The Democratic Way
A paper by Andre Carrel
June 20, 1997
Democracy: The Concept
"The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to, - for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well, - is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly."
- Henry David Thoreau
"Democracy is not intended to be efficient, linear, logical, cheap, the source of absolute truth, manned by angels, saints or virgins, profitable, the justification for any particular economic system, a simple matter of majority rule or for that matter a simple matter of majorities. Nor is it an administrative procedure, patriotic, a reflection of tribalism, a passive servant of either law or regulation, elegant or particularly charming. Democracy is the only system capable of reflecting the humanist premise of equilibrium or balance. The key to its secret is the involvement of the citizen."
- John Ralston Saul
"The "return of philosophy" is due essentially to the decline in the ready-made answers provided by religion, which for centuries was often a surrogate for philosophy, by ideologies (Marxism in particular) and by the humanities. We have finally come to realize that the humanities were incapable of answering the questions of the meaning of life, values and the art of living. The Ancient Greeks worked on the idea of Good. Many dreamt of an ideal society, of ideal man. We, for our part, coming in the wake of Nazism and Stalinism, tend to have been confronted with the experience of evil and horror. As a result, the novelty of our age lies in our approach to ethics. Today, we are less concerned with the quest for absolute good, for an ideal society or ideal man, than with a search for means of preventing the worst and trying to prevent it in others. It is a sort of negative and tragic ethic."
- Andre Comte-Sponville
Democracy: Its Demise
Just how far democracy as practiced in Canada has deviated from its basic principles is evident in a cursory assessment of the recent provincial and federal elections. In British Columbia, the New Democratic Party received less than 40% of the votes cast - fewer than the Liberal Party. The system nonetheless provided the NDP with a majority of seats and absolute control of the government. Federally, the Liberal Party, with only 38% of the popular vote, was able to lay claim to 51% of the parliamentary seats and absolute control of the government. During the election campaign the Prime Minister said that he would not recognize a vote of 50% plus one in favour of the separation of Quebec. Canadians are expected to understand that in our "democratic" system 38% is a majority but 50% plus one is not. If citizens are confused and frustrated by the way democracy works in Canada, it's easy to see why.
The growing gap between rich and poor is often cited as one of the problems of our times. But there is an equally wide and growing gap separating citizens from their governments. The result of this gap is disillusionment, discontent and stark cynicism about politics. People know that all the power is not vested in "the people". It is vested in the hands of a few people. How then is our system different from other forms of government where decisions affecting the lives of everyone are made by only a few?? If we cling to the belief that we-the-people ought to have a role in the decision-making process, how do we bring that about? Is merely having the right to "throw the bums out" periodically and elect a new set of bums enough? If not, why not? How do we- the-people gain a greater voice in making the decisions that govern us? How do we, as part of government at the municipal level, make real democracy happen?
Democracy: Its Purpose
The purpose of a democracy is to facilitate the cohabitation of citizens, to engage citizens for the betterment of their community, and to do all those things that strengthen a civic society, things which go far beyond the delivery of water and the collection of garbage.
Democracy: Its Elements
What distinguishes democratic government from any other form of government is that it is based on mutual trust between the governing and the governed. Through the process of regular, free elections, citizens extend their trust in certain individuals to represent them as they govern the country, the province or municipality. This process is well developed.
What remains undeveloped or at least underdeveloped are processes whereby governments demonstrate trust in the citizens they govern. A one-way system, where the citizenry places confidence in a few of its fellow citizens to govern, but those (both hired and elected) who form the government do not show confidence in the citizenry, undermines the democratic process. For democracy to flourish it is absolutely necessary to develop processes to prove that governments trust the people they are governing, and that governments are willing to receive and respect input and direction from the governed.
Dialogue between citizen and citizen, and between citizens and their government, is key. A government is not democratic when communication is reduced to an exchange of slogans and statements and, if in electing representatives, citizens surrender a blank cheque of power to a select group.
