There was a time, Murray Dobbins writes, when Canadians were highly engaged with their governments. We possessed a high degree of civic literacy:
That was the so-called golden age of capitalism and it wasn't just because of expanding government services. It was so-called because of a much broader and well-informed citizen engagement -- both through social movements and as individual citizens. The level of trust in government was much higher than it is today. And absent from the picture were the factors that today dominate the political conversation: fear and economic insecurity.
Demagogues like Stephen Harper know how to play on fear and economic insecurity. That is why they do their best to promote both. And, using these tools, they can destroy a democracy. Consider Harper's record on that score:
It's a familiar list, including Harper's bullying of Governor General Michaëlle Jean to force the proroguing of the House, his guide book on how to make parliamentary committees ineffective, the use of robo-calls and other election dirty tricks, his attempt to break the rules in appointing a Supreme Court judge and his neutering the House of Commons question period through a deliberate strategy of refusing to answer questions -- a practice that institutionalizes a contempt for Parliament that spreads outward to the general public. At a certain point it doesn't matter who is responsible -- the institution itself becomes risible and irrelevant to ordinary citizens. Which is, of course, exactly what Harper intends.
Now, with Bill C-51 -- which Dobbins dubs The Secret Police Act -- Harper stands on the threshold of bringing the whole democratic edifice down. And he's doing it with the cooperation of the media establishment. But things seem to be changing:
Given our shamefully biased media, Canadians still manage to resist Harper's continued assault on our political sensibility. The first polls on the Secret Police Act (don't call it by any other name) were alarming, with upwards of 80 per cent agreeing with the need for tougher anti-terror laws. But things are changing very quickly as the result of a determined fight-back by civil society groups, a phalanx of heavy-hitting experts and the NDP. A Forum Research poll this week showed support for the Act was down to 38 per cent with those disapproving at 51 per cent -- an amazing turnaround. The highest levels of disapproval were amongst "the youngest (64%), New Democrats (77%), the best educated (65%) and the non-religious (70%)."
Now is the time, Dobbins writes, for Canadians to take their democracy back. Unless we renew our civic literacy, we will lose what we used to hold most dear:
Yet a huge effort will be needed to completely immunize Canadians against the next wave of Harper fear-mongering. That's the only lasting solution to voter manipulation and a healthy democracy. Until we realize that, progressive politics will remain crisis management and we will continue to pin our desperate hopes on coalitions and proportional representation. But without a high degree of civic literacy these institutional fixes will be ultimately dissatisfying.
The future of Canadian democracy is in our hands.