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Letters to the EditorEroding Democracy in Canada

Eroding Democracy in Canada

by  Robin Sukhu

Now that we are in the midst of an election, it is not unusual for people to give some thought to the idea of democracy. After all, voting and democracy are inextricably linked. The theory is that we elect representatives who, for the most part, reflect the views and preferences of the electorate. Parliament, through our representatives, reigns supreme. The voice of the people is reflected in the laws of the land.

But what if the people we elect do not really represent our wishes, what if the whole idea of democracy has been eroded. What if parliament is no longer supreme? What if the law of the land can be over-ridden and the will of the people over-ruled, would such a system even qualify as a democracy?

Thankfully, there is independent research to answer these questions; we do not have to rely on “gut feel” or intuition. This article describes the findings of some of the research. The article concludes that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” The preferences of the majority had “virtually no effect on policy outcomes”.

This is the exact opposite of what should be happening in a democracy. The majority should rule but instead the majority has “near-zero … impact upon public policy”.   This is not just a US phenomenon, it is global. The data is from an international sample.

If the majority do not influence public policy, who does? The data points to the wealthy (read the article for the details). The analysis of democracies around the world shows that the wealthy disproportionately influences government policies. Democracy is being circumvented.

Control of policy formulation is one thing but how it is possible to override the law of the land? “Free Trade” agreements and the establishment of supra national authorities such as NAFTA Tribunals is one mechanism used to set aside Canadian law. These tribunals consist of non-elected people that rule on matters of national interest and their rulings trump national laws. In a slight of hand manoeuvre, our elected officials delegated authority to a non-elected body. As if by magic, we are now subject to rules of bodies that we did not elect.

One of the first NAFTA claims against Canada came from the Ethyl Corporation. Ethyl produces a manganese based gasoline additive. Due to its toxicity, California and many other states banned its use. The Canadian government proceeded to pass a law restricting the importation of MMT. Ethyl sued the Canadian government under NAFTA. The Canadian government lost and had to pay Ethyl $19.5 million. The law banning the importation of this toxic material had to be reversed. (Read this for an excellent explanation of the Ethyl case.)

Under NAFTA, the Canadian government could not protect the health of its citizens. “If NAFTA did not exist, MMT would still be banned in Canada.” A non-elected NAFTA tribunal has over-ridden a bill approved by the Parliament of Canada – who exactly reigns supreme?

In case you think that Ethyl v. Canada was an anomaly, as of 2015 Canada was the most sued country under NAFTA (see this article) and most of those suits were challenging our environmental laws. Another defeat for Canada is documented here, in this case the oil companies over-ruled provincial regulations. Go here to see the complete list of claims against Canada (note the case against the Quebec government attempts to regulate fracking).

With all these claims, the Canadian judicial system has been removed from the equation. There is no Canadian judge attempting to balance the corporate property rights with the public interest. All NAFTA is concerned about are investors’ rights, foreign investors’ rights.

That was NAFTA, today we have the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. This is an even wider reaching agreement, it has been called “NAFTA on steroids”. It is being negotiated in secret. Secret, how democratic. As reported in the Huffington Post, “Our own MPs do not have access to the text. Not only that, many chapters and articles will continue to be secret four years after the deal goes into effect.” So much for our MPs reflecting our views and preferences – they have no idea what is being negotiated. Surely this reflects badly on our democracy.

As far as a balanced perspective, I seriously doubt there is one representative at the TPP negotiating table from the environmentalist movement, native rights groups, anti-poverty groups or unions – only business and the wealthy.

From the research available combined with over 20 years of NAFTA experience it is clear to me that our elected representatives do not represent us and our parliament is not supreme. There is no doubt in my mind that democracy is the answer for a just society. The problem is that we have a degraded democracy. I am hopeful that the results of the next election will set us back on the path of strengthening democracy.

Links of interest:

New York Times on tribunals





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