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Politicians fail to protect democracy, and they like it that way

Politicians are long on talk and very short on action when it comes to protecting democracy – featherbedding trumps all else, no matter who’s in power.

Like Stephen Harper before him, Justin Trudeau campaigned on a platform of openness and transparency. Both quickly dropped that idea when elected, maintaining the lip-service, however.

In a pair of reports last week, Democracy Watch gave the Liberals an overall grade of F when it comes to open government, and warned the government hasn’t done enough to protect the democratic process when it comes to election spending and the propagation of fake news on social media, amongst a host of shortcomings.

“The Trudeau Liberals have broken most of their open government promises, made the federal government more secretive, failed to make key changes to protect whistleblowers and stop secret lobbying, and been involved in many scandals marked by excessive secrecy, and that’s why they deserve a failing grade in the area of open government,” says Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch and part-time professor of law and politics at the University of Ottawa. “Given that the federal open government, whistleblower protection and lobbying laws have been reviewed several times in the past 15 years, and that there is a consensus on key changes that must be made, the Liberals have no excuses for failing to make these changes.”

He notes that tens of thousands of voters have sent letters through Democracy Watch’s Open Government Campaign, Protect Whistleblowers Campaign and Government Ethics Campaign calling on the Liberals to make many key changes to stop excessive government secrecy, protect whistleblowers, and stop secret lobbying.

Likewise, some  90,000 Canadians have supported Democracy Watch’s campaign to stop big money in Canadian politics, and more than 17,000 Canadians have either signed the group’s online petition calling for changes to stop secret, false online election ads or signed its online petition calling for political parties to be covered by the federal privacy law, and other key privacy protection changes.

Democracy Watch notes changes made by Bill C-76 and other federal government initiatives don’t do enough to stop fake online election ads or false claims about candidates, or to protect voters’ privacy. Bill C-76 actually weakened the rule on false claims about candidates, Conacher argues.

“Bill C-76 severely weakened the rule that prohibits false claims about candidates, more than doubles the spending limit for wealthy interest groups and doesn’t do enough to stop false, online election ads, false election promises or big money donations,” he says. “As a result, the fall 2019 federal election will be more dishonest, unfair and driven by wealthy interest groups, much like the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“The federal government’s panel set up in January to watch for activities that disrupt the election lacks independence as it’s made up of five people that the Trudeau Cabinet handpicked,” says Conacher. “The government’s planned education campaign is a charade as it is impossible for any voter to be expert enough in every issue to know that any election ad makes a false claim, and the Liberals keep saying they expect good behaviour from social media companies instead of laws to require good behaviour.”

Ottawa has already acknowledged it expects some outside interference in this fall’s election, in the vein of what’s happening south of the border. The U.S. election financing rules are completely corrupt, making ours look much better by comparison, but many critics have pointed out the deficiencies and the loopholes that exist to bypass the few controls that do exist.

What we really need here is an outright ban on donations and third-party advertising. Real democratic reform would also end lobbying, as well as the revolving door between government and corporations/lobbyists.

Such a dream goes well beyond 4K Technicolor.

Surveys consistently show that a large majority of us believe governments are driven by wealthy interest groups, especially corporate donors and that governments regularly act unethically to help their business friends and are not doing enough to stop corruption. Surveys also show that a large majority of Canadians support placing strict limits on the influence of wealthy interests in politics.

When these interests are bankrolling the political process in secret, it is that much harder for other voices to be heard. Many citizen groups who lobby for progressive reforms in Canada understand all too well the influence that powerful corporate lobbies can use to halt these reforms.

Few if any of these considerations make their way into legislation protecting the system and citizens.

As long as politicians make the rules, they’ll make rules that favour themselves, their friends and their wealthy benefactors. No consideration will be given to what’s right, what’s fair and what’s of benefit to the public, let alone protecting our increasingly fragile democracy.

Given that they create a system for themselves and preferred corporate interests – politicians are reluctant to do the right thing – we need to force them to do what Canadians want.

These are principles that apply to every level of government, regardless of political stripe. It’s not about a particular ideology, but about something more fundamental: open, democratic government that reflects the needs of the citizenry.

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