Saturday, December 08, 2012

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Frances Russell discusses how the Harper Cons have capitalized on the general public's lack of familiarity with how our parliamentary system is supposed to work - and the conventional checks and balances which have been overridden at every turn by a governing party which isn't interested in preserving a functional system of accountability:
Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of politics at the University of Manitoba, calls the debasement of Canada’s Parliament under the Harper Conservatives “stark.” He cites such recent developments as: the government forcing committees to meet in secret and muzzling opposition MPs from revealing anything that occurred to protect the government; drafting 400-page omnibus budget bills and ramming them through Parliament in marathon sittings allowing little or no debate; compelling opposition MPs to appear before committee to be interrogated because they offended the government; and controlling and managing the parliamentary press gallery.

Our system is based on the assumption that prime ministers and cabinets will respect constitutional traditions and unwritten conventions — not to mention democratic norms — and agree to be bound by them, Thomas said.

“So there’s always a presumption of a certain amount of restraint on the part of the prime minister. He has, not all the power, but most of the power, and he can make a lot of things happen and prevent other things from happening and if he’s bound and determined like Harper is, then you get someone who is more systematic, sweeping and more consistently controlling.”

Thomas said the government is determined to dominate the agenda, to engage in news management and to prevent unforeseen events from arising through Parliament. “It’s more systematic and across the board. They don’t see Parliament as a useful part of the governing process. They see it as a nuisance.”
- Meanwhile, Jordan Brennan points to corporate control as another source of conflict between citizens' interests and the actions of Canadian governments:
It turns out that there is a stunning historical relationship between relative firm size (corporate concentration) and the income share of the richest Canadians (inequality). In 1950, an average firm within the top 60 was five times larger than an average firm on the TSX. This ratio would slowly decline to three by 1977 and then, just as the Canadian state began to embrace ‘Chicago School’ principles, gradually rise to six by 1989 before surging to 23 in 2008 (see enclosed figure). What’s more, the pattern of this ratio is closely shadowed by the income share of the richest 0.1 per cent of Canadians.

The reasons for the growing concentration of income and corporate power aren’t hard to discern. After all, Adam Smith grounded his advocacy for laissez-faire in two counteracting principles: self-interest and competition. His ‘system of perfect liberty’ would optimize social welfare and enlarge human freedom so long as self-interest was always kept in check by the disciplining effects of intense competition between many small firms. Smith also believed that laissez-faire would entail a ‘perfectly equal’ distribution of income or conditions ‘continually trending to equality’.
Other effects of growing corporate concentration can be inferred, if we care to look. Despite extreme inequality, three decades of wage stagnation and a two decade-long decline in union density, politicians at all levels of government — cheered on by corporations — are attacking unions. Unions give a voice to ordinary people in the workplace and, historically, have strengthened middle class formation by ensuring that gains from growth are widely shared among lower income brackets. Their erosion is closely tied to the concentration of corporate power and increasing income inequality.

What does this have to do with democracy? Detractors will answer ‘nothing’ on the basis that the governing party is subject to elections. But as Josiah Ober — the Stanford professor of classics — makes clear, for the ancient Athenians who invented it democracy did not mean majority rule, nor did it hinge on elections. Democracy meant a regime of empowered citizens with the ability to effect change in the public realm. It was centred on the capacity of an ordinary citizen to do good things in the life of the community.

This means that democracy is not a condition Canadians have realized, it is an ideal we pursue. Democracy is weakened when important decisions about our collective future are removed from the public realm and put in the hands of the few. It is severely impaired when a small faction in the polity, in this case corporate Canada, exercises control over the levers of the state.
 - Andrew Coyne discusses the Cons' F-35 abuses as a prominent example of the breakdown of democratic accountability.

- And finally, Greg Weston, Jenny Uechi and Andrew Nikiforuk all criticize the Cons' nonsensical explanation for approving CNOOC's takeover of Nexen.

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