New Canadian Media
Tuesday, 06 December 2016 12:53

The ‘One China’ Policy is a Diplomatic Lie

Commentary by Jonathan Manthorpe in Vancouver

How does Donald Trump’s mind work? The Beijing government hasn’t a clue; neither does the rest of the world. Maybe the president-elect’s thinking is a mystery even to himself.

Sensibly, Chinese Communist Party leaders have opted not to interpret Trump’s telephone conversation on Friday with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen as a deliberate act jettisoning nearly 40 years of careful obfuscation that has kept the peace between Washington and Beijing.

Instead, the men behind the high red wall of the Zhongnanhai leaders’ compound in Beijing decided to say that the phone call was a “petty trick” by Tsai. “For Trump,” said a state-controlled newspaper, “it exposed nothing but his transition team’s inexperience in dealing with foreign affairs.”

So Beijing has decided that for the moment there should be no crisis. Trump, though, seems reluctant to go along with that idea and appears, in fact, to be setting up the Beijing regime as a whipping boy. On Sunday evening he used his preferred method of communication with the world — Twitter — to say:

“Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into … their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”

This suggests that, unlike the other promises he has already abandoned, Trump might charge ahead with his campaign vow to stick massive duties on Chinese imports.

That could pose a threat to the survival in power of the Chinese Communist Party — whose Mandate of Heaven is now expressed in the growth of China’s gross domestic product. And that is a far more pressing question for Beijing than the fate of Taiwan

But the Taiwan question cannot be ignored. The Communist Party claims the island and its 23 million people are “a renegade province” that must be gathered into the bosom of Mother China — by force if necessary. Three generations of Chinese have been indoctrinated at school with this mantra, even though it has little historic, legal or political merit. But there is a long history of authoritarian states being mauled to death by the hyper-nationalism they have fostered in order to stay in power.

So there are reasons to applaud the phone call between Trump and Tsai. It is shining a bright light on the iniquities visited upon the people of Taiwan, a vibrant democracy with one of the world’s most successful and sophisticated economies, by the sleazy deal between Washington and Beijing.

The breach of protocol established in 1979 would be far more welcome if someone more trustworthy than Trump were about to become the U.S. president. It’s hard to believe that Trump will see through what he started on Friday, that the ridiculous “one China policy” will be ditched, and that Taiwan will be able to take its proper position as an internationally recognized independent nation.

As with so many U.S. diplomatic follies of the last half century, the blame for this one can be laid at the feet of Henry Kissinger.

Like Trump, Kissinger’s capacity for self-promotion has successfully masked his lack of more useful talents. In 1971, Kissinger was President Richard Nixon’s national security advisor when he went to Beijing to negotiate with Premier Zhou En-lai the establishment of diplomatic relations.

At the time, Washington still recognized as the legitimate government of China the old Kuomintang regime of Chiang Kai-shek, which had fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists.

Premier Zhou played Kissinger like a violin. Despite Nixon’s insistence that Taiwan’s independence must be guaranteed, Kissinger told Zhou that he could foresee the island becoming part of China. He also agreed to “acknowledge” China’s claim to Taiwan. This wording — which the Chinese usually translate as “accept” — has remained part of the problem.

(In contrast, when then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was negotiating Canada’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing, he insisted that Ottawa would only “note” the Communist Party’s claim to Taiwan. Most other countries have followed the Canadian model.)

The establishment of Washington-Beijing diplomatic relations meant that the fiction that the Chiang regime in Taiwan was the true government of China could not continue. In 1979, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the U.S. ended formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan — though, like most other countries (including Canada), it keeps an unofficial embassy in Taipei and continues to have a military and intelligence relationship with the government.

With this ambiguous diplomatic and legal relationship has gone what is known as the “one China policy,” which Beijing has insisted other governments, especially Washington and Taipei, accept as a condition of economic relations.

