Canadian Democracy in Action:
The Tale of Elizabeth May
By Kira Koshelanyk
Just one day after Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the announcement that Governor General Michaëlle Jean would dissolve the 39th session of Canadian parliament and call the next general election in Canada, September 8th news headlines clamoured “Green party leader May excluded from televised leaders’ debates”.
Two days later, on September 10th, this exclusion against Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May was lifted. What really happened? Why did this happen? What is the significance of this exclusion for poor and working people in Canada? In order to have a better understanding of how this ‘democratic’ system works, what we need to investigate is what this exclusion means when it comes to ‘democracy’ in Canada.
In August, the Green Party announced their first Green MP in Parliament, Blair Wilson (a former Liberal turned Independent turned Green). According to a 2006 report by the CBC ombudsman Vince Carlin, ‘indisputable’ criterion for inclusion in televised leaders’ debates is that the party must have representation in the House of Commons and must show an ability to run candidates in all 308 ridings (the Greens did have 308 candidates in the election held in 2006, according to the same 2006 CBC ombudsman’s report). This year when the election was called, the Green party had their first MP sitting in the House of Commons - so by those rules, what’s the problem?
Spokespersons for the Broadcast Consortium (the grouping of major broadcast media in Canada, both in French and English - CBC, Radio-Canada, CTV, Global and TVA) stated that three of the four leaders of the four major status quo political parties threatened not to participate if Elizabeth May was also there. It became clear who they were fairly quickly, as Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion defended May’s right to participate in the debate. As reported by the Globe and Mail, CBC and other ruling class news sources, the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois cited the Dion-May ‘non-compete’ agreement made in April of 2007 as one of the main reasons for their opposition. The deal confirms that in the next federal election the Liberals and Greens will not run competing candidates in the riding of the rival party’s leader. The NDP and the Bloc Quebecois also complained that the Greens haven’t had an MP elected as a Green (Blair Wilson was elected as a Liberal) and therefore they shouldn’t be represented in the national televised debate or any joint national debate. Elizabeth May and the Green Party threatened to sue the Consortium. Alas, the pre-election infighting of the status quo parties began.
Why was Elizabeth May Excluded?
Could it be that the other three big party leaders were afraid May would stir things up and not follow the rules of those televised debates, which are to rant back and forth but in the end say nothing?
Certainly, they were opposed to the deal May made earlier with Stephane Dion, to manoeuvre against the other parties. It is a competition to get elected, after all, and they are not so friendly as to give the competition more air-time based on goodwill. Either way, in this period of instability for the government and the economy, they wanted to maintain the status quo of how things operate.
People across the country showed their disapproval in the tens of thousands, and maybe hundreds of thousands, in polls and online petitions (including nine different groups, with a total membership of more than 8,000, started on the popular social networking site ‘Facebook’ demanding May be allowed to debate). Angry with this unjust decision, massive protest by working people across the country pressured the ruling elites and their political parties, showing that working people did not accept the exclusion. In other words, the masses reminded the ruling class that ‘democracy’ is the name of the game for these big parties, and therefore breaking their own rules is not acceptable. The big broadcasting corporations and the three party leaders were forced to back off.
Although the acceptance of Ms. May to the national debate was a victory for working and poor people, in terms of being able to hear all sides, with more careful observation one has to ask: was the exclusion of Elizabeth May/the Green Party the only undemocratic act in these elections? And now that she is one of the debating candidates, has the coming election in Canada become democratic as a result? However, it also must be said that as far as the working class is concerned, the Green Party missed an historic opportunity to elevate itself to the champion of democracy and democratic rights. The Green Party leader’s opposition to the decision was not based on believing in democratic principles –as the thousands of ordinary people showed us by faxing, emailing, petitioning and calling - rather her desire was to be accepted by the Club of Four as a fifth member. Elizabeth May opportunistically manipulated the sincere protest by people for her own rise to the ruling class club.
How Democratic is “Democracy” in Canada?
The question of the momentary exclusion of Elizabeth May/Green Party from the federal leadership debates is really much more than just that. Who else will not be heard and will not be represented in these debates? The Elections Canada website lists 17 officially registered federal political parties, plus two more that are eligible to be registered. The Liberals, NDP, Conservative, Bloc Quebecois and Green Party only account for 5 of them.
What is beyond these 17 officially registered parties? What about the voices of workers, Indigenous people, women, youth and all other oppressed layers in Canada? Elizabeth May gets to debate – good! But why stop there? If the smaller parties or independent candidates and even civil society organizations representing the interests of different layers and groupings in our society don’t have that same access to free speech, how is this ‘democracy’ working? Above all, democracy is not just simply majority rule. It has to be institutionalized that minority voices can be heard and participate in discussion and debate.
This two-day episode not only exposed the undemocratic move by the three political parties, but also showed the shortcomings of both the Liberal Party and the Green Party when it comes to defending the right to free speech and the right of all political ideas and tendencies to be heard. The Liberals defended May’s right to free speech, which in essence was correct, even though it was not genuine.However, they completely failed to defend the right of the other 12 registered political parties to speak in a national debate, including many socialists and progressive parties. At the same time, the Green Party showed its own shortcomings by defending the right of participation in the debate for its own leader only!
One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward
The latest infighting among these mainstream status quo political parties established two victories for working and poor people. The first is that when the ruling class is in crisis, working and poor people can intervene in the situation and win. The second is that if and when the masses decide to protest, they can establish their will and push the ruling class back from their assault. Working and poor people need to see the whole process very clearly, that ‘democracy’ is basically a luxury for the ruling class. The democracy we experience in Canada is democracy for the ruling elites. It can be played by us, working and poor people, but only if we accept the rules of the bourgeois and ruling elites’ game (meaning accepting the established system of electoral districts, candidate selection, the established ‘main’ status quo parties, “first past the post” system of vote counting, the necessity of millions of dollars in campaign spending in order to compete and so on).
This also explains another flaw in this so-called democratic Canada: that democracy itself is not just a concept, a structure, an ideology, an institution, or a form of government. In actual fact and objectively, it is all of the above under one state, the capitalist state. The flaw is that in such a complicated socio-economic system, in such a sophisticated political machinery, democracy really has no meaning or value for the ruling class if it is not played in their favour. Depending on the circumstances of the system of capitalist economy, democracy could be played by a two-party system like in the US, by a system of a handful of parties as in Canada, by a multi-party system like in Italy, or by a completely naked and direct system like the Hitler-Nazi regime. This façade, this luxury called democracy that they represent, only serves the interests of the ruling elites and could be dismantled whenever the ruling class sees fit. Multi-party system or not, in a real democracy the method of decision-making processes, the openness and diversity of ideas, and all rules and laws must serve the interests of the majority, working and poor people, in order to put them in better position to fight for their rights and maintain a higher standard of living. Otherwise, propagating democracy without a practical meaning in terms of change for the better is a deceptive act and is an illusion.
The Missing Link in the Chain of Canadian “Democracy”
The limitations of the bourgeois democracy in Canada are huge. People must ask – why has this ‘democracy’ in Canada not been able to solve important issues such as the right of Indigenous nations to self-determination, poverty, unemployment, racism, violence, sexism, homophobia and a host of other widespread serious social diseases. We need to ask ourselves: why, with all this fuss about Canadian democracy, does the system not serve the interest of Canadian people? In this author’s opinion, the answer lies in the absence of true and popular institutions that could facilitate the participation of working and poor people in the democratic process. The example of the latest attempt to exclude Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from a federal debate by the capitalist mass media and supported by the NDP, Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois shows very clearly how this so-called democracy works.
One good example of participatory democracy and mass participation in the process of elections is the example of the Cuban system of working class democracy.
Cuba’s Electoral System: Working Class Democracy in Action
First off, in Cuba candidates at the municipal level are nominated by people who know them and who suggest them based on their record and reputation in the community. The candidates are nominated at meetings of small areas called constituencies (which are smaller than municipalities). You can’t nominate yourself to run for election in Cuba and candidates aren’t chosen by small committees in political parties. If you are nominated, you also can’t run a campaign to promote yourself for election.
Only one of the people from the several constituencies in a municipality will be elected by their neighbours as their delegate to the Municipal Assembly. Then, these municipal representatives receive suggestions from Nomination Commissions for who should be elected to the provincial assembly and as the deputy to the national assembly. Municipal councils vote on who will be the candidate from each municipality for the provincial assembly and also the national assembly based on these recommendations.
A cornerstone of this democratic process is who makes up these ‘nomination commissions’.These commissions are with the participation of the mass organizations of various groups of people in Cuban society. Cuba’s Electoral Law requires that they be made up of the following: municipal, provincial or national executives of the Central Cuban Workers’ Organization (CTC), the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP), the University Students’ Federation (FEU) and the Intermediate Level Students Federation (FEEM).
To give you an idea of how well these organizations represent Cuban people across the spectrum, consider the following:
- 80% of Cubans over the age of 14 are members of the CDRs
- 98% of the working population belong to one of the 19 trade unions in Cuba (according to Guillermo Ferriol Molina, Director of Labour and Social Issues for the CTC)
- 80% of Cuban women over the age of 14 are members of the FMC (according to the FMC)
By ensuring that the mass-based popular organizations such as these form the nomination commissions, Cubans ensure that those whose voices are traditionally excluded from elections or political and social processes are in an active role and have a voice through these organizations that represent them.
As a result of these institutions and policies, Cuban people feel and are more represented through this form of electoral process. Cuban people participate actively in much higher numbers and percentages than in many countries, even advanced industrialized countries like the US and Canada. In the 2007 municipal elections in Cuba, 96.45% of eligible voters came out to the polls (National Electoral Commission, Cuba). Compare that to Canada, where a few party leaders squabble to keep each other out of the camera’s (and the people’s) eye, and no organized system to insure that the voices of society’s most often marginalized are heard? Canada’s eligible voter turnout was a shameful 64.7% in the 2006 general election (Source: Elections Canada).
Change is Needed
The recent fiasco of the temporary exclusion of Elizabeth May/Green Party exposed the open wound of Canadian democracy. It exposed also the anti-democratic nature of the ruling elites and their mass media as well as their electoral system. It also showed that the power of people in united action could successfully pressure the ruling class to back down. As well, for many working people, further cracks in this ‘democracy’ and its fragility came to light. However, it is in the interest of the majority of society, working people and oppressed people, that the basic democratic rights to “free speech” (which are constitutionally guaranteed by the bourgeois democratic law) be defended and expanded. There can be no ‘we make ‘em, we break ‘em’ policy by the ruling class, and they must be held accountable to the rules and laws that mostly have been made by them under pressure upon the struggle of working class and oppressed people.
Beyond that, we must go beyond the right of Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, to be heard. We must go even further and demand the same free speech must be extended to all political parties, candidates and grassroots organizations representing the interests of poor and working people when it comes to deciding the next government. For this so-called Canadian democratic system to be real, there must be institutionalized and guaranteed participation at all levels for working, poor and oppressed people from all layers and groups. Anything else is a sham.
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