Democratic government cannot survive without citizen participation. The Municipal Act requires the electors' assent in a number of cases, most relating to expenditures. A good example is found in section 341 (Chapter 323) where a council may, with the support of 2/3 of its members, exempt certain properties serving cultural and social community objectives from property taxes in any one year. If a longer exemption is desired, the assent of electors is required. Here is an example where council is given a mandate by the Municipal Act, limited in duration and safeguarded from spuriousness by requiring a 2/3 majority on council. If council wants to go beyond these limits, it must seek the approval of its citizens. The idea of citizen empowerment is established in a few dark corners of the Municipal Act, but how sad that it is scarcely more than tokenism!
The dictionary definition of democracy as a form of government in which political power resides in all the people and is exercised by them directly is misleading. To say all power resides in the people and not in the government is to imply that the government has no power at all. The question then arises: "What purpose, if any, does government have?" This line of thinking could lead to the conclusion that democracy and anarchy are synonymous. But that is not the case, because democracy is a form of government, a form in which the people have the power to make decisions.
Democracy recognizes that citizens suffer the financial, social and cultural consequences of government decisions. A new government may reverse an unpopular decision, but any decision, once implemented, carries a social, cultural and economic price which is paid, in total, by citizens. Thus elections alone are not enough, because elections are not sufficient to negate decisions that have already been implemented. Citizens are empowered only when they are free to assume responsibility for decisions at such time and on such issues as citizens, not the council, deem to be of paramount importance to the community.
Democracy: Its Practice
If the essential elements of democracy are trust, dialogue, participation and power, then it follows that in order to practice democracy, it is necessary to put mechanisms in place which make possible and encourage those things. In an ideal world, innate trust would lead to dialogue and participation, and power sharing would follow automatically. However, few governments have ever trusted citizens to directly exercise power, and citizen confidence in government has been severely eroded in recent years. Thus we find ourselves in a situation where trust, on both sides, is minimal. If we at the municipal level actually wish to practice democracy, we must begin the process under these less-than- ideal circumstances. We must begin, in fact, at the opposite end of this list of democratic essentials, by first giving citizens real, decision-making power, which will encourage participation, which will generate dialogue, which will lead to mutual trust.
It is appropriate that the democratic process be re-kindled at the municipal level which is widely viewed as the government closest to the people. When a municipal council chooses to limit itself to collecting garbage and to keeping taxes low, all without consulting with the members of the community on how to approach those problems, or even bothering to find out if those are the community's priorities, then community government is a bureaucratic function and not a democratic government. Such government robs citizens of the last theatre of civic debate left accessible to them. Only by creating a meaningful and active role for citizens to participate as partners in governance, by giving them the power to affect the outcome in the decision-making process, can a municipal council re-kindle a willingness on the part of citizens to participate.
A municipal manager should be more than a straw boss who sells council decisions to the community (and administers council solutions, whether the community likes them or not.) A far more important responsibility of the municipal manager is to encourage council to show trust in the citizenry it governs, and to aid council in developing channels for meaningful citizen input and participation in all areas where decisions are made. Citizens have already demonstrated their trust in members of the council by voting for them. Now let the council, with the full support of its manager, demonstrate trust in citizens by creating an aura of mutual trust and an arena where legitimate and democratic dialogue can take place.
How can we do that? A British Columbia Minister said a few months ago, by way of justifying a less than popular government decision, that governments can do anything! Democratic governance needs a mechanism where citizens can, in an orderly and civilized manner, prevent their government from doing anything. That is what Rossland's Constitution Bylaw and Pitt Meadows' Referendum and Initiative Bylaw are designed to achieve. Both these bylaws are designed to enable citizens to respond to the arrogance of absolute power with a loud, clear and decisive: Oh No, You Don't!
By giving citizens the tools to reject a municipal bylaw, even when implored by council to support it, citizens are placed on an equal footing with their council. When a council is prevented from enshrining a measure into law unless it has the support of the citizenry, implied or expressed, council has no option but to resort to dialogue in order to find mutually acceptable solutions. The Rossland and Pitt Meadows process establishes a partnership of council and citizenry and prevents the unilateral imposition of laws by either partner.
Citizens have been so long without a role in the decision-making process that, even after a municipal council has put into place a mechanism whereby citizens can participate, they will be slow to do so. The first widespread participation on the part of community members is likely to be a simple testing of the referendum process, to determine whether or not they actually do have the power to say "No!" to a particular council decision. And yet, referenda do not invariably result in overturning council decisions. Of the ten referenda held in Rossland over the past seven years, five have resulted in overturning council decisions, and five have resulted in upholding decisions.
