The last week of January of this, one of the longest winters in recent years, presented an opportunity to compare the substance of two of North America’s democracies.
On Jan. 24 President Obama outlined his views on fair taxation in his State of the Union Address, and on Jan. 27 Prime Minister Harper outlined his views on old age pensions and taxation at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
One seeks to tax the rich, the other to reduce pension benefits. But these are visions and we cannot be certain that millionair hockey players in the US will soon be paying higher taxes, or that Canadian senior citizens will soon be punching time clocks.
To appreciate the significance of the contrast between these two speeches we need to reflect on Marshall McLuhan’s enigmatic paradox, “The medium is the message.”
McLuhan’s riddle cautions us to look for changes in society’s ground rules, signs that the effects of such changes may be detrimental to our society or culture.
To that end we need to ignore what President Obama and Prime Minister Harper said; we need to examine their medium – where it is that they spoke, and what the characteristics of the locations of their speechs may signal for our future. President Obama was speaking to Congress, to the 435 members of the House of Representatives and the 100 Senators elected by citizens of the United States to legislate the affairs of their nation.
The speech was broadcast live to the nation on television, radio, and the Internet. Prime Minister Harper was speaking to an assembly of corporate executives, lobbyists, and assorted hangers on at the World Economic Forum half a world away.
We, citizens of Canada, along with the people we have elected to legislate the affairs of our nation, learned about our Prime Minister’s vision for our future through press reports.
Some Canadian news media referred to Mr. Harper’s speech as a “keynote address” while international media, those who bothered to report on it at all (e.g. The Guardian), summarized his nine minute speech in a single sentence: “He’s talking up the Canadian economy, as expected, and making assurances not to raise tax” (sic).
Political practices and procedures have evolved in Canada which, albeit consistent with the language of our constitution, maximize the powers vested in the Office of the Prime Minister.
Today a determined Canadian Prime Minister may do just about anything he sets out to do. What is left of democracy when a Prime Minister may select an assembly of the world’s corporate barons and there announce new policy directions affecting every citizen, and do so knowing that his decisions will be rubber-stamped by the House of Commons?
The issue is not Mr. Harper or his politics. The issue is the stark reality that Members of Parliament, the people we elect to represent the views, desires, ambitions, visions and concerns we hold for our society, have been reduced to irrelevance.
The people we elect to the House of Commons, whatever their political party affiliation, no longer need to be informed, much less consulted, before the Prime Minister may, with absolute confidence and legitimacy, announce ground-shifting policy changes to the world.
The value of a democratic election is reduced to contemptible symbolism when the power to pass the laws by which, according to democratic principles, we agree to govern ourselves has drifted away from the House of Commons to the Prime Minister’s Office.
It is a bitter irony that Prime Minister Harper made his announcements in Switzerland where, on March 11, 2012, citizens will be voting in four national referenda on proposals ranging from changes to property taxation law to changes in workers’ minimum vacation entitlements.
If we take Marshall McLuhan’s message to heart the dominant issue in our next federal election should not be old age pensions or the export of oil from Alberta’s tar sands, it should be the salvation of what is left of our democracy.
Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administrator living in Terrace, BC.