ACTIVISTS AND POLITICS:
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
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
"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
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.