Sunday, May 29, 2011

Contracting for Democracy

Recently, I've realized there's an implied social contract at the heart of every democracy, and it's this: the elected government of a state recognizes that it is duty-bound to listen to and protect all of its citizens, and in return, those citizens who did not vote for the elected government acknowledge the legitimacy of its authority. Simple as that, really... but history has shown us, time and again, what power does. Fortunately, it's also shown us what happen when the people get sick and tired of it - but it's not something you can really set a watch to.

It's a lesson that Stephen Harper's Conservative Party, having somehow been handed a majority government, would do well to keep in mind. 2011 is, after all, the last time a conservative party has won a majority since 1988, when Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives kept the spirit of 1984 alive; you may also recall that once the dust settled in 1993, the PCs were left with exactly twice as much pull in the House of Commons as the Green Party has today. You'd think they'd recognize the importance of treading softly, particularly considering it took them three kicks at the can to get this far.

You'd think it would have taken more than a month after the election for things to get this far, but you would be wrong there as well.

For much of the spring, Quebec's Richelieu Valley has been dealing with severe floods. As early as May 4, the Richelieu River had broken records, hundreds of people had been evacuated, and thousands of homes had been flooded. Quebec has been doing what it can to beat nature to a draw, but standing firm against nature is always a risky business.

In the United States, from what I understand, it's common for National Guard units to participate in this kind of disaster relief. As Canadian provinces have no National Guard equivalent, though, when the need for heavy lifting comes up they've got little choice but to request that the federal government make regular Canadian Forces elements available for relief efforts. It's not an unusual thing; it's been twelve and a half years, but people still mock Toronto after Mel Lastman called in the army to help the city dig out of a severe snowfall, and during the ice storm of 1998, the military was critical in immediate disaster response and relief.

So, with the floods proceeding, Quebec Premier Jean Charest requested military aid from the federal government, and what did he get? A letter from Ottawa - specifically from Vic Toews, Minister of Public Safety - that claimed that due to pressing "defence activities," the Canadian Forces would be unable to lend assistance in Quebec - also, because it would put them "in competition with the private sector."

Because, as we all know, the sole role of a government is to allow private business to reap the maximum profit possible in any given situation... and what is a disaster if not an unparalleled opportunity to profit off the affairs of the desperate?

Nice waterfront you've got there, Vancouver. You want it to stay dry? Sure, but it'll cost ya.

In the end, the federal government caved; two hundred and fifty more soldiers were dispatched to Quebec to assist with disaster relief efforts. But the fact that its reflexive reaction was an appeal to the invisible hand is telling.

Even the most out-there libertarians I've heard of tend to recognize a role for a state, even if they feel it shouldn't go beyond assuring the common defense. I would argue that the defense of the people from natural hazards, such as the Richelieu floods, qualify. Conservatives from Harper to Ford tend to couch their rhetoric in corporate terms, calling for governments run like businesses and preferring the term "taxpayer" to "person" - but how long would a business that took customers' money without providing a service in return stay in business?

The business of a government is to protect the people. Politicians can bluster and obfuscate all they want about what they think they're doing, but in the end it really does boil down to that. If a government cannot be counted on to even help protect its people, if its first answer is to tell them to call someone else... is that really the sort of government that should be representing us?

That deserves to represent us?

It may be that Stephen Harper, flush from a victory that even his own inner circle had given up on as hopeless mere days before the election, has forgotten the source of his power - aside from Alberta, that is, which I strongly suspect would vote a ficus plant or head of lettuce to Ottawa if it was run as a Conservative.

Hint: it's us.

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