In essence this policy says that everyone accepts that there is only “one China.” What constitutes China is left undefined. Beijing, of course, says China includes Taiwan and the Chinese Communist Party is its sovereign authority.

In Taiwan, around 90 per cent of the island’s people want to keep their independence. If pushed, they will say there is indeed only one China — but Taiwan is not part of it.

The same goes in Washington. So for nearly 40 years, peace has been maintained across the Taiwan Strait and relations between Beijing and Washington have continued without serious conflict because everyone has agreed to accept there is “one China” without asking what that means.

U.S. administrations have added a couple of other ambiguities to this “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” approach. There is domestic legislation — the 1979 Taiwan Affairs Act — which requires Washington to help defend Taiwan if it is attacked. It is left up to each Washington administration, however, to decide how enthusiastically it rushes to Taiwan’s defence. As U.S.-China economic interdependence has grown, it has become less and less likely that any Washington administration would go to the wall for 23 million Taiwanese, even if they are part of the democracy circle.

And in a sop to Beijing, successive U.S. presidents have kept well away from any formal or even informal association with their Taiwanese counterparts.

That’s why Trump’s phone conversation with Tsai stands out.

It’s not entirely clear that it has dawned on Trump yet that, on January 20, he will become the U.S. president. He is still acting like someone who just won a game show and is revelling in the attention showered on him by groupies.

Whether the phone call means anything more than that will be seen after January 20.

Republished under arrangement with ipolitics.ca

Published in Commentary

by Danica Samuel in Toronto 

“Just because you’ve fallen off ship doesn’t mean you’re drowning.” 

In the film My Internship in Canada, the person struggling to stay afloat is the politician who fails to please everyone. Oscar-nominated director Philippe Falardeau’s film is a satirical, yet eye-opening, take on Canadian politics that showcases just how non-democratic our government can be. 

For National Canadian Film Day on April 20, charitable organization Samara Canada collaborated with the Regent Park Film Festival to fill a Cineplex movie theatre in downtown Toronto for Falardeau’s political comedy. 

The film is based on the journey of a young Haitian man, Souverain Pascal, played by Irdens Exantus, who greatly admires Canadian politics and culture. He gets a response to his 15-page application and secures an internship with a Northern Quebec member of Parliament (MP). 

Steve Guibord, played by Patrick Huard, is the independent MP for Prescott-Makadew à Rapides-aux-Outardes and unwillingly finds himself in the awkward position of holding the decisive vote on whether Canada will go to war. 

Guibord travels across his riding to consult constituents with his wife, daughter and Pascal. The story escalates when groups of lobbyists get involved in a debate that spins out of control. In the end, Guibord is tugged and pulled in various directions and must face his own conscience to make a decision that could affect the entire country. 

Making politics accessible

Newcomers to Canada and members of the Toronto communities of North York and Lotherton were among those who attended. 

“We thought it was a great opportunity to provide a little bit of education behind Canada’s political system, in a fun way,” said Madison Van West, coordinator of the Democracy Talks program at North York Community House (NYCH). She worked with her colleagues to bring 75 people to the screening from NYCH, which provides civic engagement and community development services to newcomers. 

“We’ve seen them try to create platforms and implement mechanisms to be open and democratic, but in doing that, anyone can speak and say anything.”

“Sometimes politics isn’t the most accessible topic, but a movie screening is a great way to bring everyone together and learn more.” 

In the film, Guibord tries to initiate democracy by inviting members of his community to a town hall. Unfortunately, opposing viewpoints cause tension rather than a conversation that leads to a collaborative decision. The scene shows just how messy democracy can be. 

NYCH program manager Zesta Kim said she understands and has witnessed the hardships politicians face in her community when having to weigh several interests to create an all-inclusive environment. 

“We’ve seen them try to create platforms and implement mechanisms to be open and democratic, but in doing that, anyone can speak and say anything,” she explains. “So, sometimes it doesn’t turn out too well.” 

Falsification of equality 

In the film, Guibord has trouble balancing the interests of his wife, daughter, protesters, the mayor, and the prime minister. He can only rely on Pascal to help find a middle ground that stays true to Canadian culture and democracy. 

“We haven’t seen a representation of minorities in politics and in Parliament.”

In a panel discussion held after the screening, emerging filmmaker Amita Zamaan said these competing special interests are what disappoint and deter people from engaging in Canadian politics. 

She added that the disengagement is due to the lack of representation and the falsification of equality in our government. 

Through her web series, Dhaliwal15Zamaan, like Falardeau, approaches politics through satire when examining the lack of diversity in Canadian politics.  

“We haven’t seen a representation of minorities in politics and in Parliament,” she said. “I’m trying to address that issue by placing this fictional character (Bobby Dhaliwal, played by Jasmeet Singh) in my film, but also addressing how limited our discussions in Canada are on progressive issues.” 

Explaining voter apathy 

Another panel member, Algoma-Manitoulin member of provincial Parliament (MPP), Michael Mantha, said the problem is deeper than just having an open platform to discuss. He said there is a lack of interest from community members. 

“However you make your decision, you will have to put your head on your pillow and live with your conscience.”

“I’ve being trying to engage with people throughout my riding, to try and get a pulse on what needs to be discussed for better engagement,” Mantha said. 

“Going off the numbers in my area, last election there was a 51 per cent voter turnout. People have look at politicians, their decisions, and their actions and think, ‘Why am I going to get involved if they’re not listening to me?’” he added. 

Mantha, who was elected in 2011, has served two consecutive terms as MPP and said while he loves all aspects of his riding, from its environment to its citizens, he is well aware of the tactics that are often involved in getting politicians to make certain decisions.  

“Individuals are put into difficult positions, but again it comes down to that person’s principles and being responsible to the people that put you into that position,” he said. “However you make your decision, you will have to put your head on your pillow and live with your conscience.”


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Arts & Culture

 


OTTAWA, Canada—The annual Taiwan Night celebration—an evening of food, drink, and cultural performance in celebration of Taiwan—is always a big draw for members of Parliament in Ottawa. The democratic traditions of the two countries has become a strong bond, one that draws MPs hoping some other Asian countries will follow Taiwan’s example.

 

Epoch Times

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Published in International

by Danica Samuel in Toronto 

A discussion on democratic transitions highlighted the need to include the role of women when examining how world leaders have created democratic societies around the world. 

The discussion took place at the launch of Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders, hosted on March 31 by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) at the University Club of Toronto. 

“The beauty of the book is that from nine case studies of nine countries, it addresses issues that should be looked at for future generations that get involved in these important democratic processes and transitions that take place all over the world at various times,” said IDRC President Jean Lebel. 

Between January 2012 and June 2013, co-editors Sergio Bitar and Abraham Lowenthal interviewed 13 world leaders on the processes of establishing democratic political systems during times of political upheaval and change. Former President of the Philippines, Fidel V. Ramos, former Prime Minister of Spain, Felipe González, and F.W. de Klerk, the last politician to serve as state president of South Africa during the apartheid era, were among those interviewed. 

“It’s the only book on transitions that have succeeded in four continents,” explained Bitar. “[These transitions] are described not by an academician or by a journalist, but by the leaders and presidents themselves.”  

Each chapter identifies the process and research that was conducted to address topics such as establishing trust, economic management and social mobilization. 

Single chapter on role of women

“The fact that women are not incorporated anywhere in the world is problematic. We are still second-class citizens.”

A popular topic of discussion among audience members at the book launch was the role of women in democratic transitioning. 

In the chapter “Women Activists in Democratic Transitions,” Georgina Waylen, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, examines how women supported and enhanced political participation by different social groups and promoted policies that strengthened women’s rights and gender equality. 

