The success of any governance system depends critically on voter confidence in that system. In Canada, however, voter confidence is disturbingly low.
In our last federal election, over a quarter of those eligible to vote did not cast a ballot. A poll taken at that time found that nearly two-thirds of those polled believe that Canada’s politicians cannot be trusted.
Clearly, voter apathy is not the result of general satisfaction with the status quo. On the contrary, another poll taken last year — before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Canada — found that a majority of Canadians believe that our society is “broken.”
An obvious explanation for the alienation of voters is that Canada’s political landscape is littered with broken promises. Justin Trudeau abandoned electoral reform after repeatedly promising to end first-past-the-post voting. Then, after vowing to end fossil fuel subsidies, he continued to pour gas on the climate fire.
But voter distrust is not only about broken promises.
In Manufacturing Consent, professors Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman revealed how elites have been “pervasive, persistent and overwhelmingly effective in establishing a framework of thinkable thought.” Within those boundaries of permissible debate, vigorous disagreements can and do occur, but the boundaries of permissible debate are exceedingly narrow.
Mainstream politicians rarely venture beyond those boundaries. On the rare occasion that they do, they deflect, they obfuscate and they pontificate. For all of their lofty rhetoric, they tell us precious little about where they truly stand.
In the impoverished political discourse of our time, pretending to answer the hard questions while revealing nothing at all has been raised to an art form.
Let us take the example of extreme wealth. A recent study revealed that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the 20 richest Canadians have become $37 billion richer. In a truly democratic society characterized by vigorous and open debate, an outcome so obscene would generate spirited discussion about extreme wealth: Why do we allow billionaires to exist, and why have we not taxed them out of existence? How can a purportedly democratic society allow a handful of individuals to control tens of billions of dollars of wealth while over three million Canadians live in poverty?
Consider, too, the example of military spending. Today, Canada is confronted by no military threat that is remotely as dangerous as the climate emergency. Yet we expend over $30 billion annually on the military while continuing to participate in NATO. Members of NATO collectively spend over US$1 trillion annually — more than three times the military expenditures of China and Russia combined. Not only is NATO a black hole for public money but its carbon footprint is gigantic. Despite these facts, there is no meaningful debate in mainstream political discourse as to whether Canada should dramatically reduce its military spending or withdraw from NATO.
Similarly, Canadians have suffered for decades from an access-to-justice crisis. Millions of working Canadians cannot afford a lawyer and therefore attempt to navigate the courts without legal counsel or, even worse, avoid the justice system altogether when their rights have been violated. Meanwhile, wealthy Canadians routinely employ the most capable legal counsel to defend their interests in litigation or to devise ever more ingenious ways to game the legal system. When legal resources are distributed so inequitably, equality is no more than a theory and democracy no more than an aspiration. Yet what mainstream politician today even acknowledges that we have a crisis of access to justice?
Then there’s advertising. Our society is drowning in it — in and on our buses and subways, our movie theatres, our social media platforms, our billboards, our radio stations, our televisions. It is even on our clothing. And what useful information does advertising actually convey? The vast majority of corporate propaganda conveys little to no useful information at all. It is designed, rather, to seduce us into consuming things we do not need. Indeed, much of what we are manipulated into consuming is doing us harm and destroying our planet. Yet what mainstream politician today talks seriously about strictly regulating advertising content and sharply curtailing its presence in our day-to-day lives?
In politics, that which affects us the most is talked about the least, while that which affects us the least is talked about the most. This is not a bug. It’s a feature of our political system.
It is time for us to step boldly beyond the narrow boundaries of permissible political debate. More than ever, and answer those questions directly and from the heart. Transformative change begins with open and honest debate. By engaging in such a debate, we will inspire the confidence of millions of alienated voters and finally begin the process of healing our broken society.
Dimitri Lascaris is a leadership candidate for the Green Party of Canada.