. But on most of the issues that matter…”
But on most of the issues that matter?
Regarding the law, the Harper government has been quite consistently black and white. Whatever is within the law is acceptable and permitted. If they have not broken the law, they will make no apology for their actions, even if that action might be construed as an abuse of trust. In their minds, they are required to follow the law, nothing more and nothing less. Unfortunately, this narrative has apparently been adopted by the media, who now seem reticent to directly challenge the Conservatives on anything less than a formal crime. I would argue that this narrative erodes our trust in our elected officials and contributes to the troubling national trend of civic disengagement.
A democracy functions on both written and unwritten rules. The written rules are laws, enforced by the police and the courts, and are assumed to be well known to all citizens. These are created by elected officials, put into place by voting. Unwritten rules, on the other hand, are largely implied and consist, among other things, of tradition and convention. They are enforced by the media and, if necessary, by citizens through civil disobedience including protests. This is why we understand that a free press and the right to assembly are both vital to a free and open democratic society. By the same token, it is a truism that in a Westminster system (like ours), more is unwritten than written. While this may seem like a deficiency, it means that convention is an integral part of our democratic conversation. At its best, our system means that popular mores and expectation will force our politicians to obey, not only the letter, but the spirit of our laws. At its worst, it leaves our democracy open to a wide variety of abuses.
Recent examples abound. Stephen Harper’s decision to call an early election in 2008, while not necessarily a violation of the letter of his fixed election law, it was a clear violation of that law’s spirit. Particularly troubling was the media response to this transgression: gentle musing regarding potential political fall-out. This was followed by concluding that this was a non-issue as their reading of political polls showed no evidence of any backlash. The event soon fell out of public consciousness and eventually, the Conservative government was re-elected with a strengthened minority which turned into an eventual majority. What could a concerned citizen do but despair? Our media tells us, repeatedly, that our fellow citizens do not care about abuses of democracy. Similarly unpunished examples abound: Minister Clement’s undermining of Canadian democracy by misleading parliament on a money bill (a confidence vote); Prime Minister Harper’s re-appointment of failed MP candidates to the Senate; and of course the multiple prorogations of parliament to avoid accountability. That we are now in process of forgetting about a robo-call scandal can only undermine confidence in democracy even further.
What was lacking, in each case, was a firm denunciation from the media – particularly from those in the media who are referred to as ‘socially progressive’. Instead, they responded by attempting to frame the issue in a balanced way; weighing the pros and cons, working to establish if it was right or wrong. The result: government misdeeds presented to the public as a moral grey area. I would argue that this treatment is, in fact, too non-partisan. A lie is wrong; whether the public cares or not and whether the public agrees or not. At one point, the CBC asked in its “Question of the Day,” “Was it appropriate for the government to redirect previously approved funds for use in the G8 Legacy Fund?” That is an example of non-partisanship taken to a level where it is pathological. It was, beyond a doubt, inappropriate for the government to redirect previously approved funds. Mr. Clement’s behaviour in concealing his actions through personal email, skirting the proper channels of approval and avoiding accountability make it resoundingly clear that, at the very least, one unwritten rule has been broken.
Is it any wonder that more and more average, middle-class people have tuned out politics in Canada? 2008 saw a historic low in terms of voter registration and turn-out. In the 2011 Ontario provincial election, the most populous province in Confederation saw its lowest turnout ever. In response, critics of the recent student protests in Quebec (and the “Occupy” protests before that) have suggested that if change is desired, protestors had only to vote in one of the many recent elections. Political pundits can’t seem to explain why these same people, apparently turned off of democracy, are instead resorting to street protests en masse.
If the media tells voters, again and again, that unwritten rules are being broken but that no one cares and that they will not be enforced, what reaction can we have but voiceless rage? Politicians will not follow unwritten rules if we, as a society and with the help of the media, do not enforce them; no matter who we vote for. In this light, the media’s refrain that the protesters have only to vote rings hollow, and signals that the progressive media has more or less abdicated their responsibility as keepers of political decorum.
The National Post ran an excerpt of a talk Andrew Coyne gave which concluded with the rhetorical question: “Suppose we did have a Watergate. How would we know?” Mr. Coyne is a journalist with a national audience, a representative of the very body tasked, as a vital function in a free democracy, with uncovering the very corruption he claims would not be uncovered. In this context, his speech seems almost to be taunting us. He mentions many of the examples of abuses above, but unfortunately what he doesn’t mention is who has the power to peacefully stop them.