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Editorial: Modest proposals for building a better world

In a previous editorial, I wrote about how we survive the sense of futility and powerlessness that comes of watching our governments, and, often, our mainstream press, ignore crucial information and fail to act to prevent disaster.  This one suggests how we could exert our power, if enough of us are onboard.

We sometimes yap on about democracy and our democratic institutions, but as a nation do we really have democracy?  Arguably, we do not. Does the will, or the longer-term best interests, of the majority of Canadian citizens determine or even influence our government's major decisions?

As one example -- and it's an important one -- climate change is an issue threatening life on earth as we know it, yet our governments seem shackled by convention, or by obligations to large corporate donors, and have been unable or unwilling to accomplish any action to curb it effectively. 

It seems to many of us that governments are not acting in the best longer-term interests of society as a whole on many different topics, but are acting instead upon the dictates of the rich, and their corporations.  The ruling class consists of those with enough money to tell governments what to do.  Is this what democracy is supposed to look like?  I say, no.

As for who gets elected to form governments, we in Canada have had successive governments exercising majority power with a minority of the votes cast: the current and previous governments have had 39.5% and 39.7% of the vote respectively, yet gained a majority of the seats in Parliament, giving them the power to do whatever that one party and its corporate allies want, without the agreement of any other elected representatives.  Is this what democracy is supposed to look like?  Again I say, no.

I have a few simple suggestions for how to obtain a democratic government -- one that is much  more likely to act in the best interests of our citizenry as a whole.  Of course, my suggestions will elicit scorn and contempt from The People Who Count: the ruling rich whose dollars tell our governments what to do. "That will never happen," they'll say, from their insulated positions of comfort and increasing power.  And they may well be correct in that, because they have the power to prevent it from happening as long as most of the voters remain complacent or apathetic.  But we won't know until we see whether enough voters can make it happen -- or not.  What level of continuing disaster will it take for voters to shake off this complacency and apathy?

If we can't make truly responsible government happen in most of the world's countries, then as a species, we are likely to fail and come to an end much faster than the dinosaurs did, though not as abruptly, and as a species we will deserve whatever sufferings our self-inflicted decline brings us.  Dinosaurs dominated the world for about 165 million years.  Human dominance has lasted only a paltry few thousand so far. Perhaps our clever brains and opposable thumbs are not such great advantages after all;  they've enabled us to come up with all sorts of inventions that do amazing things, but many of them also have other, mostly unintended and often deadly effects.  

It seems that our emotions, our basic drives, are much less advanced than our technology.  And we're not quite clever enough to refrain from implementing a new technology even when well-informed people warn of its negative effects, because greed still trumps caution.

That unwise implementation is often authorized by governments, swayed by the lobbying efforts of whatever industry will profit from manufacturing the new thing. Government that is not beholden to industries could be much less likely to make decisions that benefit those industries and the few who reap most of the wealth from them, at the expense of human and ecological health.

Let's go directly to a few ideas for getting that unshackled government -- one that would better serve society and life on earth as a whole: getting monetary influence out of politics, ensuring fair treatment of parties and candidates, and a representative electoral system, for starters.

1.         Let's boot donated money out of politics.  Mostly it has strings attached, and those strings seem to turn our politicians into puppets and control many of their decisions. No political party or candidate would be able to accept donations from anyone -- corporations, unions, or individuals.  Not even tiny donations.  BUT, I hear you yelp, how will they pay for all their advertising?  How can parties and candidates amuse us with their vicious and unconstructive attacks on each other if they aren't allowed to accept donations?   Bear with me.  I'll explain.

2.         Parties and candidates would not be allowed to advertise.  At all. And no one would be allowed to advertise on their behalf.  NO political advertising.  That would apply to sitting governments as well -- no publishing self-aggrandizing spin doctoring. 

3.         Every political party with a registered membership over a set threshold would qualify to receive an amount of money from the government (that's right -- paid for by all of us taxpayers, just as the "per vote" amount used to be, and in the long run it would cost us much less than allowing puppetry in Parliament).  It would be the same amount of money for every party that qualified for it, because it would be intended to cover the same expenses:  travel for candidates, at a modest  level.  Parties would get the same amount regardless of how many votes they garnered in an election, because their expenses should be approximately equivalent --  and the public has just as much of a right to know about one qualified party as any other qualified party.  That would help to level the playing field.  It would better inform voters about how the parties differ, and about  what values each party shares with which other parties.

4.         To make up for the lack of advertising, all news media that covered election campaigns would be required by law to give equal time to every qualified party's candidates, to report equally fully on each party's platform, and would be required by law to give every qualified party's leaders equal time in leaders' debates, and to ensure that all qualified leaders were able to attend.  In other words, if a leader chose not to attend a debate, it would not be because the media had manipulated its scheduling so that any particular leader could not be there.  Print media would be required to give equal coverage and equal treatment to every party and its candidates and platform. All candidates would be able to present their positions on issues, and their party's platform and values to the public.

5.         Not only news media, but any group or organization that sponsored speeches by any candidate would be required to give all the candidates the opportunity to attend and give speeches of equal length, with equal prominence.  Could this be criticized as a limitation on free speech?  Yes, but one would hope that our nation's courts would find it justified on the grounds that it would improve our democracy, better inform voters, and act to prevent undue monetary influence (isn't that also called corruption?) on elections.

6.         Change our electoral system to Proportional Representation, preferably Mixed Member Proportional so that voters can vote for a local candidate, and also cast a vote for the party whose values they most support.  "But," you may say, "don't the parties pick all those candidates?"  My jaw drops because -- who do you think picks the candidates NOW?  The parties pick the candidates.  As far as I know, the parties have always picked the candidates.  And "the parties" usually means the membership of those parties, who are also voters.

7.         Allow charitable organizations to work toward political change without losing their charitable status.  At present, for-profit corporate interests can lobby governments, but charitable organizations are not allowed to lobby for social justice or ecological health.   We might want to re-think the current rules on lobbying by for-profit corporations, too. 

8.         Ensure that the scientific findings that inform government decisions are not funded directly or indirectly by any industry. 

A friend of mine used to urge people not to vote because, he sneered, "voting just supports a corrupt system."  But I suggest that using our votes to get the corruption out of the system is a more effective approach.  Political revolutions, especially violent ones,  don't seem to have a very good track record of long-term success overall.

So -- assuming that most of  the populace actually wants a more democratic nation, one intent on bettering the lives of all, not just on making the rich ever richer and driving the less fortunate into ever more degrading levels of poverty -- how are we going to accomplish all these things, in view of the fact that  Big Money -- including  all but the local levels of government -- will oppose them?  Can we get our local governments to support these changes and urge them upon the provincial and federal levels?  Any other ideas out there? 

Meanwhile, it would be a good start to shake off the apathy. Take an interest in how we're governed.  Wake up to how and why it isn't really working very well, except (mostly) at the local level.  Our children's and grandchildren's future quality of life depends on it.