Will Facebook populism of Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament be effective? With now more than 200,000 members, 1,487 discussion groups, 16,000 links to related news items (including Examiner pages), and local Chapters planning rallies from sea to sea for January 23 and all of them calling for Parliament to “Get back to work,” it is easy to be caught up in the high energy of the popular movement and say yes. But will it really be effective? How do we define effective, will it translate into political action and toward what end? Christopher White, the University of Alberta creator of Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament provides a cautionary note and perhaps the best answer when he comments in response to Part One of this discussion that “Facebook isn’t enough in itself, but it has played an important role in mobilizing Canadians and getting the word out.”
In “Will Facebook populism of Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament be effective? Part One” it was noted that the populist wave on which Stephen Harper first came to Parliament as a Reform Party MP arguably had two foundations: an apparent disconnect between the people and politics expressed as disaffection from politics generally and western alienation, or the view that somehow the interests of those of us in the west were taken for granted and poorly treated by far away Ottawa’s Central Canadian politics.
The former aspect was consistent with the general nature of populism, which is an assertion of the will of the common man or the people against that of elites and established authority. It is driven by a sense of popular disaffection but is not necessarily directed and specific in its objectives. For that reason populism can be a passing thing and essentially ineffective. It is when popular will has a specific objective, sometimes driven by a sense of grievance as in the case of so-called “western alienation,” that populism moves beyond the general to the specific and acquires goals to give it focus. It is arguably at that point that populism becomes effective.
Even then, however, populism can remain a vehicle for “the usual suspects,” the “professional protester,” the “chronic complainer” who can be counted on to show up to every rally or protest on any subject. If that is the case, the high emotion surrounding the prorogation will dissipate; other events will pass it by (the Olympics), other deserving causes will require our passion (Haiti), and “the usual suspects” among the political class will dismiss it all as stuff and bother.
The fact is democracy is a messy business and the right to protest is part of it. Democracy is also about order, as in “peace, order, and good government,” enabling the voice of the people not just those with the loudest voice to be heard. Democracy is hard work and the proper place for it is parliament. The Facebook site Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament is leading the charge but if it is to be effective it must really about “Getting Parliament back to work,” and restoring a sense of engagement in the democratic life of Canada.
The fact is we elect members of parliament to the House of Commons of Canada, not prime ministers, governments, parties or movements to power. Each and every MP is equal to all the others unless we allow them to be “nobodies” out side the House of Commons or increasingly even within parliament’s halls. The government is the government and the prime minister is the prime minister only so long as they keep the confidence of the House. That’s responsible government. We are a parliamentary democracy. If parliament is not sitting because the government of the day does not wish to face difficult political issues, then arbitrary government has prevailed and the democratic will of the people has been usurped.
At the end of the day, the battle of Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament may be all about empowering your member of parliament, freeing your MP from the party machine, overcoming party discipline.
Edmund Burke, in his famous “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” (1774), classically defined the role of a member of parliament and the relationship between the member of parliament and the electorate thus:
“Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and the glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect; their business unremitted attention….But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience he ought not to sacrifice to you, or to any set of living men….Your representative owes you, not his industry alone, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Today we might say more simply that your representative should be slave to neither party or constituent: neither the party machine nor mere populism should be his or her first concern. Popular will of all the people is a matter of industry and mature judgment. And he or she must do so in parliament. If Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament is to be effective, it must empower your member of parliament.
That indeed would be a worthy and specific cause.