Posted June 14, 2013
Recent headlines have provided plenty of reinforcement for those who hold an ill opinion of the political class.
In Quebec, a parade of witnesses has exposed systematic corruption in the construction industry. Mayors and officials are resigning en masse.
It seems that the Mayor of Toronto may have a substance abuse problem. Ontario political appointees are suspected of destroying emails that would reflect badly on the Liberal Government’s handling of gas plant cancellations.
In Ottawa, we have the embarrassment of Mike Duffy and others for their expense claims. The affair calls into question the judgement of Prime Minister Harper, and his predecessors, in making Senate appointments.
Nova Scotia has had its own all-party expense scandals, eerily similar to experiences in Newfoundland in 2010 and Saskatchewan 20 years earlier.
Canadians might be slightly consoled that it can be far worse. The Economist reports that between 1976 and 2010, no fewer than 2,522 elected New York state officials were convicted of corruption.
American politicians are not easily embarrassed. Republicans Sarah Palin (“But obviously, we’ve got to stand with our North Korean allies” ) and Michele Bachmann (“Scientists tell us that we could have a cure in 10 years for Alzheimer’s were it not for overzealous regulators, excessive taxation and greedy litigators”) are constantly spewing nonsense but apparently are untroubled by it.
Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner’s name will be forever remembered after he sent inappropriate pictures to a woman other than his wife. After providing several improbable explanations he resigned from Congress. But he has briskly recovered his self-confidence and declared his candidacy for mayor of New York.
With stories like these featuring prominently in both broadcast and print media it would be easy for voters to become cynical. It would also be wrong.
Voters frequently forget that the people running the government are the ones that they chose. The choosing does not begin at the ballot box, it ends there.
Members of a lively and effective democracy are highly engaged. Here are some things that we can do:
- Be part of an advocacy group such as the Ecology Action Center or the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. This includes student groups seeking lower tuitions or farmers wanting more agricultural support, but it is especially valuable when it goes beyond issues of personal benefit.
- Participate in local organizations for political parties. Unfortunately, many of these have withered over the years, but it is there that potential candidates for elections are identified and chosen. If some or all of the candidates in an electoral district are unimpressive, it is because not enough good people are engaged in the selection process.
- Take a candidate around the neighbourhood to meet people. Even better, host an event for candidates which allows people to develop a more informed impression than a two minute chat at the front door. Put a sign on your lawn.
- Understand that candidates do demanding, unpaid, and sometimes discouraging work. When a candidate does knock at the door, show respect while sharing perceptions and asking relevant questions.
The quality of democracy in the United States has deteriorated. A rigid two party system restrains the introduction of new ideas and nominates candidates from the extreme right and left. Electoral districts are twisted into absurd shapes to favour incumbents. Unrestrained spending makes political contests a function of volume rather than content. Media outlets are increasingly aligned with one party or the other, rather than acting as unbiased arbiters.
We have no reason to be smug. Voter turnout in Nova Scotia dropped from 75% in 1993 to 58% in 2009. Criminal prosecutions arising from the expense scandal are continuing. A former Minister is charged with assault.
It is certain that there will be an election in Nova Scotia during the next twelve months. Of the respondents to the most recent CRA poll, 55% were unwilling to express a preference. Are they undecided or just disengaged?
We face enormous challenges. Our per capita debt, taxes, and power rates are all among the highest in Canada. Our population is aging and beginning to decline. The number of people employed has been dropping.
Who we elect matters.
Take the time to scrutinize the candidates you will be choosing from. Look on the internet or ask them about their party’s policies on health, education, taxes, power rates, and provincial debt. Listen for whether there is substance or just platitudes.
Make the ballot box your last step, not your first.
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Member’s Manual: Members’ Compensation, Expenses and Constituency Administration from House of Assembly Nova Scotia