Canada's mixed message: Vote, but don't talk about it

There's an election coming up. How grand. I share P.J. O'Rourke's view, in the April Atlantic Monthly, that "I'm fascinated by political enthusiasm. To me, selecting my democratic representative is a lugubrious duty, more like making a will than cheering the Bruins." But when he added that he finds enthusiasm "a slightly creepy word, with its Greek root meaning 'the fact of being possessed by a God','' I thought count your blessings. I'm about to be possessed by Jean-Pierre Kingsley.

I'm not sure how it happened. The chief electoral officer once had the humble if important duty of ensuring the smooth administrative functioning of our electoral system including, say, the new voters' list. But Mr. Kingsley somehow acquired much larger fish to fry. (And a bigger pan; his administrative budget, $3.5 million in 1999, hit $17.9 million by 2003.) Sunday's Citizen said as soon as the writ is dropped, Mr. Kingsley will hold a press conference to urge us all to vote. He has often voiced "very serious concerns" about low turnout because, he told a Carleton University symposium last year, "To give true meaning to democracy, the engagement of all citizens is required." (All?) His particular worry is young people; in 2000, just over 61 per cent of eligible voters turned out, but only 25.4 per cent of those 18 to 24.

I could congratulate youth for renouncing political power until they acquire greater maturity. Or make the wacky suggestion that low turnout is hardly surprising given the mendacious incompetence of recent politics. Maybe we who keep on voting are like folks who lived through the Depression and can't stop saving bits of string lest the lean years return. As an editorial in Thursday's Citizen noted, before McSwindle we had Peter MacKay promising in writing not to merge the Tories with the Alliance; most of Ottawa city council promising to "hold the line" on taxes and Paul Martin swearing he'd get to the bottom of the sponsorship scandal. To say nothing of "Zap, you're frozen," "pink slips and running shoes," or axing the GST and NAFTA. But such a suggestion implies that it is the place of voters to pass judgment on politicians.

Our political class clearly holds the opposite view. Understandably, given our opinion of them. A snap survey right after the McSwindle budget found majority opposition to the health premium and service cutbacks even among Liberal supporters but, the Citizen added, "The good news for the Liberals is that 66 per cent of people polled believe they are no better or worse than any other party when it comes to breaking promises."

If that's the good news, I have an even wackier thought. If citizens don't believe a word politicians say, but you want to re-engage them in politics, it would be a perfect time to throw public debate wide open. Instead, the Supreme Court just threw it wide shut by upholding an election gag law enthusiastically supported by one J.-P. Kingsley.

I know, I know, it's touted as a way of keeping the rich from hijacking democracy. There is, the court admitted, no evidence that such a thing happens. Besides, if we're talking rich, how about the federal government, with annual revenues of $180 billion and the largest advertising budget in the country in election years? Oh no no no no no no. Absent what the court admits is censorship, Leviathan will be outshouted by the sinister plutocrats at the National Citizens' Coalition with their $1.5-million annual budget.

It reflects something worse as well. According to A.V. Dicey's magisterial late 19th century The Law of the Constitution, "In England the doctrine has since 1700 in substance prevailed that the government has nothing to do with the guidance of opinion ... Hence the government has (speaking generally) exercised no special control over literature, and the law of the press ... has been nothing else than a branch or an application of the law of libel. In France, literature has for centuries been considered as the particular concern of the state. The prevailing doctrine ... has been, and still to a certain extent is, that it is the function of the administration not only to punish defamation, slander, or blasphemy, but to guide the course of opinion or, at any rate, to adopt preventive measures for guarding against the propagation in print of unsound or dangerous doctrines." We seem to have switched philosophies here in Canada.

So in the next election we will be guided into voting despite our apathy and sloth. But we shall be forbidden to prattle among ourselves, above a whisper, about the issues on which we might cast an informed ballot.

Incredible, under the circumstances, that our enthusiasm for the process is waning.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson