Sunday, October 30, 2005

Democracy Relies Upon Balance

Recent history in both Canada and the United States has made it painfully clear that the notion of "liberal democracy" depends heavily upon balance in order to work. When I say balance, I do not mean balance between the execution of powers and duties, but rather balance between the different political ideas that exist within society.

If any one "party" or faction becomes overpoweringly dominant, there is a serious risk that the government itself will come unhinged. In recent weeks, the now embattled Presidency of George W. Bush has suffered from a number of fairly nasty events:

1. Tom Delay has been indicted on a number of charges relating to campaign finance irregularities.

2. "Scooter" Libby has been indicted on charges of perjury in the Plame case.

3. Karl Rove remains under suspicion and investigation.

4. Bush's own bastion of political support ate the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers like a pack of starving hyenas.

In the bigger picture, Bush's presidency is deeply troubled. Iraq remains a military quagmire, with fatalities having passed 2000 Americans recently, an economy now teetering on the edge of several possible disasters - a record breaking deficit; increasing trade deficits and increasing foreign ownership of US government debt. With oil prices hovering at record highs, the spectre of inflation lurks on the horizon.

Hardly a stellar record, by any means. However, what does this have to do with balance? Quite a bit as it turns out. First of all, at the moment one party holds the balance of power in the legislative and executive arms of the US government. As a consequence, we've had the pleasure (dubious it might be) of watching the United States gov't unravel with significant signs of ethical and moral corruption emerging on a near daily basis. I'm not saying that politicians are "more honest" when there is competition, only that when a single party begins to hold absolute sway, the degree and severity of corruption that we witness seems to be that much the more severe.

Canada is no better off. In Alberta, we have had a "Progressive Conservative" government since Peter Lougheed swept to power in 1971. That's over thirty years of a single party running the province. While Lougheed seemed to keep to a relatively even keel, his successors - Don Getty and Ralph Klein have been far less balanced in their approach to government. In the last few years, the Klein-led conservative government has let leak a number of things that smell pretty rotten. Whether it is some $400 million in "aid to ranchers" that seemed to mysteriously land in the pockets of Cargill and Tyson Foods, or a less than honest nomination process in a number of ridings.

Federally, we have had a Liberal government holding tenure since 1993, when Jean Chretien's Liberals trounced the former ruling Conservative party. Since then, we have had a number of examples of political mangling of government funds for partisan interests of one sort or another.

I can't speak to the balance in the United States, but in Canada - both provincially in Alberta and Federally, the imbalance has arose from a lack of credible opposition. The Alberta legislature has been so overwhelmingly "conservative" in its composition, that a mere ten seats have been our "opposition" for a long time. Needless to say, this is hardly an effective opposition in a house with some 80 seats.

Federally, the Reform/Alliance/Conservative party(ies?) have failed to provide the voters with something to vote for, so votes tend to fall back to "the devil we know".

However, politicians are human. When they spend too long with control over the reins of power, they fall into the patterns of self-enrichment and cronyism. Recent events in both countries are a lesson to all citizens of democracies - not only must we look to the candidates, but we must also learn who surrounds these people. If we fail to learn those lessons, we will no doubt suffer from the consequences.

In a balanced environment, would the clause in the "No Child Left Behind" act that gives the military direct, legislated access to high schools for the purposes of recruiting have been allowed through? A clause that makes funding contingent on that access? Would the Patriot Act have survived a review? (Somehow, I have my doubts)

In Canada, a more balanced legislature might have given Alberta's Auditor General the independance needed to fully investigate where the cattle dollars went, and why. Goodness knows there's a pretty good list of government activities that our auditor should be able to investigate. Of course, the iron grip of Alberta's cabinet upon the legislature guarantees that we won't have anything close to a sensible audit until after we punt the sitting party from power.

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