Canadian democracy is not exactly in crisis, but our political institutions do need to be revitalized

From Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand’s Canada’s Democracy Week Blog.

Canadian democracy is not exactly in crisis, but our political institutions do need to be revitalized. Many people – particularly youth – no longer see politics as the critical arena for making change. Few of my students want to run for office, though many are public-spirited. They’d rather start a fair trade café, use social media to advance awareness of homelessness and environmental issues, or fundraise for research on cancer or MS. They have civic virtue, but politics is not their vocation.

Many good people are deterred from political participation by the disrepute into which politics has fallen. Scandals over expenses, toxic levels of partisanship, and the media emphasis on political theatrics over the prosaic grind of legislation give politicians a bad rap. Canadians reject the culture of entitlement, Question Period antics, bullying and infighting. That is why UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions created the first-ever Summer Institute for Future Legislators.

We began with the premise that universities can and should prepare people for public life. Not academic preparation but training and mentoring by practitioners who could help impart the skills and know-how to be effective as legislators. The Summer Institute was cross-partisan – we included practitioners and participants from all parties. The only requirement was an aspiration to participate in politics. We recruited over 50 men and women of all ages and backgrounds – from business, the media, students, First Nations, lawyers, civil servants – and put them through a kind of boot camp: four Saturday workshops followed by a model parliament in the Legislature in Victoria. Others participated for free online.

The boot camp not only inspired greater interest in politics as a career, it provided an exemplar of what democratic life could be. Rather than replicate parliamentary business as usual, our political wannabes raised the bar. They came away with a deeper appreciation of the demands of political life, yet were not deterred; it actually made them feel more confident that they knew what they were getting into. We saw how quickly group-think kicks in, as participants began to operate as teams, but also how effectively they were able to monitor and overcome the tendency to bully, grandstand or exclude. As a result, mock legislation was passed by broad majorities following impressive deliberations. A sense of accomplishment was palpable as we ended the sitting.

By preparing people for public life we can encourage more good people to enter politics, channel the civic virtue of some of our best citizens, and demonstrate that politics can be done differently. That is just one way to reconnect citizens with democracy.

Why is Obama consulting Congress on military strikes in Syria?

From the Strong Constitutions blog.

In relation to the separation of powers, the key phrase in Obama’s speech on Syria today was:

“That’s [to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike] my judgment as Commander-in-Chief. But I’m also the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.

This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the President, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.”

There are three possible explanations for this.

1. “The Iraq Syndrome.”  Like the Vietnam syndrome before it, the Iraq syndrome means we’ve seen this movie before and know how it ends.  The experience with Iraq has made it impossible to sell military action without major public diplomacy.

2. “Blood Pact.”  Obama needs to involve both his own party and Republicans in complicity with actions he knows will neither be popular nor easy.

3. “He is a true constitutionalist.”  Obama gets that countries are stronger when they use the separation of powers to coordinate the branches of government to act energetically while upholding the rule of law.

The problem with (1) is that, for all the reasons Obama has outlined, this is not at all like Iraq in 2003.  There is no question that WMDs have been used, and the “war” on terror is not being used as a pretext to do what the President has already decided to do.

As for argument (3), Obama certainly has given evidence of wanting to limit the war-making powers of the President.  I don’t doubt that his sentiments are sincere. But so far his efforts have been extremely tepid.  Consider his campaign of drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen.

Argument (2) seems most persuasive at this point.  Obama knows that military action in Syria is unpopular and will be used against him.  Why should he take the fall alone?

That said, especially coming on the heels of the vote in the UK parliament against British involvement in strikes on Syria, it is great to see deliberative institutions being put to work.  Let’s hope some precedents are being set.