“Many women who actively sought to ensure positive gender outcomes during transitions were active in social movements, the bureaucracy and academia – not just in political parties or in the inner circles of men who became democratic presidents when elections were held,” writes Waylen. 

Professor Ana Isla of Brock University said she was confused as to why there was a separate researcher responsible for examining the role of women. 

“Why weren’t these world leaders and representatives able to answer questions when it comes to women?” asked Isla during the question-and-answer period. 

“Every aspect of society is intersected by women’s issues,” she continued. “The fact that women are not incorporated anywhere in the world is problematic. We are still second-class citizens.” 

Isla said there is already a plethora of woman making an impact.  She mentioned the uprising of women organizations and social movements in Latin America as recent examples.

“It’s the power of women that must change politics and change men.”

“All these women initiated the transition from dictatorship to democracy,” she said. However, they are the ones who are missing in this book because instead of looking at the women or the social movements, the focus is on the [men in power] who were able to change their minds.” 

Leaders ignore role of women

The book’s introduction notes, “Unfortunately, there are no surviving women leaders of these transitions, and few of our interviewees provided much insight about women’s participation in them.”

Bitar confirmed that male leaders are very reluctant to have a conversation about women’s contributions to democratic transitions. 

“Normally, the response is, ‘These women are coming again with the same story, and we have to listen,’” Bitar said, imitating the male leaders interviewed. 

He went on to explain that the male leaders usually assume the women think they are not relevant to the process of improving democracy, or that if they become powerful, they will not allow men to act or decide on policies. 

“It’s the power of women that must change politics and change men,” said Bitar. “It takes lots of time, but we have realized that better democracies exist when there are more women participants in policies and law-making.” 

Democracy a tool, not a solution

“Democracy is only a tool … It doesn’t solve everything.”

Bitar said he and Lowenthal learned that every leader possessed the courage to take risks during times when their families, friends and colleagues were being killed or in danger. 

“All of them had to combat fear – a very important element in the hands of any dictator,” he said. “Fighting against fear was something we found very prevalent.” 

Researchers and influencers like Lebel and Bitar, who is also president of Chile’s Foundation for Democracy, said they know that democracy isn’t the solution to problems such as gender inequality, poverty, and environmental destruction. 

“If we all took on democracy, someone naïve will say the world will be much better,” said Lebel. 

“Democracy is only a tool … it doesn’t solve everything, but it gives the opportunity to have people speaking freely, institutions that are strong and take care of problems, avoid inequity, and transform social problems.”


This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

Published in Books

By Gibril Koroma
Uganda politician Kizza Besigye (photo-Al jazeera) is a man that has seen it all when it comes to political harassment and persecution.
As recently as Monday February 15 he was arrested TWICE in Kampala, the country's capital, as he tried to move from one location to the other to hold rallies for the general elections scheduled for Thursday February 18. Before Monday, he had been arrested and detained numerous times since 2001. He has been in exile twice.
Warren (...)

- African News /

The Patriotic Vangaurd

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Published in Africa
Tuesday, 05 January 2016 21:49

Historic Election for Saudi Women

Commentary by Ghadah Alrasheed in Ottawa

This year was marked by important elections around the world. Here in Canada, the Liberals leaped to a majority government, bringing Stephen Harper’s decade of power to an end.

And last month, in Saudi Arabia, women voted for the first time in municipal elections, not long before the nation made international headlines for increased tensions with Iran.  

The 2015 municipal elections were the third in the history of the kingdom; previous elections were held in 2005 and 2011, and were open only to male voters and candidates. The polls for 2,100 seats at 284 municipal councils across Saudi Arabia ended with roughly 47.4 per cent voter turnout.

The most prominent feature of this year's elections was the presence of women as voters and as candidates.

Giving women a chance to vote may not only increase women’s participation, but also the wider society’s propensity to engage in politics.

A historic day for Saudi Arabia

Thousands of Saudi women headed to polling stations across the kingdom, from the largest urban centres to smallest rural areas, in order to give their voices.

