“If nothing else positive comes out of 2016, let us at least find a new determination to fight for a way of life, and a system of government, that we can never take for granted.” —Globe and Mail editorial, December 30, 2016
Two years ago, Samara Canada released its first Democracy 360, a made-in-Canada report card on democracy. Built on the understanding that democracy is about more than just casting a ballot every four years, the report examined the complex relationship between citizens and political leadership, and especially how they interact between elections. The Democracy 360 goes beyond traditional measures of voter turnout and examines measurable indicators on three areas essential to a healthy democracy: communication, participation and political leadership.
Much has changed in the two years since the inaugural report card, both in Canada, which saw an election that brought a new party to power, and internationally, where there has been unprecedented democratic upheaval in many countries.
Samara believes 2017 calls for another meaningful investment: in our democratic infrastructure.
Canada’s 150th birthday invites reflection on Canada’s past, present and future—and what legacy from 2017 should shape the future of the country. Instead of the physical infrastructure investments of 1967, Samara believes 2017 calls for another meaningful investment: in our democratic infrastructure.
What is democratic infrastructure?
Democratic infrastructure is a mix of laws and institutions, as well as the unwritten political norms and culture that allow us to work together as citizens to make decisions.
One hundred and fifty years since Confederation, are Canadians content with how their democratic institutions and culture operate? Ensuring that the country has the “infrastructure” in place to make good decisions in the 21st century will be more fundamental to Canada’s success than any single policy question. Thus, asking Canadians about the health of their democracy has never been more important.
While Canada consistently ranks in the top 10 countries in the world on headline indices that measure freedom and democracy, these indices do not give a complete picture of Canada’s democracy. Voter turnout is affected by many things good and bad, and widespread political corruption is not an issue in Canada the way it is in many countries.
This is why the Democracy 360 report card goes deeper, measuring 19 indicators and 38 sub-indicators. Together, these indicators provide a comprehensive picture of how Canadians feel about their democracy.
To prompt reflection and discussion, Samara has awarded an overall letter grade to Canada’s democracy, as well as a letter grade for each of the three areas.
At the end of this report card, we suggest five investments that should be made in Canada’s democratic infrastructure to build a better country and to guard against decay.
Satisfied with a B- for Canadian democracy?
Many observers, both in Canada and internationally, believe Canada has uniquely preserved “liberal democratic” values. According to this report card, most Canadians agree, with 71% of them saying they are “fairly satisfied” or “very satisfied” with “how democracy works in Canada.” Moreover, this is 6 percentage points higher than the first report card in 2015.
Our country has built a democratic infrastructure with a solid foundation of laws and rules that protect the integrity of democratic institutions and processes. For example, Elections Canada, an independent and nonpartisan federal agency, oversees federal elections, ensuring eligible Canadians have the opportunity to vote and be counted under the same rules. Additionally, independent electoral boundary commissions insulate changes to riding boundaries from partisan gerrymandering. Restrictive fundraising rules and transparency of donations reduce the influence of money in politics, federally and in many provinces. These safeguards may make it easier for Canadians to be confident in, and satisfied with, their democracy. But, as other countries’ recent experiences suggest, it is a mistake to believe Canada’s democracy is immune from challenges.
Despite Canada’s relative strength as a democracy, it has not and still does not always serve its citizens equally. Canadian women were excluded from the democratic process for decades. Canadians of Japanese descent were disenfranchised. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a sobering reminder of how Canada’s democracy failed its First Nations, Inuit and Métis people.
Our democracy has flaws, and it is very important to reflect on them in this sesquicentennial year.
Canada’s Democratic Pot Holes
While democracy in Canada seems to be working well for most Canadians, this does not provide grounds for complacency. While 88% of Canadians are involved in their communities, only 38% devote themselves to formal political activities, and a small subset of disengaged Canadians are “very dissatisfied” with democracy.
In addition, there are worrying trends in the Canadian political climate. Decades of centralization of power in first ministers’ offices make it more difficult for elected MPs to hold government to account. Omnibus bills and time allocation have made the scrutiny of bills and budgets more difficult. In 2008, professor Donald Savoie warned, “The relationship among Parliament, the prime minister, ministers and public servants is in need of repair…. Those with the power to introduce change for the better are reluctant to do so because they enjoy being able to wield tremendous power.” Nine years later, little has changed.
At the same time, the growing “celebritization” of political leaders in Canada and internationally reduces public scrutiny of their policies. In Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, Alex Marland, a professor of political science at Memorial University, describes how citizens have become more interested in political leaders’ personal lives than their policies. “[T]he government is facing market pressures to deliver information in an entertaining manner, such as through emphasizing personalities and pop culture.”
The media plays a vital role in educating and informing the public so they can hold government to account. However, the Public Policy Forum (PPF), an independent, non-profit think tank, estimates one-third of journalism jobs have been lost in the past six years, reducing the media’s ability to produce public affairs journalism. In the 2017 report “The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age,” PPF demonstrated how a weakened media landscape leads to a weakened democracy.
“Liberal democracy has overcome many crises in its relatively short history. But its capacity to do so has lulled both the rulers and the ruled in Western societies into a state of complacency,” said Canadian scholar Jennifer Welsh in her 2016 book The Return of History. David Frum, a Canadian-American political commentator, put it more bluntly: “No one should be self-congratulatory. Everyone should worry,”including Canadians.