Two items caught my eye yesterday, both of which got me thinking of democracy. The first gives me hope, the second, not so much. The first was a series of requests through Twitter for help in finding equipment to help run the Harvest Kitchen. I hadn’t heard of this before, but after inquiring, I was directed here. Put simply, the Harvest Kitchen is a part of Winnipeg Harvest’s expansion plans, designed to help their clients make better food choices for themselves.
The second item that caught my eye was the tabling of the latest federal budget and the impending election that will almost undoubtedly result. Once again we will go through 6 weeks of mud-slinging, attack ads, and empty promises, leading to nothing more than a slight alteration in the status quo, another minority government, that goes along for a couple of years until one or more parties decide to trigger another election .
Throughout the campaign much attention will be paid to voter turnout. The last election voter turnout was an historically low 59.1%. To many people this is the problem. If only more people turned out to vote, our elections would hold more meaning, but what if low turnout is merely the most visible symptom and not the main problem?
People who are in favour of proportional representation, would argue that our first past the post system bears as much blame for low voter turnout as anything. This position also points to one of the problems around the whole question of voter turnout. As an example: In our last municipal election Harvey Smith won reelection as city councilor with 27.64% of the popular vote, meaning that just over 25% of the people that voted thought he was the best choice for council. Voter turnout was nothing close to 100%, however, even if everyone had turned out to vote, had the percentages held, we would still have a councilor who is the choice of only 27.64% of the people. In other words almost 75% of the people would be stuck with a councilor they don’t want. So much for majority rule.
This brings me to another aspect of the voter turnout argument. People seem to suggest that higher turnout in and of itself is representative of greater voter engagement. Yet ideas to improve turnout such as compulsory voting don’t guarantee that people will be more concerned about the issues so much as about their wallet. See bottom of page here.
The above mentioned Conference Board of Canada article also talks about the idea of participation in the political system. It is here that I think the real problem with the whole voter turnout questions lies. Whether intentionally or not, the movement over the last few decades is toward a society where we believe that participation in the political system begins (and in many cases ends) at the polling station.
By far the most common comment heard in relation to voter turnout is, “if you didn’t vote, you don’t have any right to complain about what the government does for the next “x” number of years.”
Two problems: First when was freedom of speech only guaranteed to those who cast ballots in federal, provincial or municipal elections? This is the kind of attitude that promotes tyranny. A tyranny, I would argue, that in Canada is a tyranny of the system as opposed to any leader or party. I have a question to those who hold this position, in a case where the rule of law was suspended in Canada, would you tell those who didn’t vote not to fight against it simply because they hadn’t voted?
Second, buried in the idea of no complaining is the assumption that once elected, the government is free to do whatever it likes and all that the public can and should do about it is grumble and complain until the next election date appears on the calendar. If an action is taken by the government, is then a fait accompli that we must live with until the next government comes into power? What if the next government doesn’t see the issue as important? Should we just sit and wait another four years?
Take another local example. Today the city council of Winnipeg just approved the Winnipeg Parking Authority’s proposal to raise the meter rates in downtown Winnipeg. Now, this decision has no effect on me personally. Why? I don’t drive. They can raise the parking rates by 10,000% and it wouldn’t have any effect on my personal decision to shop, eat or work downtown. Does this mean I should be excluded from the conversation? More importantly, does the fact that raise has been passed mean that I should wait until the next election and hope that whoever the new mayor and council is that they will see fit to change this ruling? No, I and others need to keep the conversation going.
Why? The reason to keep talking about this issue is that the real question wasn’t answered. The WPA formulated the question around the concept of parking spot turnover as the fundamental issue about downtown parking. The question WPA hasn’t answered is something along the lines of this: If Winnipegger A lives on Arlington Street, why would they choose to go downtown and pay $4.00 for 2 hours of parking, when she could go to Polo Park and park for free for two hours. Also, if she happens to overstay her trip to Polo Park by 10-15 minutes she doesn’t have to worry about the possibility of incurring a $60 fine for doing so.
Yes, Millennium library is the biggest library in Winnipeg, but it’s not the only one in Winnipeg. Yes, Aqua Books, is the best bookstore/event center/bistro in Winnipeg, but it’s not the only one. Yes, Twist Cafe, with its sprightly, bohemian staff, is the coolest cafe in town, but it’s not the only one. Will Moose fans start taking the bus more to keep the cost of a game down. If we ever get an NHL team back in the city, we’ve just made an already expensive activity that much more expensive before the team has even arrived.
