As a competitive debate and public speaker, I spend large amounts of my life at events involving young people expounding on the many problems facing today’s world. This is the persuasive speech category, one of the largest events at every public speaking competition is the, for which each competitor speaks for up to 13 minutes. Each competitor presents a problem facing society and then proposes a solution. For the 2012 International Independent Schools Public Speaking Competition (IISPSC), I chose to speak on a topic close to my heart. The IISPSC is an annual four day tournament, bringing together nearly 50 schools from across Canada, as well as the United States, India, Cyrus, Britain and several other nations. This year’s competition was held at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School in Okotoks, Alberta, south of Calgary. Below is a speech I wrote, memorized and delivered at the event, on the decline of Canadian politics. I tried to talk about the drop off in voter turnout rates, the lack of Parliamentary decorum and the disappearance of political accountability. In some ways it’s an extension of a lot of the themes I’ve written about here, and on twitter. The idea is to drive home a central message: our politics are unworthy of our nation.
It’s May of 2012. Walk around the city of Montreal, and you’ll probably soon hate just about every person under the age of 30. Why? The streets are filled with them. They’re yelling, screaming and banging on pots and pans. In total, there are almost half a million students protesting. Their frustration? The provincial government’s plan to raise university tuition. In retaliation, the students have shut down the city. Seeking change, these young people are speaking out.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Yet when it comes to the major issues of our time, where are the young people? On climate change, the economy and health care, where are their voices? They’re not in public life. Barely 30% of young Canadians voted in the last election. Studies consistently show they’re disengaged and apathetic. Why? Because today in Canada, our politics are toxic. It’s a malaise unworthy of our nation—its history, its geography, and most of all, its promise.
The problem I would like to address today is the decline of our public life. The evidence is everywhere. Voting is at an all time low, Parliament is a zoo, and politicians are in disrepute. When I hear about my peers being disengaged, I can’t blame them. After examining the problem, I’ll propose ways to restore our democracy—making it more open, accountable and effective.
So, what is the state of Canadian politics today?
After their 2011 victory, the Conservatives promised to govern for all Canadians, as if all Canadians had voted. Actually, barely 61% of Canada voted. This was the second lowest turnout ever. Provincially, turnouts are usually in the 50s—last year in Ontario, below half. Worst of all are municipal elections. Halifax’s turnout rate was 36%; Ottawa’s 44%; Vancouver’s 33%.
These figures are tragic because an individual vote does matter. In the 2011 federal election, 6,200 votes was the difference between a majority and minority government. Even here in true blue Alberta, provincial ridings in Edmonton and Calgary had margins of victory under 200. Votes count. But with participation declining, we might ask, for how much longer is our democracy legitimate?
After elections, it doesn’t get much better.
Parliament has no decorum.
This month, Rob Anders, an MP from this city, accused Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair of playing a role in the death of his predecessor, Jack Layton. The NDP’s Pat Martin uses expletives on twitter, including telling one commenter to “f off”. Last November, Liberal MP Justin Trudeau screamed on the house floor that the Environment Minister was, to put it politely, “a piece of excrement.” My school’s Grade 10 civics class, in Ottawa, was attending Question Period the day. What kind of example does this set?
But it’s more about what MPs do. In our Parliament, private members have less power than almost any other in the world.
Earlier this year, NDP MP Bruce Hyer, was punished by his party for the grave sin of honouring a promise to his constituents, by voting to abolish the long gun registry. He now sits as an independent. Last May, BC Conservative MP David Wilks was caught on camera telling constituents that despite his reservations, he “had to” vote for the government’s budget and that there was “nothing he could do” as an individual member. Sad.
Legislation is now packaged into “omnibus bills”, which bundle several laws into a single bill to stifle debate. The 2012 omnibus budget bill was 498 pages long. The opposition submitted some 700 amendments it—none were accepted. Democracy, we might say, is being thrown under the omnibus.
Too many MPs don’t even show up anymore. In the last Parliament, 17 MPs missed more than a quarter of the votes. Several missed over half. It is estimated more skipped days without votes, but those records aren’t public. You know in most jobs, they don’t pay you if you don’t show up!
When governments don’t like the way their legislatures are behaving, they simply shut them down, proroguing them to avoid embarrassments. Stephen Harper has done it twice. Two weeks ago, Premier Dalton McGuinty did it in Ontario, avoiding the legislature’s almost certain condemnation of one of his ministers.
But is the problem really that big? Why does the decline of our politics matter?