Twenty women won seats in the Saudi councils, some in what are known to be the most conservative areas of the kingdom, such as Qassim.

Although the 20 candidates represent just one per cent of the total seats across the 284 councils, this is seen as a significant step for wider women’s suffrage and democracy in Saudi Arabia.

Out of 130,000 registered female voters, 82 per cent cast ballots in comparison to approximately 50 per cent on the male side. This reveals Saudi women’s determination to take opportunities to prove their presence and influence on the level of politics and civic participation.

An important step for women’s empowerment, it also has the potential to expand the democratic experience in general and affect citizens’ propensity to engage in politics.

Before the day of the election, for example, a Saudi woman made a video called “Banat Baladi” (“My Country’s Daughters”) that explained the significance and the process of the elections.

Giving women a chance to vote may not only increase women’s participation, but also the wider society’s propensity to engage in politics and awareness of citizen responsibility.

The decision to allow women to participate was made by the late King Abdullah, who also appointed 30 women in the Saudi Shura Council.

Under King Abdullah, women had been given bigger roles, such as sending more of them to universities – some of which are in Canada – and opening more opportunities for employment. Many hailed these steps as part of his legacy.

It is encouraging now to see King Salman fulfilling Abdullah’s commitment to integrate women into the political space, continuing his careful reform of women’s rights.

Saudi women took selfies after they voted.

Challenges to voting

This is not to suggest that the elections were without hurdles: reports of women facing difficulties surfaced.

Bureaucratic measures made providing proof of identity and address challenging. A conservative group distributed flyers renouncing women’s presence in the elections and asking voters to refrain from voting for women.

Other difficulties related to transportation, an issue that prompted Uber, in collaboration with a Saudi women’s empowerment group, to offer free rides to polling stations on election day.

Despite these challenges, many received the elections with celebration. Saudi women took selfies after they voted. Some voters brought their moms and others brought their kids, which made the elections a cross-generational event.

Saudi men and women rushed to the Twitter accounts of the women candidates to congratulate them on winning the elections.

Among the first elected was Rasha Hefzi, who received many congratulatory tweets. One tweet said, “You entered history.” Similarly, another applauded Hefzi’s “entrance into history” stating, “Congratulations to us, to Jeddah. How lucky we are!”

I believe women’s participation in the civic realm is a positive small space in terms of wider women’s participation and empowerment.

Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist, called the women’s elections a historic day for Saudi Arabia.

Canadian and international media also agreed it was a historic and symbolic victory for women in the kingdom.

A victory with substance?

But is it really a victory, taking into consideration the fact that the powers of the municipal councils are limited to local planning and development issues such as public parks and trash collection?

Regardless of the subject of the powers of the councils, I believe women’s participation in the civic realm is a positive small step in terms of wider women’s participation and empowerment.

It provides a healthy model for future generations and normalizes women’s presence on both the social and political levels.

It also reveals, in opposition to the dominant discourse centred on deep-seated cultural impediments to women’s participation in Saudi Arabia, that the Saudi society, like any other, is ready for change.


Ghadah Alrasheed was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She finished her bachelor’s degree at Princess Nora University, Riyadh. She has been in Canada for about 11 years and is currently doing a PhD in communication at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is a contributor to New Canadian Media and Saudi-based Al Hattlan Post and Sofaraa.

 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

 

Published in Commentary
Thursday, 24 September 2015 10:02

#Refugeecrisis Galvanizes Arab Community

by Imad Al-Sukkari in Ottawa

This year’s election campaign has been one of the longest in our country’s political history, characterized by the usual kinds of political messaging, policy debates and ethical questions on governance.

The campaign seemed a typical one until four weeks ago, when the devastating, powerful image of a dead three-year-old Syrian refugee lying on a beach in Turkey made international headlines and arguably pushed the Syrian refugee crisis to the forefront of the federal election.

