Our very own ‘annus horribilis'

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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By David Bulger


For those who cherish democracy, 2012 has been annus horribilis - a horrible year - on this Island. The reversal of policy on the HST - and the pig-headed adherence to that reversal - dialysis units, surgical access in Summerside, the failure to follow recommendations of the Educational Governance Commission...the list goes on until anti-democracy produces the blatant disregard of the hundreds upon hundreds of voices raised in opposition to the so-called ‘Plan B'.

On the morning that the premier's glib and self-serving year-end tap dance appeared in The Guardian, I read an article in the Lewiston, Maine Sun Journal. It detailed the growing number of Maine communities - including the tiny village of Andover (pop. 821) - which have left, or are contemplating leaving, the school unions or administrative districts in which they have been gathered up.

And it brought me sharply back to what may be termed the first real assault by the Ghiz government on the ordinary citizens of P.E.I. Indeed, we would have been wise to take note at the time because the pattern of phony consultation masking a long pre-determined outcome was going to repeat itself again and again. Early on, we should have seen that this was a government that would pretend to listen to the voice of the people, a government all wrapped up in itself whose real motto is "our way or the highway" (or a new "highway alignment").

Not that any other political party is going to do any better - or worse, for that matter. The arrogant Ghiz government replaced the arrogant Binns government, (and we may see the arrogant Dexter government replaced by what will become the arrogant McNeil government in Nova Scotia). Again, it is not the political position of the party that must be looked to but rather to the nature of political parties and to the system that fosters this kind of behaviour.

I have said before that our system of government is not a good one. The French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, put it like this: "The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved..." The huge potential for high-handed mistreatment of the people, like that by the Ghiz cabinet, is built into the British form of government itself, in which a device for controlling the Executive was turned into a system by which the Executive could function virtually without real controls.

This was achieved by the creation of the mindless political party. The Executive was "embedded" in the legislature, so that the members of Parliament could remove it if the House no longer had "confidence" in it. This had to have depended on a - possibly mythical - British notion of ‘honour', that even members of the governing party would vote against the government if it proved necessary and honourable to do so.

Those who allowed this system to ‘evolve' failed to take into account two things: one, the insatiable desire for power; two, no honour among politicians. It is support of the government in power, or the whole-hearted attempt to unseat it, that drives politicians - certainly not anything as irritating as representing the interests of constituents.

So it doesn't matter what political stripe the party wears. Political scientists have identified something called "the iron law of oligarchy". In any political party, power is concentrated and centralized in very few hands. These are the decision-makers. The other members of the party are nothing more or less than trained seals, performing as directed whenever called upon. While the ‘team' concept is often used, the ‘team' is the central group of oligarchs, not the mindless party in general. As one parliamentarian put it in an interview a number of years ago, "I expected to play on the team, but instead I was given pom-poms and sent to the cheering section."

"The answer, my friend..." does not lie in exchanging one group of oligarchs for another. I lived and worked in Ontario when the Bob Rae NDP government came into power. Liberal ‘fat cats' were simply replaced by ‘socialist fat cats'. No, if we want to stop this kind of high-handed behaviour, then we really have to change the system that promotes it.

We could simply get rid of the "motion of non-confidence." The number of successful motions of non-confidence in Canadian history is very small, (and even in the case of minority governments, the party in power is often able to play upon the weaknesses of the opposition and the general dislike of yet "another election.") Not having to prop up the government (or defeat it) might free up legislators. But even this would not overcome "the iron rule of oligarchy". And it is unlikely to come to pass anyway, so we need something else.

The village of Andover, and like-minded communities in Maine, is able to effectively dissent because the Americans, whatever faults they may have, at least respect grass roots democracy. They provide for it in constitutions and laws. We do not.

But we could. In an earlier article, I challenged Mr. Ghiz to show that he is a democrat, and bring in "initiative and recall" legislation. I knew that there would not be a whisper of a response. (Mr. Ghiz is the ultimate technocratic oligarch). But we may be able to take matters into our own hands - and this is something that will require younger legs than mine. I suggest circulating a petition addressed - not to Mr. Ghiz - to the Queen's representative in the province. The petition would demand that the lieutenant-governor withhold the Royal Assent to legislation until such time as he is presented with an "initiative and recall" law. While our constitutional principles ordinarily require the lieutenant-governor to act only on the advice of the cabinet, there are exceptions. And one exception ought to be where the people, the real source of sovereignty, have clearly spoken.

Short of this kind of popular control, we should expect to be abused by governments.

David Bulger is an adjunct professor in the political science department at the University of Prince Edward Island and has taught courses in Canadian government and constitutional law.

Organizations: Educational Governance Commission, Lewiston, Maine Sun Journal, Queen's Royal Assent University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: Maine, Andover, Summerside P.E.I. Nova Scotia Ontario

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