Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The state of democracy in the OECD

Most of us learned that democratic governments have three separate but equal branches; the legislative, the executive and the judiciary.  Right now we are seeing a major shift in the importance and relevance of each branch.  First off, the legislative branch is getting its ass kicked (we are excluding the US for now from the discussion).  Here in Canada the role of the legislative has never been weaker, in part because of the central role undertaken by the "party" the reality on the ground is that backbenchers (those who's party is the government but are not part of the executive) no longer have any say, and even don't have the right to ask questions or propose new legislation (which was often done in the past).  

Prorogation -- a strange device that fundamentally changed the relationship between the executive branch and the legislative branch, has further weakened our Canadian democratic process.   In effect, the executive branch was able to shut down the legislative branch for several months when uncomfortable questions were asked by parliament.  The then governor general, either badly advised or lied to, agreed to this massive change in the interaction between the two sections of the government.  This expedient was wonderful for Steven Haper's then minority government -- but as the American conservatives are discovering with dismay, once the rule has been changed others will use the same gaps (Obama has retained all the power that Bush was given by his GOP Dominated congress).  

In the US, partys (and its affiliated entities) have muscled the independent thinkers out simply by getting them kicked off the primary ballot.  In many elected seats, because of gerrymandering  there is  no competition -- so a small number of individuals now control the selection process for an a much larger population -- the impact of this has been dramatic; there is now open warfare in Congress (and to a certain extent the Senate) and virtually no decision can be taken.  The opposition's job is no longer to modify and amend the governing party's agenda and legislation, but to oppose ALL legislation, to block the government.  Obviously the Republicans have been especially good at this, but the Democrats are not far behind.

Looking at Europe the situation is even more serious.  The clear rise of the technocrats that wields supranational power is in evidence.  The Euro has removed the decision process from the elected government to some faceless bureaucrate in Brussels or Berlin.  Granted those who want to avoid reality at all cost (I'm thinking of you PIIGS) are easy to blackmail... and have often been willing to sell the soul for "just one more day".  Something tells me that the European scene is about to become more "interesting"  as unemployment now grips the center countries (France and Italy) a nationalistic backlash has to be expected, especially since many German elected official have a way of saying the wrong thing.  BUT and this is important, those who see a Euro surviving the current crisis have to see a federated Europe -- something akin to what took place in Canada and to a certain extent in the US (the states still have many powers).  That means additional diminished roles for "local" governments.  Don't know if the unemployed French or Italian factory workers will have the patience for such grand scheme, when others will offer them more immediate (and more nationalistic) solutions.  Those (like me) who see the death of the Euro as inevitable are less sanguine about a federated Europe -- manly because these nation states retain, to this day, virtually all their independence...  

Looking at history, it is clear that no political system can survive for ever, the reality of humanity is a dynamic change.  Those who clamor for the status Quo, are probably really regretting the initial move down from the tree!  The decline of the democratic process may be a necessary evil if you consider the challenges faced by OECD countries and their citizen:

  1. Pension funds have nowhere the means of supporting their future obligations.  
  2. Economies are near standstill despite hugely accommodating monetary policies.  
  3. Government coffers and ability to add taxation have reached their natural limit, 
  4. people are living longer than they were 40 years ago, but still want the same benefits that were agreed 40 years ago.

The reality is that democracy is poorly suited governing tool where the pain of adjustment is deep and protracted; there are always charlatans out there promising more milk and honey today .  France proved it with the election of Francois Holland a socialites who ran on the platform that "everything will be fine, we just have to tax the rich!" Holland is now in charge of the most unpopular government in France's fifth republic's history -- and this only after 18 months in power.  Certain countries have found a happy middle ground between pure autocracy and democracy; Singapore has all the trappings of a democracy, but in reality is a dictatorship with the ability for the population to express its displeasure with the government every 4 years.  It has been a model of probity, but its unclear if the model can be replicated in a "real country" since Singapore is the size of the island of Montreal.

Still one has to wonder about democracy...


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