Believe it or not, there are people besides politicians and news reporters who, outside of election campaigns, study politics for a living. Some might call the practice of politics an art. Others call it a science — Political Science.
Dr. Greg Millard, chair and faculty member of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Department of Political Science in Surrey, shares some of his thoughts on the state of Canada’s democracy, past, present and future. Reporter Tom Zytaruk asked the questions, and Dr. Millard provided the answers:
Now: Since the turn of the century, how has Canadian democracy evolved/devolved?
Dr. Millard: This is a very broad question, but I’d emphasize three developments. First, the power of party leaders, but most especially the prime minister, has expanded quite considerably, at the expense of rank and file MPs in parliament. In the nineteenth century, party affiliations were looser, and a PM like Sir John A. Macdonald had to devote considerable effort to winning support for his policies in the House, even if a majority of MPs were of his own party. Now, for various reasons, we’re at a point where the PM overwhelms all other actors within the federal political process, largely imposing his will without difficulty if he has a parliamentary majority. Even though there are still some checks on prime ministerial power – including the courts, and, of course, elections themselves – those who think ‘democracy’ should mean more than ‘elective dictatorship by one person,’ tend to be concerned about this drift.
The rise of electronic media, especially TV, has also changed politics quite a bit. The local ‘ground game’ is still very important, but there are legitimate worries about whether democracy is impoverished by an age of highly professionalized spin, and six-second sound bytes driven by a hyper-accelerated news cycle. It’s hard to discuss issues in that kind of environment, so we risk instead having an image-driven politics driven by visceral images.
A third development is that citizens have become much less deferential toward political elites over the past 50 years or so. While a certain cynicism about politicians has always existed, and is probably healthy, the rising level of contempt for politicians, and declining trust accorded them, seems to be new. Voters are much more promiscuous in their party loyalties as well. Instead of the 19th-century scenario of loyal Liberal and Conservative families, say, we now have voters who position themselves more like consumers, waiting to be persuaded (or marketed to) by parties from election to election. All of this can be good, because it creates a lot of pressure for a more responsive and transparent politics. But it can also go the other way, as when the population simply tunes out of politics in favour of private pursuits, or the electorate becomes chopped up into niche segments to be cynically catered to without regard for wider questions of national interest.
Now: What relevance does the federal government have to Canadians’ every day life?
Dr. Millard: The federal government has clear constitutional responsibility in areas such as criminal justice, foreign policy, EI, the economy, and immigration. It also takes in far more revenue than any provincial government, and therefore has tended to help to fund, and to collaborate with, the provinces on matters of social policy – most notably health care- and the development of infrastructure. All of this matters plenty to ordinary citizens. It’s worth noting that in the Harper era, Ottawa has tended to let the provinces run social policy largely as they please, without strings attached to federal funds, and in that sense Ottawa has backed away somewhat from the strong voice it once exerted in these areas. People may not be aware that Canada has also come to be near the very bottom of OECD countries in spending on social services as a per centage of GDP. (Only Estonia, South Korea, and Iceland spend less). So Ottawa matters much less on social questions than it once did.
Now: Concerning election campaigns, what trends are you seeing develop over, say, the past three federal election campaigns? (That includes this current one).
Dr. Millard: The big story has been the decline of the Liberal Party of Canada. It dominated Canadian politics for most of the 20th century. But its vote and seat share have been in steady decline over the past three elections, with the NDP surpassing it to become the official opposition for the first time in 2011. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have tried, with some success, to move themselves into the place formerly occupied by the Liberals and become the ‘natural party of government.’ They’ve been helped in this by the ongoing division to their left between the NDP and Liberals.
Another very interesting development was the collapse of the Bloc Québécois in 2011, with its support going mostly to the NDP. This means that we now have, for the first time since 1993, a federalist national party (the NDP) with a significant chance of forming a government that bridges francophone Quebec and English-speaking Canada. That sort of ‘Quebec bridge’ used to be a normal part of the formula of governing Canada, so the possibility of its restoration is an intriguing and under-discussed sub-plot in this election.
Now: With social media, is the electorate increasingly experiencing information overkill/fatigue?
Dr. Millard: I don’t think social media have changed our elections all that much. They just offer one more way for parties and candidates to get their message out, but I doubt that people are groaning under the weight of information about politics, because social media allow people to tailor the kind of content they want to receive. Political junkies, then, will have their social media stacked with political info, while people who don’t care about politics will not. Indeed, the main impact of social media seems to have been that they’re a new source that parties mine for ‘gotcha’ moments they use to attack their opponents – as when a candidate or party official is condemned for a questionable Tweet or Facebook post from years ago. This petty stuff probably compounds voters’ cynicism about the process; and it surely doesn’t encourage young people, who have grown up online, to think highly of participating or of the process in general.
Now: How important is door knocking and all-candidates debates?
Dr. Millard: There is a demonstrable correlation between party contact with voters, and voters’ likeliness to vote and to think that political decisions matter. So candidates generally have a strong interest in connecting face to face with voters wherever possible. If a candidate is an overwhelming favourite, though, a candidates’ debate may be best avoided, since there’s always the risk of looking bad.
Now: Fast forward 20 years — any predictions how a Canadian federal election might unfold, given current trends? For example, will we see on-line voting, do you think, and what would be the potential benefits/perils of such a thing?
Dr. Millard: The main challenges to on-line voting are technical ones having to do with security systems. We’d need an absolutely fool-proof system if we want to be sure our ballots are not vulnerable to manipulation. There may also be some issues of economic class and age at play here, as poorer people tend to have less access to the internet, and older people tend to be less comfortable using it. But these concerns may well diminish as time passes. I don’t see online voting as a panacea for low voter turnout, as voting is already pretty convenient for most people who care to pay attention. Would folks who don’t care about politics be any more likely to vote if it were digitized? Perhaps, but the deeper problems of apathy, cynicism, vacuous elections, and concentrated and decreasingly-accountable prime ministerial power would probably remain.