This is the question that is not being answered. It’s being asked by people such as Graham Hnatiuk, but the answer that keeps being given revolves around the question of turnover. Can this be changed? I don’t know, but if we wait until the next election in the hopes that the populace will vote in somebody who may (or may not) make the changes necessary. Meanwhile the downtown of Winnipeg will continue to atrop
As an aside, to those who say that Winnipeg’s downtown parking is a lot cheaper than other cities. The reason that other cities have much higher parking rates is that they have vitality of their downtown areas has made them highly desirable locations, thereby increasing the need of parking spot turnover, not parking spot turnover creating a vital downtown.
OK, that was a rant within a rant. To get back to my main point, true democratic involvement shouldn’t be something that ends with a decision being made or a piece of legislation being passed, and certainly shouldn’t begin and end at the ballot box. Yet, increasingly this seems to be the shape our democracy is taking.
As we face an upcoming an election, the fundamental question we should be asking ourselves is not: “How do we create greater voter turnout?” but “Where does our priority lie? In propping up our current mode of representative democracy or in finding ways to encourage more democratic participation in all areas of our society?”
This brings me back to my original comment on the Harvest Kitchen project, and more importantly why this gives me hope for democracy in Canada. On the face of it the two items may not seem to be connected and after reading this you may feel that they still aren’t, but let me make my case.
Democracy, first and foremost, is government by the people. Representative democracy is only a subset of democratic government. Secondly, democracy is about choices. Whether you are dealing with several candidates, or deciding to participate in a workplace blood drive you are making choices.
The big problem with choice, is that it doesn’t always make things easier, in fact it often makes them harder. A few weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, my sermon referenced a study that was done, that showed that when consumers had too many flavours of, let’s say, salad dressing to choose from, the overall sales of salad dressing fell. Rather than try and process all the choices that were available to them, shoppers were increasingly likely to forgo salad dressing all together.
Now, imagine coupling that with having never developed good decision making skills in the first place. Is it any wonder that at election time so many people don’t vote. The sensory overload created by the process makes it too hard to decide and so the decision is often to make no decision at all and another person ends up not voting.
I don’t know all the details of the Harvest Kitchen project, but it seems the goal of the project is to help people to learn to make better decisions about what they eat. How does this help democracy you ask? Among other things that may be accomplished (and we have to allow that whatever the intent and effort, the goals set forward may not be actualized in the life and choices of the participants), it will hopefully provide decision making tools. As people learn to make informed choices in their diets, hopefully they will also be learning how to make informed choices period. If the program is as much about providing tools as it is about providing more nutritious meals cheaply, participants should develop more decision making skills.
Secondly, people are participants rather than recipients. The success of such a program does not come about simply because the people running are dedicated to what they are doing. The program will be successful mainly to the extent that the people who are doing the learning see it as their program. This may be the key lesson for democracy. We are all participants in the democratic (not just the electoral) process.
Such a process builds community. In the previously mentioned Conference Board of Canada page, there is a suggestion made that lack of voter turnout suggests a lack of social cohesion, roughly speaking those ideas that hold a society together. I have written elsewhere of the importance of food in the building of community and it would seem that an idea like the Harvest Kitchen would help promote this. If we truly wish to be more democratic in our country, we need to foster a greater sense of community. After all, government of the people cannot simply exist as an abstract form, but must be actualized in real people and real communities.
I’ve used the Harvest Kitchen project as the example here, but it is not the only example that we can find. I invite people to leave their ideas in the comment section to indicate how they would work to improve and increase participation in the democratic process.
How does this relate to voting in elections, simply put, the more that people are engaged in the process of democracy itself the more they are likely to be able to embrace the system in an engaged fashion. After all, will voter turnout from 90% of a disinterested, apathetic, confused and ill-informed voting public really give us a better electoral result than a 59% turnout. More importantly, do we really believe that an election campaign is the best place to help create an informed, engaged and passionate voting public?
As for the election itself, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be encouraging people to vote, but rather, that when we consider the results and turnout we should be asking ourselves whether or not doing the same, but only more of it, is the best way to encourage people to become involved in the process. Or to put it another way, what is more important; the system (representative democracy) or the process (democracy without the qualifier)? Perhaps you will say that they are one and the same.
I used the title the “Dying of Democracy,” because I don’t believe that democracy is dead within our society, but that it is heading that way. I also believe that the way in which we are currently carrying out our elections is contributing to this dying. Further, I believe that new life will not be breathed into this system simply by having more people show up at the polls on election day. Instead we need to be finding more ways to get people involved in the everyday life of their neighbourhoods and communities.
For some people this will simply mean that they take advantage of the opportunities that are already available to them, for others we have to acknowledge that the opportunities to develop the skills to participate in the process need to be developed and part of our role is to come alongside them, like Harvest Kitchen, and participate together with them in developing those skills.