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By Susanna Kelley, ONW Editor-in-Chief  

Susanna Kelley

Last summer I was fortunate to visit Florence in Tuscany, Italy - the bosom of the 14th century Renaissance and the cradle of Humanism. It was here that the House of Medici acted as patrons of da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Botticelli, Galileo and other greats.

Staring at Michaelangelo's fantastic "David" in the Galleria dell' Accademia, I pondered the inspiration for the rise of Renaissance Humanism by the great thinkers, artists, poets and leaders of the day: they revered the classical Greeks and Romans ... from their statuary to the writings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who were the first to advocate civic virtue and value engagement of the citizen in politics. 

From ancient Athens and Rome to the Medici court of Tuscany; to Britain's House of Commons to the French Revolution; to the US constitution; to Canada's House of Commons and the Legislature of Ontario: civic virtue and involvement in politics is seen as the ideal.

Over time and in western culture, that has come to mean there is nothing more fundamental to the public good - the greatest good for the greatest number - than a healthy democracy.

Striving for the public good through trying to make our democracy work well is at the very core of why many of us do what we do. Politicians, political journalists, public servants, activists, researchers ... we are all cogs in the great democratic wheel.  And while we may not always perform our part  perfectly, for most of us, the intention is pure.

It is certainly at the heart of what we at do every day - trying to bring the best information, the most balanced coverage we can, so that the public can make up their minds at voting time on good, solid information.

But over the last several years there have been charges that the actions of some politicians are seriously weakening our democratic system, running roughshod over institutions like parliament that are meant to protect it.     

That is why, this being Democracy Week in Canada (as deemed by Elections Canada), kicked off by the United Nations' International Democracy Day on September 15th, ONW thought it appropriate and important to take an in-depth look at the state of our democracy both in Ontario and in Canada.

Is our democracy under any more pressure at this time than other points in our history?  Some say the stresses on our democratic system have become more numerous in recent years, both federally and in Ontario.

It is particularly ironic, for instance, that the day before International Democracy Day, the Speaker of the Legislature has found a prima facie case that Liberal Energy Minister Chris Bentley has violated his parliamentary privileges for refusing to give the men and women we elected, our MPP's, documents relating to the costs of a late 2011 election Liberal campaign decision to cancel two gas-fired electricity plants in Mississauaga and Oakville. The opposition contends it was a desperate 11th hour political decision taken in order to win two GTA ridings.

Speaker Dave Levac has ruled the government must hand over the documents to the people's representatives but given the all sides until September 24 to negotiate how the documents will be released.

Similarly, the Speaker of the House of Commons in Ottawa recently ruled the Stephen Harper government in contempt of parliament for refusing to release documents on the cost of its crime legislation.

Other examples: Prime Minister Harper prorogue parliament twice for unprecedented reasons: once to avoid a budget confidence vote that could have toppled his government; a second time to avoid political embarrassment over release of information describing the treatment of Afghan detainees after being handed over by Canadian authorities.

It is easy to brush these off as the usual political games between governments and opposition parties.

But in fact, the very idea that the crown must have permission to spend the people's money is not just a Canadian constitutional tradition. It comes from one of the most important developments in democracy, the Magna Carta of 1215. That document established limits on the powers of the crown, and one of them is taxation: that taxation requires consent of the governed. This is why budgets are considered "confidence" documents, and lack of approval by the people's representatives is so serious a government must resign if it cannot obtain it.

Proroguing parliament to avoid a confidence vote and other actions of the Harper government have prompted the respected journalist Lawrence Martin to question whether Canada is still even a democracy anymore.

As such, ONW has gathered some of the greatest political thinkers of our day to opine this week on the state of our democracy.

We are proud to announce that ONW is launching a regular column by Peter Russell, one of Canada's greatest constitutional scholars and a staunch defender of parliamentary democracy.

The University of Toronto Professor-Emeritus will be watching political developments in Ontario and nationally and writing about their effects on our democracy - in other words, he'll be a democratic watchdog, reporting to us on whether the public's will is being respected.

A new mini-documentary about the state of our democracy will bring you the thoughts of Clifford Orwin, a University of Toronto Professor and Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, who takes a different view. Orwin believes majority government serves people best, and that Canada's democracy is, for the most part, healthy and functioning as it should.

Our Thought Provokers - ONW's resident political intellectuals - weigh in on the state of our democracy this week. Former PC cabinet minister David Tsubouchi, a Japanese Canadian, gives the view of one from the last group to receive the right to vote in Canada. Hershell Ezrin, whose political experience spans both Ottawa and at Queen's Park, laments the rise of personality politics. Green Party leader Mike Schreiner will look at whether we need to change how we vote to a proportional representation system to make the outcomes fairer and more representative of the voters' wishes. And we'll introduce a new Thought Provoker, Trish Hennessy of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives who will give us her view on where our democracy stands.

Democracy Week in Canada.

Democracy Week in Ontario.

Democracy Week at

From the ancient classical political philosophers to the denizens of our modern democracy: civic virtue and civic engagement on public display.

You can find Susanna here: @susannakelley

Posted date : September 17, 2012 NEWSROOM
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