Once citizens begin to understand that they have real power, their interest in participation begins to awaken. Townhall meetings they would not have attended back in the days when such meetings were nothing more than attempts by council to sell ready-made decisions are more likely to be attended once citizens realize that their input is actually being solicited by council, and can actually affect municipal decisions.
It is a responsibility of municipal government to establish mechanisms where citizens can, in an orderly and civilized manner: (a) participate in the decision-making process, (b) dialogue with members of the government and with each other, and (c) on those occasions when citizens wish to do so, reject decisions made for them by their municipal government.
In addition to providing the services delegated to it by the provincial government, municipal governments have an obligation to engage citizens in the process of democratic governance. Once citizens have begun to participate, and made their concerns known, municipal government has a responsibility to speak out on those issues, whether they are within or beyond the powers delegated by the Municipal Act. For example, if a community is concerned about the state of education or hospital services, or about any condition affecting the social, cultural or civic health of the community, the municipal council has not only a right, but indeed an obligation - a political and democratic duty - to represent and speak for the community. Notwithstanding the role of school boards and hospital boards, a municipal council derives its legitimacy from its citizens and thus has the legitimacy to represent its citizens in all matters that concern the community. It may not have the power to expend funds on matters outside those specified in the Municipal Act, but it does have the responsibility to represent and advocate the views of its citizens in all matters of interest and concern to the community.
Democracy: Its Ethics
Prudence, courage, justice, generosity, compassion, humility and tolerance are as much virtues of democracy as they are of humanity. Applying ethics and virtues in a democracy means to emulate the tolerance of the most tolerant members of the community, the compassion of the most compassionate, the generosity of the most generous and the courage of the most courageous. Settling for the lowest common denominator is not being accommodating; it is cowardice and it is unethical. Rushing a decision is not being frugal with the precious commodity of time; it is avarice and it is unethical. Reducing services to those least able to resist the power of government is not fiscal responsibility; it is callousness and it is unethical. Being servile to rules and regulations is not being fair; it is bigotry and it is unethical.
Municipal government has at its disposal the use of force and frequently relies on it as a means to ensure compliance with regulations. Coercion may be efficient in the short-term and may even be necessary under certain emergency conditions. However, the habitual use of coercion breeds a master-servant relationship between the government and the governed. It gives rise to suspicions on the part of the governed about the true motives of the governing elite and it leads to less and less cooperation, which in turn deprives the community of the energies and resources that can only flow from cooperation. Thus, as a practical matter of maximizing community resources, municipal government should, insofar as possible, replace coercion with opportunities for cooperation. In the pursuit of cooperation, council should throw caution to the wind. Occasional setbacks and disappointments in leading the community toward ever-greater cooperation are not failures, they are minor obstacles on the trail toward a healthier community.
As municipalities cope with expanding populations, increasingly complex social and cultural problems and shrinking economic resources, there is a growing tendency to focus on economics and to use the economic unit of the dollar as a universal measure of value: if it costs less it's good and if it costs more it's bad. At the federal and provincial level, the practice of using the dollar as a measure of value is in full gallop and the tendency of municipal governments to follow them like sheep is strong. This can only lead to disaster. Why? Because the fabric of communities is not economics. It is their social and cultural values, their traditions and the good-neighbour qualities that surface whenever disaster strikes. These are the things that bind a community, this is the glue of society.
Community values cannot be measured in economic units, but they can be destroyed when manipulated in the pursuit of economic efficiencies. To subject public policy to economic measures and to sacrifice community values to the anonymity of the global market is to undermine the very foundation of our communities. The primary duty, responsibility, and obligation of every mayor, councillor, manager and administrator is to take a sober look at the values on which their community's survival depends and to act in support of those values, whether that increases or decreases taxes and expenditures. Political and economic savvy alone will not suffice. The decisions we make today are not solutions, they are the seeds of tomorrow's problems. Democracy takes, above all, an unwavering commitment to ethics and virtues.
June 20, 1997