Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Take our Democracy Seriously

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, September 29 / 14

Zack Gross

Coming up on Wednesday, October 22nd are municipal and school board elections across Brandon, Westman, Manitoba and the rest of our country.  We Canadians have a poor record when it comes to voter turnout – 60% in a good year in some federal and provincial elections, and sometimes as low as 30% in local ones.  If we don’t take our elections seriously, we are allowing others to determine what our towns and cities and, indeed what our lives will look like.

There are some 22 countries in the world today that have compulsory voting on Election Day, with Australia being best known for this.  Others include Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Singapore.   While the penalty for not voting can be a fine or community service, not every country enforces their “must vote” laws. 

Various jurisdictions try to make it convenient for voters to cast their ballots, for instance by having extended hours at the polls, by having advance polling days, by allowing people who are aged or have a disability, or away working or studying elsewhere to mail in their ballots, and by making arrangements for voting stations at personal care homes and even bedside in hospitals.  These kinds of efforts, of course, are generally more prevalent in national as opposed to local elections.

This leaves few reasons not to vote.  Scotland’s recent referendum on political independence from the United Kingdom inspired an 85% turnout.  Of course, voters having a say in such a major historic decision helps immeasurably in getting the electorate out.  As well, 16- and 17-year olds were allowed to vote!  And, although in percentages the vote was not close (55% to 45% for the No side), it is clear that there is still much work to be done to modernize how the United Kingdom is governed as all regions want a larger measure of power.

We have something in Canada – and in most countries – that shows that popular will does make some difference.  It is called academically “the institutionalization of defeat.”  That means when a candidate or a political party loses an election, they actually do step down.  They clean out their offices and move on in their lives and let their country or province or municipality move on as well.  They certainly can run for office again in the future, nothing wrong with that!

In a number of less democratic countries, political leaders find ways to stick around even though it is time to go.  Some declare themselves rulers with an indefinite term.  What was supposed to be four or five years is extended to ten and then another ten, and then that ruler’s son is named successor.  Or the loser declares that the election was fraudulent anyway and refuses to leave (sometimes this is true!).  Then, the person who had been declared winner assembles his army to fight with the incumbent’s troops and the whole country suffers.

No less disturbing is that in some countries elected officials not only want to hold onto power no matter what, but they also are intent on transferring the nation’s savings account into their personal chequing account.  Billions of dollars end up in an “off-shore” bank so that when said leader is done with politics, he and his family have a very nice nest egg waiting for them elsewhere.  And their population remains poor and often in conflict.

A question that all of us must ask is:  Do we have a procedural democracy (everything looks right) or a substantive one (it makes a real difference in people’s lives)?  A procedural democracy exists in a country that allows open and free elections, the right of assembly, a multi-party system and a media which can report as it wishes.  In other words, we live in what is called a Liberal Democracy – we are not controlled by overt dictatorial powers.

A substantive democracy is one where freedom goes beyond voting, speaking out and an active media.  What we are examining here is distribution of wealth and power, equality of opportunity for work, safety and shelter, the role and position of women in society, integration of cultural groups, health and social service programs available and more.  This is a greater challenge than procedural democracy, even for wealthy and generally open countries like ours.

The message here is that it is important to vote and to do so after taking some time to review candidate’s and party’s platforms.  It is also important to stay in touch with the political process after the election is over to see if the people who say they represent you actually do what they said they would do, and if it is really making difference.  Some observers say that the electorate gets the politicians that it deserves!

Zack Gross spent 25 years as Director of the Marquis Project in Brandon.  He always voted, with mixed results.

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