The crisis has also propelled Canadian Arabs, a generally silent and politically inactive minority, to become more engaged and visible in the Canadian political scene.

Indeed, members of the community have taken action to make their voices heard, such as publishing opinion articles critiquing the government's inaction on the crisis (see the Arab Pulse article published by New Canadian Media reporter Jacky Habib), appearing on news shows such as CBC's "Power and Politics", and sponsoring local election panels to ask candidates why their party is best suited to serve the interests of the Arab community.

“There is a disproportionate emphasis on the security risks, and not enough on humanitarian aid.”

Thirty days remain for Canadian voters to decide which party they would like to see lead the country into the future.

Refugee crisis sparks reactions

Dr. Bessma Momani, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI) and associate professor at the University of Waterloo, comments on how the crisis has affected the relationship between Arab Canadians and the Harper government.

“The Harper government has demonstrated a lack of urgency in dealing with this issue,” she says, arguing that this has made the Conservative government appear unsympathetic in the eyes of many Canadians and, more specifically, members of the Arab community.

Omar Alghabra, a former MP and a Liberal candidate of Syrian descent running in the Mississauga Centre riding, states his dissatisfaction with the way the current government has handled the refugee crisis.

He points to its delinquency in carrying out the proposed plan to resettle 10,000 refugees over three years, inefficiencies at the bureaucratic levels, and the shifting paradigm of what is supposed to be a humanitarian issue.

“There is a disproportionate emphasis on the security risks, and not enough on humanitarian aid,” Alghabra says.

“We usually end our discussions by trying to encourage people to convert frustration into action by voting in the upcoming federal elections.”

Alghabra also adds, “During the campaign I have engaged with many people [in the riding] on this issue, and I would say the majority of them are embarrassed by this government’s response and feel we could have been more generous in allowing Syrian refugees in.”

Encouraging voter participation

The Canadian Arab Institute (CAI), an organization whose vision is to empower and engage the Arab community in Canada, started a campaign called Sowtek, or “Your Voice,” to encourage Arab Canadians to vote in the upcoming election.

Your Voice has utilized many mediums to provide educational resources to its members, such as webinars, the Canadian national anthem in Arabic (“Ya Canada”), a short animated video explaining the importance of voting and panel discussions across major Canadian cities with a sizeable Arab population such as Ottawa, Toronto, London, Windsor and Montreal.

Raja Khouri, president of CAI, states that the refugee crisis has led members of the Arab community to share their frustrations about the Canadian government, but it is by far not the only issue the community is concerned about.

“Members of the community have expressed frustrations with a number of government policies, from economic policy to Bill C-24 (a new law giving government more power to revoke Canadian citizenship from a dual citizen) and the Mideast policy,” Khouri says.

“We usually end our discussions by trying to encourage people to convert frustration into action by voting in the upcoming federal elections,” he adds.

"I think Arab Canadians will be making a greater effort to make their voice heard in this election."

An increase in community engagement

It has not been all frustration and no action for the Arab community, as 23 candidates of Arab descent are currently seeking election or re-election in various ridings across Quebec, Alberta and Ontario, with nine running for the Liberal party, seven for the Conservatives, five for the NDP and one for the Bloc Québécois.

“It is fantastic and refreshing to see an increased level of engagement from members of the community; it demonstrates that Canadian Arabs have come a long way in the last decade,” Alghabra says.

As to how Canadian Arabs will vote in this election, Sherif Rizk – an Ottawa lawyer and host of the Rizk Assessment, a political show broadcast on the Christian Youth Channel (CYC), also known as the Coptic Youth Channel – offers his analysis as to which federal party Arab Canadians may be leaning towards.

“Domestically speaking, Arab Canadians will mostly focus on the changes that the Conservative government have made to Canadian citizenship (creating the right to revoke citizenship for dual-nationality Canadians), Bill C-51 and the government's ban on niqabs in citizenship ceremonies,” Rizk says.