First, when people don’t vote, we weaken the bond between the government and the people. Voting is a stepping-stone to civic participation. Furthermore; young people, poor people, ethnic minorities and new Canadians tend to vote in even smaller numbers, and are thus ignored by politicians.
When politics become this toxic, people feel disenchanted and disengaged. We see the effects of this in our streets, with the aforementioned Quebec student protests, as well as last fall’s Occupy movement. They should have occupied a ballot box!
But on a more personal level, why should you care? Well you’re bankrolling these shenanagans. MPs make a good salary, plus expenses and a gold plated pension. Think good government doesn’t affect you? What about roads, universities and hospitals. Yet with the litmus test of party orthodoxy and omnibus bills, how can we be sure our representatives are carrying out our wishes or even know what they’re voting for?
Today in Canada, we have elections in which few vote, Parliamentarians who behave like children and legislation that’s rubber stamped by elected officials and hidden from the public. Does our system need help? As Sarah Palin once said, “you betcha”.
Yet, there are several reforms that can cure this malaise. As all parties are equally guilty of the problem, all will need to be part of the solution.
Let’s start by reexamining voting. It’s time we had a serious conversation about making it mandatory. The system would be simple: every eligible voter would have to cast a ballot on election day, in advance, or by absentee ballot. Failure to do so would result in a fine, about 40 bucks. This would be an inconvenience, and it would cover the costs of the system.
Compulsory voting would allow the government to represent all of its citizens. Instead of appealing to partisans or “micro-targeting”, parties would make a broad based appeal to the entire electorate. Citizens would be more informed and engaged.
Mandatory voting has been very effective elsewhere. Almost three dozen nations have some form of it, most prominently Australia, a country similar to Canada. In its most recent federal election, the turnout rate was 95%. Despite being chosen by those compelled to vote, Australia isn’t run by the Rhino Party.
After this, let’s reform the way Parliamentarians behave. Conservative MP Michael Chong has proposed reforms to reduce the theatrics that dominate Question Period, which have become so bad that many schools in Ottawa have stopped brining their kids to watch it.
One is giving more time for questions and answers. If MPs can have more than 35 seconds to explain themselves, they won’t feel the need to resort to rhetoric and hurl meaningless zingers. Another is to compel ministers to answer the questions they’re asked, instead of passing them off to surrogates. No hiding! A third is to randomly select which MPs get to talk—keeping parties from fielding their “attack dogs” every day.
Beyond Mr. Chong’s reforms, attendance needs to be better monitored. Instead of just recording when MPs are present for votes, their whole attendance record should be public. Ladies and gentlemen, your boss knows when you’re at work. When it comes to Parliament, Canadians are the boss—and we should be able to know when our employees are on the job.
I also propose we ban the use of the omnibus bill. Remember that 498-page monster I mentioned earlier? This was better known as a “trojan horse”, as it was filled with lots that really wasn’t budgetary. This included a provision allowing the FBI and CIA to come across the border and arrest Canadians, in Canada. Hear about that when it was passed? I didn’t, and as you can probably tell, I’m a bit of a political nerd.
Backbenchers from all parties need meaningful roles. Too often, they’re little more than trained seals, taking orders from their house leaders. We should allow all MPs to vote according to the conscience they hold and the constituents they represent. As well, members from different parties should be able to co-sponsor bi-partisan private members bills. Surely we can do better than the four out of 441 that were passed in the last parliament.
Finally, there should be limits to prorogation. Governments shouldn’t have the divine right to close legislatures just to save their own hide. The opposition should have a say.
Today I’ve addressed a system in crisis. I’ve noted that voter turnout has fallen, the parliament is unruly and that MPs are beholden to an often extreme party line. This cuts people off from their government. Our politicians are failing us. We’re paying for it—literally and metaphorically. The way to address this is through reexamining voting, reforming Question Period and changing the way legislation is dealt with. One again, Canadians can see the possibilities of politics, not just its limits.
During the Cold War, Ronald Reagan told us that; “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We don’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream…we hand it to them so they can do the same.” The Cold War is over, but this is truer than ever.
Remember that the word democracy comes from the Greek “demo kratos”; meaning “rule of the people”.
We, the people, must rule.
To be Canadian means more than a series of clichés or a beer commercial. We are stewards of one of the world’s oldest democracies. It’s not a spectator sport. Nor can it be on auto-pilot. Ladies and gentlemen, young Canadians should not be in our streets, protesting higher tuition. They should be in our legislatures, crafting tomorrow’s Canada.