The focus of politics has shifted over the past two to three decades from issues to personalities. Media reports refer to Conservative or Liberal governments or to Harper or Campbell governments, as if federal and provincial governments were owned by political parties or their leaders.
Such references are indications that our parliamentary democracies have become totalitarian democracies. Citizens have the right to vote, but they are excluded from the decision-making process of government. Our democracy is a far cry from government of, by, and for the people, the essence of democratic governance.
The harmonized sales tax (HST) was introduced in B.C. in a process consistent with the practices of a totalitarian democracy. That practice was followed in the sale of major public assets and in the restructuring of many provincial public services as corporate entities. The process is efficient: the decision is made behind closed doors and then announced as a fait accompli. Whatever public storm such decisions unleashed were of the teacup variety, soon to pass and easily ignored.
There was no reason to suspect that a shift in the sales tax regime could not be executed by the same proven method. After all, the HST was not the first surprise tax scheme. Noisy public opposition greeted the introduction of the carbon tax, and the NDP fought that tax with the catchy but ultimately ineffectual Axe the Tax campaign slogan.
Why did the introduction of the HST not follow the proven script? The campaign’s success was due to three factors. Taxes are despised; their common good purpose lost in the shadows of greed and consumerism. Mr. Vander Zalm contributed name recognition and charismatic leadership. The principal factor, however, the factor responsible for the campaign’s success, was an engaged citizenry.
There were no flashy TV promotions, no colourful flyers in mail boxes, and no expensive radio and newspaper ads; the campaign’s success was not purchased with money. It depended on and was achieved through an enormous volunteer effort.
The anti-HST campaign could not have succeeded without the participation of thousands of citizens throughout British Columbia. Citizens volunteered their time and effort to organize, spending thousands of hours canvassing, answering questions, collecting signatures, and collating results. The anti-HST campaign was a rare example of government by the people.
The people who volunteered their time and energy were not an organized special interest group, and they did more than simply complain about politicians. The volunteers were citizens who engaged fellow citizens in political action. It was a campaign conducted by citizens, who were able and willing to take responsibility for governing themselves democratically.
The anti-HST campaign is an example of cooperative democracy, government of, by, and for the people.
The anti-HST campaign did not set out to topple the Premier in the way unemployed Tunisian protesters sought to rid their country of their president. Nonetheless, that both British Columbia’s Premier and the Leader of the Opposition were exhorted to resign in the wake of the anti-HST campaign makes it apparent that the distinction between policies and politicians is lost when democracy’s ethics are abandoned and replaced with totalitarian practices.
Citizens are not spectators to be consulted occasionally. The success of the anti-HST campaign should encourage those who aspire to political leadership to embrace cooperative democracy, to work with citizens in the cultivation of ways and means for citizens to become engaged in their own governance, helping to shape public policy not only for services but also for taxation that is fair, equitable, and adequate to support the services that sustain our common good.
The opportunity is now, let us not waste it.