“I think these issues have largely pushed a lot of younger Arab Canadians away from the Conservative Party, but not necessarily to the arms of the Liberal Party. I think Arab Canadians will be making a greater effort to make their voice heard in this election." 

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Politics

EARLIER this year, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs used an extensive arsenal of vague and overbroad laws to muzzle the world’s largest environmental watchdog, Greenpeace International. Using seemingly innocuous provisions in the Indian Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 2010, the government effectively silenced criticism of a controversial nuclear power plant by freezing the bank account […]

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Indo-Canadian Voice

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Published in India

TORONTO — Is the idea of Israel as a Jewish state incompatible with it being a contemporary western democracy, or is it simply a nation state the way many European countries are? 

That was one of several tough questions raised at a panel discussion April 20 entitled “My Promised Land – Have We Fulfilled the Promise?” hosted by UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and held at the Prosserman JCC.

The Canadian Jewish News

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Published in Israel

by Abbas Somji (@AbbasSomji) in Toronto

Is politics ‘broken’? For a growing number of Canadians, the answer appears to be ‘yes’ - and there may not be an easy fix.

The CBC posed this question during its inaugural ‘CBC Asks’ public debate, live-streamed from the atrium of the corporation’s Toronto headquarters this week. An audience of approximately 300 people, and countless more online, watched as two teams each made their case. The debaters tried to sway the vote, and convince viewers that the political process either continues (or ceases) to be the most effective way to enact real change, both in Canada and globally.

The debate dovetailed with the release of Samara Canada’s first-ever “Democracy 360” – a report card measuring the health of Canada’s democracy. Samara Canada is a charity that tries to enhance civic engagement without being affiliated with any one political party. The report card focuses on public opinion of political leaders and their politics. It’s designed to prompt reflection and discussion, particularly in light of 2015 being a federal election year.

Canada’s Grade

How’d Canada fare? Well, we got a ‘C’, with the comment that “our democracy is not doing as well as a country as rich as Canada deserves.”

Samara’s co-founder Alison Loat insists that the country’s political system now repels more people than it attracts, particularly young people.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars helping immigrants build lives here and spend next to none of that money introducing them constructively to our democratic system.” - Alison Loat, Samara Canada

“About 40 per cent of Canadians say they don’t trust their elected leaders, our political parties, and believe they largely fail to perform their jobs,” says Loat. More Canadians are finding politics to be “irrelevant”, she says, and there is little being done to empower newcomers to be active participants in the political process.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars helping immigrants build lives here and spend next to none of that money introducing them constructively to our democratic system,” adds Loat.

Her teammate, political columnist Andrew Coyne, agrees.

“If you’re well-heeled, well-funded, or well-connected, no doubt, politics works for [you],” he says.

A video snapshot, shown prior to the debate, polled Canadians and asked them to share their insights on politics.

“If there were more naturalized citizens that were in power, that would represent us on all levels of government, that would be better, because right now, the politicians don’t really look like the immigrants – or the average Canadian,” says one woman. “If I don’t vote, then I won’t have exercised my right as a citizen.”

The Right to Vote

CBC chief correspondent, Peter Mansbridge, moderated the debate, and pointed out that citizens in some countries are denied a basic right – one that so many in North America choose to forfeit.

“I think for a lot of us in this room, we’ve either been in countries, or we’ve seen television reports from countries, where we’ve seen, on voting day, people lined up for blocks, some of them crying. Why? Because they suddenly have the right to vote,” says Mansbridge.

“They’ve fought for that right. They’ve watched people die for that right. In some cases, some people are still dying for that right to vote.”

“We can’t afford to just sit on the sidelines and be cynical, because it’s actually through the friction of political debate that we get big, bold policy ideas.” - Aisha Moodie-Mills

A stark comparison from the scene in this country, where voting turnout rates have dropped significantly. During Canada’s last federal election, voter turnout was a reported 61 per cent, a marginal increase from the year before. However it still meant approximately 40 per cent of Canadians eligible to vote chose not to.

