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Voting day is over

Now comes the rest of the hard work of democracy

May 14, 2019 Joel French

And so Alberta’s long anticipated provincial election has come and gone. United Conservative Party supporters are celebrating and progressives are dealing not only with feelings of loss, but also varying degrees of dismay about what might be ahead in the next four years.

Elections are seen by many as the defining events of democracy. Indeed, they are critical in determining the direction our governments will take us throughout their term in office. They are times when the public tends to be more engaged than usual in big conversations about where we are headed collectively and what issues should be the most important to our elected leaders.

However, there is much more to democracy than voting every four years. A healthy democracy is one where individuals and civil society groups are constantly interacting with each other and with policymakers in sustained ways to guide our collective future, acting as engaged citizens rather than simply waiting to act as voters. That is how we need to approach the next four years.

We clearly need a combination of immediate actions and long-term structural changes to protect the public interest and strengthen our democracy for years to come.

Consider Ontario’s June 2018 election, where Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative party won a majority government. Progressive citizens and organizations immediately began organizing protests against Ford’s plans to cut and privatize the province’s public services, attack unions and dismantle environmental policies, among other regressive directions.

I recall reading social media comments on coverage of those protests by people claiming the protestors were violating democracy by protesting the will of the newly elected government.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the worst thing citizens and civil society groups could do for democracy is sit on their hands for four years between election campaigns. A healthy democracy not only allows but requires us to engage in collective expression and decision making between elections, and that is as relevant the day after we vote as it is the day before.

Over the four weeks of Alberta’s election campaign, we heard a wide variety of commitments made by political parties, and of course the ones most relevant right now are those made by the victorious UCP. But the fact that the UCP won the election does not mean Albertans need to accept any of these plans. Politicians and their parties are elected for a wide variety of reasons, and it does not mean we simply accept the attacks on public services and the public interest.

Engaging effectively in our democracy can take many different forms. It can mean actions like having rallies and other types of public protests, giving your input at government consultations or public meetings, meeting periodically with your MLA to educate them about the issues that affect you the most, and other ways of engaging different elements of government or the public in discussions about what we want to do collectively through our governments.

While these kinds of actions will be important for all of us to engage in proactively over the next four years, we also need bigger structural changes to engagement that flow in the other direction. Our governments and elected officials need to cease token forms of engagement that rarely affect policy decisions. These so-called ”consultations” more often than not are used to convince the public about the merits of predetermined policy directions, and must be replaced by something much more meaningful.

There is also a serious need for us to improve our system of voting. Our current system grossly distorts the decisions voters made on election day, leading to the UCP getting 72 per cent of the seats with only 55 per cent of the vote, the NDP getting 28 per cent of the seats with 32 per cent of the vote, and the Alberta Party winning no seats, despite winning nine per cent of the vote. This type of result is typical of our voting system, which exacerbates divisive politics and discourages co-operation and collaboration between political parties.

A strong voter turnout is a good thing and shows that many Albertans care about where our government takes the province in the future. Rather than be discouraged with the election result, progressive individuals now need to turn their energies to strengthening our democracy and to pushing our government to pursue directions that are in the public interest over the next four years.

So, let’s all start today by committing to doing the hard work of democracy — to take sustained and effective actions in that direction as individuals and civil society groups while demanding that our elected officials of all political stripes make the structural changes necessary to revitalize our democracy and make it more meaningful for all Albertans. ❚

Joel French is executive director of Public Interest Alberta.

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