Only after the last tree has been cut down.  Only after the last river has been poisoned.  Only after the last fish has been caught.  Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof." - Wingspread Statement of the Precautionary Principle.

Get Elected

Protesters should take Saul's advice--with a grain of salt

By Ed Finn

John Ralston Saul, the renowned Canadian author and spouse of the Governor-General, is urging protesters to become political activists. He wants them, instead of demonstrating in the streets, to join political parties and become candidates in provincial and federal elections.

That's the only way, he tells them, to put their ideas directly to the voters and achieve the legislative reforms they believe are needed.

In a recent speech to NGO activists, Saul said he's convinced that most of them are tired of winning the public relations battles but failing to see those victories translated into changes in government policies.

"You have great commitment and enormous influence," he told them, "but almost no power. You don't have access to the levers of power because you aren't in the political parties and you aren't presenting yourselves for election."

Saul said he expected to get a hostile reaction from an audience made up mainly of NGO activists, but he "looked out and they were all nodding."

They were nodding, I suspect, not because they were heeding his advice to become politicians, but because they agreed with his key message that the social, economic, and environmental reforms they seek will ultimately have to be made in the country's legislatures.

That's true. But it doesn't mean that all that's needed to enact these reforms is for NGO activists to get involved in Canada's political system as it now exists. Saul's advice would be valid if the system worked the way he evidently thinks it does--democratically implementing laws and policies that are always in the public interest. But that hasn't been the case for the past 25 years or more.

Saul seems oblivious to the harsh reality that our federal and most provincial governments have been virtually taken over by the transnational corporations. That's not a conspiracy theory. It's a fact. The only laws and policies that are adopted, or even contemplated, are those that advance the corporate agenda--or at least don't hamper it. Do I have to spell it out? Free trade, privatization, deregulation, tax cuts for the rich, gutted social programs, uncontrolled industrial pollution, huge business subsidies--none of these policies has benefited anyone except the big corporations and their CEOs and shareholders. Instead of a true democracy, we now have a corporate oligarchy.

Let's suppose that some NGO activists decide to follow Saul's suggestion. He seems to assume that it would make no difference what party they choose to join, and in one sense that assumption is correct. No matter which party wins an election these days, the ensuing government never dares to defy the corporations. It remains subservient to the CEOs and continues to bow to their dictates.

The NDP is the only party that could be expected to put the public interest first. But, although clearly--to its credit--not a tool of big business, it has yet to summon the courage to challenge corporate rule directly, and this has cost it the support of many activists. (The situation in British Columbia is markedly different, with a radically right-wing government shredding that province's social safety net so savagely that the defeat of the Campell-led Liberals in the next provincial election will have to be the overarching objective of activists and non-activists alike. There are degrees of unsatisfactory government.)

There was a time, back in the 1960s and early '70s, when a reformer could join any political party, even the Tories, with a reasonable hope of influencing its legislative policies. Some "Red Tories" did that. So did several individuals who joined the Liberal party--people like Bryce Mackasey, Monique Begin, John Munro, Eric Kierans, and Elmer McKay. Even Pierre Trudeau had a socialist bent and as prime minister managed to pull the Liberal party well to the left of centre in his first two terms. But even he buckled under and embraced the corporate agenda in his last years in office.

As long as the corporate autocracy prevails in Canada, it would be doubly wrong for NGO activists to become politicians. It would not only be an exercise in futility, unless real democracy were restored, but would also gravely weaken what Saul dismissively calls "the parallel politics of protest."

Saul applauds the many thousands of young people who have taken to the streets to oppose the social and economic injustice of corporate globalization. And he's right in saying that they are frustrated because their activism has so far not produced concrete results. But he's wrong to hold out even a faint hope that they could reach their objectives--federally or in most provinces--through the existing parliamentary system.

Some prominent Canadians in a group called Fair Vote Canada are now pushing for electoral reforms based on some kind of proportional representation. This is a system that rewards a political party with a number of seats proportionate to the number of votes it wins. It's a much more fair and democratic system than even the parliamentary system was before the corporate coup--which is why so many other Western countries have converted to it. Had it been in place in the 1988 election, the first free trade agreement would have been blocked by the 57% of the votes cast against it. But, under our first-past-the-post system, the 43% of the votes that went to the Tories produced a big majority of seats for Brian Mulroney and a defeat for the majority of Canadians who were opposed to free trade.

My advice to the NGO activists would be to get behind the Fair Vote group's efforts to bring a rep-by-pop system to Canada. If combined with a few other electoral reforms, such as outlawing lavish business donations to political parties, it could create a much more democratic political process--one that would give reform-minded NGO activists access to the levers of power that are now exclusively reserved for the corporate elite.