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We Need Inept Governments and Alienated Voters

“The deepest problem is alienation of citizens from their governments. It’s habitually treated as an odd phenomenon unrelated to the state’s increasingly feeble, unaffordable and arrogant performance. But government in Canada isn’t just big and inept. It’s inept because it’s too big, in ways our traditional constitution was designed to prevent.

Yes, constitution. When problems are this fundamental, so are causes. And right now the relationship between citizens and government in Canada is upside down. We don’t control them, they control us. They have torn loose from their moorings, and we need to strap them down again…”

This column by John Robson in the National Post is based on a misunderstanding of our Constitution.  It was never intended to give citizens power.  It is not “of the people, by the people, for the people” a notion that imbues the American Constitution, but we expect that our Constitution to echo that sentiment; Americanisation of Canadian culture has bent our understanding of our country.

Our Constitution was designed to give the Supreme Court and Parliament power because, at the heart of it, the Constitution reflects a distrust of democracy; the Senate, an appointed body, was deliberately positioned to run herd on the elected lower house.  Nothing in the Constitution of 1982 alters the bicameral structure of the federal government, however much it may offend Libertarians.

The unique aspect of the Constitution is the embodiment of a Bill of Rights, a document that had been conceived and written in the John Diefenbaker years, which elevates the position and function of the Supreme Court.  Citizens, directly, derive no power in this arrangement.  I doubt that this was an oversight that requires correction.

Canada is not a democracy; we are a Parliamentary democracy.  Democracy exists in Parliament, to the extent that it is possible, not necessarily in the country, though one presumes that if legislation conforms to the Constitution, democracy ‘will flourish in the land.’

To ensure that the Constitution did not upset a ‘status quo’ in which citizens were already ‘alienated,’ the First By The Post Voting System which had been somewhat modelled after the British system, remained unchanged in the Constitution.  This ensured that a minority of the popular vote in a general election could elect a majority government.  

The amending formula for changing the Constitution is so unlikely to happen, that the document is unlikely to change ever.  

“The general formula is the standard way to change the Constitution. Unless the Constitution says that another formula can be used, the general formula is needed. The general formula is also needed for specific changes listed under section 42,[2] like changing what powers Senators have and how they are selected. This formula would also be used to establish new provinces.

To change the Constitution using the general formula, the change needs to be approved by 1) the federal Parliament, 2) the Senate, and 3) a minimum number of provincial legislatures. There must be at least seven provinces that approve the change, representing at least 50% of Canada’s population. This is often called the 7 + 50 rule. This means that provinces with large populations will typically need to approve a change in order for the amendment to succeed. However, the change cannot happen without some support from provinces with smaller populations.”  excerpt from an article by Centre of Constitutional Studies, University of Alberta.

There are two other amending formulas used for changes “that do not affect all provinces.”

There is no useful purpose in critiquing the Constitution, to argue that it fails to give power to ‘the people;’ it wasn’t supposed to do that anyway but that view has been expressed often by western provinces and the Conservative Party (aka Reform Party) who aspire to a shift in power from the centre of the country to the West.  The idea of an elected, equal Senate fosters this view, at the expense of the original vision held by the founders of this country.

Citizens have always felt ‘alienated’ from government.  This isn’t a fault of the Constitution and there is no change, thankfully, that would eliminate this alienation. In fact, alienation allows for a healthy scepticism for the practices and policies of government whose primary function is the dissemination of the power of the Crown in the daily lives of people.

Government in Canada has always been ‘inept.’  The original Parliament buildings were built by the company that had submitted the highest bid.  John A. Macdonald built the railway west in a grand scheme to unite this country, financed with money in brown bags. Pierre Trudeau’s handling of the domestic economy during his time in office alienated western Canadian oil producers and initiated double digit interest rates for mortgages. These are just three of so many examples.

Government has always been big, out of control enterprise but the expenditures provided stimulus to regions and, to some degree, levelled the disparity between rich and poor, though the debate about the effectiveness of this levelling will always be with us.  One ought to be thankful for alienated electorates and inept governments; change, though temporary, would be highly unlikely without them.

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Professional. Retired. Canadian.

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