Monday, 20 January 2020

Citizens' Assemblies Gaining Favour

Democracy has been producing some perverse results recently. A prime example is our neighbour to the south. In 2016, the American people elected Hillary Clinton, one of the most qualified candidates they have ever been offered for president, but they got Donald Trump, undoubtedly the least qualified candidate they have ever been offered. The people were overruled by an eccentric institution called the Electoral College. A similar result elected George W. Bush over Al Gore in the 2000 election. The Electoral College, it seems, has a soft spot for incompetents.

Another example is the Brexit referendum in Britain. I have written in a previous post about the perversity of referendums in general and of this one in particular. That post also presents the much more democratic alternative, the citizens' assembly—a set of citizens chosen randomly, to accurately represent the population, and then brought together to study the issue in depth. The group learns from experts and stakeholders, and consult and deliberate, before making their decision on the issue.

Fair Vote Canada pointed out in a recent article how citizens' assemblies are gaining favour. In France, the Citizens’ Assembly for the Climate is tasked with developing a climate plan that cuts carbon emissions by 40 percent before 2030. A Citizens’ Assembly in Scotland will make recommendations to guide Scotland's post-Brexit future. In the UK, the Citizens’ Assembly on Climate will direct the government on how to meet its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Irish Citizens’ Assembly will propose legislative changes to advance gender equality. Irish Citizens’ Assemblies, which have done groundbreaking work on gay marriage and abortion, are an international model for citizen participation. All the above will be reporting on their deliberations in 2020.

The German-speaking region of Belgium has even formed a permanent Citizens' Assembly. All six parties in the region's parliament endorsed the bill that established the assembly. Parliament will be bound to respond to its recommendations. This tiny community is setting an example for all of Europe. At a time when anger and distrust is troubling a number of Western democracies, they would do well to take a close look.

As could Canada. Citizens' assemblies would be a useful addition to our governing institutions at all levels of government. Fair Vote intends to do everything possible to achieve a national citizens' assembly on electoral reform in the current Parliament.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Taiwanese Choose Freedom and Democracy

Last Saturday the Taiwanese re-elected President Tsai Ing-Wen. Tsai won more votes than any presidential candidate since Taiwan began holding direct elections for president in 1996. Her party also maintained a majority in the legislature. The landslide was not only a strong voice of support for the incumbent, but an equally strong rebuke of China, and specifically for the Communist Party. Tsai campaigned against unification while her main opponent backed closer ties with the mainland.

In her victory speech, Tsai declared, "This election is about whether or not we choose freedom and democracy. We must work to keep our country safe and defend our sovereignty." She didn't need to explain who they were defending their sovereignty against. China, which persists in claiming that Taiwan is part of the mainland, has been desperately employing both carrot and stick to encourage the Taiwanese to return to the fold. Mostly stick. Twice it sailed its new aircraft carrier through the Taiwan strait in the run-up to the election, and former paramount leader Hu Jintao has said Beijing would not rule out the use of force to bring Taiwan to heel. The intimidation didn't work.

China has little to offer but brute force to bring Taiwan onside. Economically, Taiwan is miles ahead with a GDP per capita over double that of China's. China has consistently achieved double-digit growth over the last 25 years, yet Taiwan remains well ahead despite economic restrictions imposed by its neighbour. One might expect at least a more equitable distribution of wealth in the communist country, but such is not the case. Inequality is much lower in Taiwan. Taiwan also provides better social infrastructure, including health care, with one-quarter China's infant mortality and five extra years of life expectancy. Not surprisingly, China's offer of the "one-country, two-systems" principle for unification, à la Hong Kong, falls on deaf ears. The Taiwanese have seen how well that works.

Last November, pro-democracy candidates won overwhelmingly in Hong Kong's district council elections. And, as in Hong Kong, younger Taiwanese were more likely to support the politicians who stood strong for democracy, not a welcome omen for Beijing.

China has now been twice rebuffed in recent months. Chinese people opting for democracy when it's on offer no doubt grates the Communist leadership in Beijing and helps explain their determination to bring Taiwan under their control. The Taiwanese, like the Hong Kongers, want none of it.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

Defending the Indefensible Left and Right

People of the left and, one would hope, also many on the right, look on with horror as Republican politicians unconditionally support their degenerate president. Trump once boasted "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters," and it appears that he wouldn't lose the support of any Republican Members of Congress. It seems he can do anything, say anything, attack any people or institution, insult fellow members of his own party, abuse presidential powers, display a complete lack of common decency, and it matters not at all. The ranks hold.

This mindless loyalty is common on both sides of the political spectrum. We only need to look at the defense of men like Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro and Bolivia's Evo Morales by all too many Canadians leftists for ample evidence. Both of these men did good things, emphatically so in the case of Morales, not so much in the case of Maduro, but both eventually succumbed to their egos, to their lusts for power, and refused to go when their time was clearly up.

Their countrymen now pay the price. When citizens can no longer agree on basic values, polarization is inevitable, and indeed all three countries concerned above are experiencing dangerous divisions.

Political parties and political philosophies breed intense tribalism, and tribalism can overwhelm the noblest principles. In the case of Trump, Maduro and Morales, a disdain for democracy seems irrelevant to their supporters.

Trump shows contempt for key institutions of democracy, including the press, the courts and the rule of law; Maduro has manipulated and perverted democracy into an instrument to maintain his own power; and, most tragic of all, Morales, a gift to his people, abandoned his own constitution and its democratic safeguards. Yet large numbers of their supporters remain loyal to the man rather than to the principle.

Party members are, perhaps, beyond redemption, but citizens at large owe it to their principles to judge politicians objectively, regardless of which side of the fence they happen to be on. Naturally we will be more forgiving to those who are on our side, but when they violate fundamental principles, as the three above have, then they must be called to account.Whether they have done their country great good as in the case of Morales, or great harm as in the case of Trump, should no longer matter.

I am reminded of the case of Winston Churchill and the British election of 1945. Churchill is one of Britain's greatest heroes. He rallied his people from the brink of defeat to victory during World War II. Yet the war was barely over and in the 1945 election his people threw him out, handing the Labour Party a landslide victory. He had done his job, and the British people have long honoured him for it, but now they wanted something else so he had to go. This is the behaviour of a mature democracy, something the more ardent supporters of Trump, Maduro and Morales seem to have little interest in.