“How well is politics working when the parliament we elect looks nothing like the parliament we voted for?” asks Coyne. “When 38 per cent of the vote gives you 60 per cent of the seats and 100 per cent of the power?”

In the last Canadian election, the vast majority of Canadians voted against the incumbent government,says Dave Meslin, Coynes fellow teammate and someone the National Speakers Bureau deems a community catalyst.

In most Western democracies, when a party takes power against the will of the majority, its called a coup – and its a bad thing. Here, we call it an election and we publicly finance the whole thing.” - Dave Meslin

Meslins comments were met with applause and cheers from the audience as he underscored the need to implement proportional representation. He cites the First Past the Post voting system adopted in Canada and the U.S., which he says prevents citizens from fairly electing representatives. More importantly, Meslin says the desires of the people dont translate into seats in the government.

In most Western democracies, when a party takes power against the will of the majority, its called a coup – and its a bad thing. Here, we call it an election and we publicly finance the whole thing,he says, to peals of laughter from the crowd.

No Room for Cynicism

The verbal sparring, albeit entertaining, by the two teams (pictured to the right), was effective in highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the political arena. The debate continued with the opposing team, who admitted that though the political process has its fair share of imperfections, it’s still a tool worth keeping and should not be undermined. The team threw the question back to their opponents, asking: how would society function better without the current democratic process?

“Why would you leave the running of the country to people you dont trust, when its completely within your hands to go about and have your say?” - Monte Solberg

“We can’t afford to just sit on the sidelines and be cynical, because it’s actually through the friction of political debate that we get big, bold policy ideas,” says U.S. political strategist, Aisha Moodie-Mills. “It’s those policy ideas that then become laws, and it’s the laws that strengthen and safeguard and secure our society and our day-to-day lives.”

“Why would you leave the running of the country to people you dont trust, when its completely within your hands to go about and have your say?” asks Moodie-Mills’ teammate, former Conservative MP Monte Solberg. “Canadian voters are not victims. The ability to create change is in your hands.”

Rounding up Solberg’s team was another parliamentary alumnus - former Liberal MP Sheila Copps, who reinforced that the only place real change can happen is in politics.

What must happen now is a radical culture shift to empower citizens and make them feel politics can be used as a tool in the country to bring about change.

“We are now in the most racially diverse city in the world, and people get along, and there are lots of other places in the world where that is not happening,” says Copps, who asserts it couldn’t have happened without the decision of multiple governments. She cites the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1970, as just one piece of legislation that governed how we would learn to live together.

“We asked the CRTC to implement laws to see ourselves reflected on the airwaves. It didn’t happen by accident,” says Copps. “The reason we have been successful in Canada is not because we’re better than other places around the world, but we put in place laws to guarantee that the minority have equal rights with the majority.”

Turning Things Around

Samara Canada insists it will take more than just higher voter turnout. What must happen now is a radical culture shift to empower citizens and make them feel politics can be used as a tool in the country to bring about change. It doesn’t end there – politicians need to be vibrant and reliable, whereas citizens need to begin to get engaged by first starting to talk about politics and eventually getting more involved in the democratic process – not simply just by casting their ballots every election.

At the beginning of the debate, the audience electronically cast its ballots (using device pictured to the left), revealing 69 per cent did not feel the political process was worthwhile.

By the end of the debate, after everyone had spoken – including two former parliamentarians – that number had risen to 76 per cent – a 7 per cent increase.

That in itself was the testament of the power of sway, underscoring the disconnect between politicians and citizens, and the growing apathy and disenchantment that now pervades the Canadian social consciousness.

This content was developed exclusively for New Canadian Media and can be re-published with appropriate attribution. For syndication rights, please write to publisher@newcanadianmedia.ca

Published in Politics
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