The Trudeau government’s SNC-Lavalin controversy is a goldmine of sorts. For opposition parties and hyper-partisans, it has proved a gift from the gods, great enough to effectively move polling numbers and turning the next federal election into something of a free-for-all.
For the media, the intricate mix between elected representatives and senior bureaucrats and the obvious, though measured, tensions between the prime minister and members of his caucus have provided rich fodder for investigative commentary.
And the effects on Canadians in general? There’s the rub. Is their anger sufficient to change their voting patterns, their curiosity enough to cause them to dig deeper in their understanding of Canada’s governing complexities, or their indifference to produce a collective yawn? It could well be that the “he said/she said” nature of the controversy will eventually cause it to pass into obscurity.
For democracy itself, however, the effects of the SNC-Lavalin story might prove more damaging than we realize. It isn’t at the same level as Brexit, the enigma that is Donald Trump, the Venezuelan chaos or Germany’s struggle to keep the centre together, yet interested parties maintain that it is a crisis. With no proof of any laws being broken, the Opposition leader asks for Justin Trudeau’s resignation and others state it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Somehow, a difference of approach on how to handle a corporate business problem had become a democratic crisis instead of the serious issue of public policy that deserves deeper debate.
The crisis in European democracies propelled by issues like Brexit, immigration or populism has generated extensive research concerning attitudes towards politics in general and the findings haven’t been encouraging. The Democracy Index 2018 noted that in the European Union, “a democratic malaise is felt, where the state of democracy has declined for a third straight year.” The reality is emerging that vast portions of the European population is increasingly turning off politics altogether, claiming to be tired of all the drama, the forced crises and the instability brought on by competing interests.
Pew Research in America has noted that the number of voters adhering to either Republicans or Democrats is in decline while those claiming to be “independent” or “turned off” has increased dramatically.
This is ever the result when democracy becomes more about drama than deliberation. And in Canada it’s producing a growing part of the electorate that are turned off. Political parties then struggle over what remains in seeking to gather the support required to prevail in an election. What is rarely acknowledged, however, is that it is the constant battle between the parties – accusations, half-truths, excessive language, theatrics, – that is the key component that turns people away from democracy. It’s a kind of politics that kills its own future.
It’s not all about political parties either. Special interests relish the opportunity to mix things up to gain attention, and although the media struggles to publish researched contextual stories on the happenings of the day, online contributions and fringe media operations remain more interested in heat than light.
Voter oppression can occur either by design or by unintended consequence. We have seen a lot of both in the past decade. By their penchant for brandishing their metaphorical swords against one another, political parties bring about the very apathy they are attempting to dispel. The attacks and innuendos might stir up those within their camps, but the rest of the country just moves on, understanding that with such theatrics it is difficult to understand how someone can run a country as complex and as vast and diversified as Canada.
It was in 1958 that almost 80% of this country voted in a federal election and it has been declining since that time. There are many reasons for the apathy, but turning people off by poor conduct should never have been one of them.
Citizens can’t evade blame in this either. In their willingness to turn aside, to boost media ratings for scandals instead of sound policy debates, they have yielded the political field to those who agitate best.
Meanwhile in Ottawa and in communities across the country, sincere politicians and citizens are attempting to fight for cooperation and a new way forward, continuing to feel disenchanted by political dramas that only lead to division instead of progress.
In essence, politics exists to resolve the largest questions of society – the terms by which everyone can live peaceably with one another. At its very best, politics creates and sustains social relationships – the engagement which draws people together and allows them to discover shared values. How does democracy accomplish this, when it does? Through an inclusive and ironic process of conflict and deliberation, debate and compromise. This can hardly function effectively as long as partisan politics willingly undermines the democratic spirit in search of power.
We can utilize the SNC-Lavalin problem to have a serious debate about corporate accountability and proper political oversight or we can have a bloodbath. We can never have the former if we continue to permit the latter.