News went out yesterday that a the Online Party of Canada has obtained “registered party status” and will be fielding candidates in the upcoming federal by-elections. Never having heard of them, I quickly found an interview that party leader Michael Nicula, the director of a Toronto-based IT services company, did with the National Post. The results were pretty appalling.
Nicula quickly demonstrates that he has close to zero civic literacy. He has no understanding of responsible government, the Westminster system, or even the basics of just what is democracy. All wrapped in this shock-and-awe package of the Internet as the panacea to all of our political woes.
It was this quote in the interview that immediately caught my eye: “Why do we have to spend billions of dollars on elections?” Nicula asked. “The American Idol contest is done on the Internet, and it works pretty well. Why not do the same? With more security of course.”
And then my head exploded.
You see, Nicula has not grasped one of the most fundamental tenets of a liberal democracy – that populism is not democracy. Nicula, with his worship of the magic of the Internet, has just added some shiny words to his belief in populism, which he calls “enabling participatory democracy.”
Populism is mob rule. It thrives on the instant gratification of giving the masses what they want without any consideration of what they need, or that there may be bigger issues at play. Nicula’s own example of the war in Afghanistan is case and point. Sure, it’s a wonderfully populist position to say that we don’t want our men and women over in a foreign land where they are fighting and dying, but there is no understanding about what the bigger picture is. Populism does not understand geopolitics, or what it means to turn a failed state into something that (hopefully) won’t become a haven for terrorists, and what the consequences to its success or failure mean in the broader region. It responds only to the fact that it’s unpopular to have soldiers dying, period. Populism is incapable of making a tough but necessary decision if it looks to be unpopular.
Populism also has no regard for minority rights, which is also why it is antithetical to existing within a liberal democracy, and one scarcely has to think about Proposition 8 in California as an example of why minority rights should never be put on the ballot – because the majority does not need to think about the impact on the minority so long as they’re representing the “common man,” and claiming democratic justification because they put it to a vote. And yet that kind of abuse is exactly what Nicula is proposing.
Nicula’s plans for “participatory democracy” include basically running online surveys (termed “votes” on every bill being debated in Parliament), and when they find out how the other parties stand on specific bills, they will send those survey results to them in the hopes that those MPs will listen to their constituents rather than toeing the party line. As though the populist masses can formulate coherent policy on the estimates, the supply cycle, and complex policy that can’t be boiled down to black-and-white, binary choices.
In a way, Nicula is proposing the old Reform Party route of holding townhalls on issues on a regular basis in order to “represent their constituents.” The Reform Party’s ideals didn’t hold very long either, in part because sometimes the wishes went against party policy, such as when a young Stephen Harper voted for gun control on second reading because his urban Calgary constituents wanted it, until he came up with an excuse on later votes to vote in line with party policy, no doubt because he faced grassroots backlash.
The other problem with Nicula’s proposal here is that it completely fails to grasp what an MP’s role actually is. Never mind the arguments about forms of representative democracy, because that’s a whole other lengthy philosophical debate, but it nevertheless boils down to the simple maxim that the role of Parliament is not to govern, but to hold to account those who do. MPs are not “lawmakers” whose sole purpose is to vote on bills – their role is actually the control of the public purse that the government (meaning the executive) needs in order to carry out its policy objective. It’s hard to actually square this role with the kind of populist sentiment that Nicula is proposing. Passing bills is but a fraction of the role of Parliament – that role is to actually be a check on the power of the executive. Debate and votes on bills are a function of that role, but you cannot simply ask the business of holding the government to account to be done by means on online surveys.
And that brings me to my final, and perhaps most crucial point, which is about the role of the party itself. While it’s a fine, if utterly misguided sentiment, to want to build a party based on the fantastic notion of using the magical Internet to give you unicorns and populism wrapped up in a pretty dress, but it’s actually pretty thin policy gruel. In fact, it’s water-thin policy, and given that the party’s platform is to be continually shaped by means of online membership votes, it’s hard to see what it actually stands for. It’s not about partisan left-or-right ideologies – it’s about the basic mechanics of how parties work within our system of responsible government.
The purpose of a party is to form government – period. Any other reason is intellectually dishonest and borders on illegitimate. Why? Because our system functions on the basis that a party must hold the confidence of the Commons in order to form a government, and parties are formed to ensure that a government can maintain enough support to ensure confidence. Yes, coalitions are a viable form of government, they nevertheless remain problematic because their ultimate policy direction is determined in the negotiations that would occur after an election, where people no longer have a say in the matter. And it’s even more difficult to formulate a policy direction if your party, wrapped up in this “cross-partisan” mythology not being “left or right” but by doing the bidding of the populist mob. In other words, you have no actual fixed policy positions with which to steer a government.
The kind of civil illiteracy that Nicula promotes is actually dangerous to our system of government. It propagates the myths that parties are the problem, and that that MPs don’t listen to the will of their constituents when those constituents may not understand the role of an MP, or what it means to be in a representative democracy. It fuels cynicism and the disengagement of disappointment, and needs to be called out as such. Whatever problems we may have in our current system of parliamentary democracy, Nicula’s proposals do more to hinder than to help.