Above: Toronto, Canada – June 27, 2016: Justin Trudeau meets Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto at Casa Loma for dinner. Photo via iStockphoto.
By contributor Dallas Bezaire
Government accountability. If you watch House of Cards or keep up with the news, it sounds like an unending task somewhat akin to banging your head against the wall. But fear not my fellow students and citizens, there is hope.
At its heart, government accountability is making sure your government is doing what it should do. This means your government is fulfilling its basic duties set out by our constitution and the laws they pass. It also means that they stick to and make a concerted effort at fulfilling their election promises.
To some extent there is also the idea that your government does not commit felonies, breaches of human rights, or other things we generally consider “not cool.” Finally, you want a government that actually cares about fulfilling the needs and wants of the masses. These are all important because we want a government that listens and works to improve our quality of life, that fulfills the will of the people rather than going against it, and most importantly is a government that we can (sort of) trust.
Now obviously this doesn’t happen much, at least not how everyone would like it to. There are a number of reasons why, from incompetence to malicious intent, but most of the time it is simply because they can.
Those in power only need to satisfy the needs of enough people to stay in power. This lends itself quite well to the idea of voter blocks or constituencies; parties can focus on taking just enough voting blocs or constituencies to win the election and ignore all the rest. In fact, one can become the President of the United States with only 22 percent of the popular vote thanks to the Electoral College.
How do we address some of these issues? The first step is to make sure you use the voice you have. Vote in the election, even if you hate all the parties, because voting shows the parties that your vote is something they can win or lose rather than it being one less thing to worry about if you choose not to vote (I’m looking at you, youth vote).
You can also make it harder for the parties to nail down your vote with a single bloc. Be a pluralistic voter who cares about multiple things; this will force the parties to address multiple things in order to win your vote. It also helps to vote against parties you may like or have voted for before because of their current actions. Yes, it may result in a party you don’t particularly like coming into power, but it keeps the party you do like from getting complacent and taking your vote and your needs for granted (as you may have seen in the last Albertan provincial election). Nothing leads to party complacency faster than people voting based on “party loyalty.”
Yet, voting isn’t the end of it. There is always the press and the public opinion that can sway day-to-day. This is where you can put more pressure on the parties. Check out Trudeaumetre.ca. This site keeps a record how many campaign promises Trudeau keeps. The code for the site is freely available if you would like to use it to keep track of the other leaders in your own country, province, or city.
Keeping public records isn’t the only way to hold these parties accountable for their promises. There is also the news media, internet blogs, and social media which you can use to put pressure on your political parties. When all else fails, flood them with mail, mail, and more mail. A bit of spam does help to get the message across.
But how about the organizational side of things? The structure of elections is a major factor. Moving away from election systems that favor large parties and result in highly skewed results—such as first past the post—and towards more representational electoral systems—such as proportional representation or single transferable vote—can help to make voting less of a statistical game. Instead, you would just choose the policies and parties which represent you best. Imagine that.
Proportional representation, where the percentage of votes one gets becomes the percentage of seats their party gets, also has the added benefit of removing constituencies. Constituencies can be great for ensuring you have a local representative but are prone to the danger of gerrymandering—the insidious redrawing of constituencies to help a party win more of them. Trudeau himself got elected partly because of his promise to enact electoral reform, most likely towards proportional representation, however he has balked as of late saying that with his party coming into power the public’s (or perhaps his own) appetite for electoral reform has waned.
And here lies one of the trickiest problems with government accountability. People in power loathe changing systems that work in their favour. To this end they will often enact laws or create rules and regulations that make it increasingly difficult to compete against them for this power. Voting restrictions, minimum requirements for the formation of parties, large and constantly growing costs of running in an election, and much more all help to solidify this control.
Parties can also make themselves distinct from their opponents not simply on a policy or legislative basis, but on an ideological, religious, racial, or moral basis. They often turn to demonizing their opponents. This keeps voters where they want them, without having to address the wide array of needs of these voters.
Once again, how can we counter this? Most importantly: don’t fall for the bullshit.
There will be fear tactics and scare campaigns to trick people into limiting their freedoms and building up these barriers to change. They will try and tell you that this vote is a decision between the ultimate evil and themselves. Recognize that each party has its own strengths, its own weaknesses, and each is worthy of respect and consideration, even if you ultimately do not agree with them. Take them as they are, rather than as they are painted.
How about when your government starts to do something illegal or shady? When they start to suppress the rights of certain citizens or they break international laws? This is where whistleblowers play an important role along with the general public.
The whistleblowers force the government to either clean up their act or to invest time and efficiency in secrecy, which will eventually make it cumbersome, allowing other governments to take over. The job of the public is to take these whistleblowers seriously and make a hubbub. If there is no penalty in the votes or public support, governments will continue their illegal activities.
However, votes aren’t the only form of power a government needs. They must also maximize the amount of money they can make, either for their political career and re-election or for their life after politics. The more corrupt a state, the more money governments can make from satisfying just a few people, industries, or companies, and the less they have to worry about maintaining the needs and productivity of the majority. In extreme cases, dictators fund themselves through a single lucrative resource, or indebt themselves to their political donors in order to run for re-election.
To this end, you can push for the prevention of big money in politics through preventing super PACs and lobbying, pushing for spending limits in elections, and barring politicians from working for any business that they helped benefit through legislation.
You can also help incentivize politicians to stay away from bribes by providing funds for elections and pensions, which eliminates the need for these politicians to get their much needed cash from people who want something in return.
And that’s it. We are done. I admit, a lot of this isn’t easy, nor is it going to happen any time soon. But if you are aware of their ultimate goals, and you push your parties back every time they try to push you, then you can keep them accountable and maybe even help them clean up their mess.
The beautiful thing about a democracy is that we get our strength and power from being united. The more united we are, the harder it is to take advantage of our differences and manipulate us. Push back and push back together, and together we will all reap the benefits.