JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Bob McKeon

May 23, 2011

We had our latest federal election on May 2. The Conservative Party under Stephen Harper won a majority after several years of minority governments. Almost certainly, the next federal election will not occur for another four years.

For those who voted Conservative, there is a risk that complacency can lead to disengagement from the political process. For the majority of Canadians who did not vote Conservative, there is a risk of disengagement because of frustration and cynicism. Harper won 54 per cent of the seats with less than 40 per cent of the votes.

TURNOUT APPALLING

Voter turnout continues to be a problem. During this past election only 61 per cent of eligible voters participated in the election, the third lowest turnout in Canada's history. The situation is even worse in Alberta where only 56 per cent voted. It appears that again young adults were the group least likely to vote.

The fact is that the Conservatives won the election with the votes of only 24 per cent of the total electorate.

The social vision of Catholic social teaching challenges this situation. Each federal election, the Canadian bishops issue a statement calling upon Canadian Catholics to exercise their right to vote. "Participation in community decisions" is an important ethical principle in Catholic social teaching. Informed, principled participation in elections is one way to incorporate this ethical principle into our lives.

However, now that the election is over, this does not mean that our responsibility to participate actively in the political process is finished. The Canadian bishops conclude their 2011 Federal Election Guide with: "It is a sign of a healthy community when informed and responsible citizens engage in an ongoing dialogue on major social issues with their political leaders. This is precisely the kind of community we strive to support and develop."

While the bishops write these words during an election, this is helpful guidance for our ongoing, post-election political participation. It is time to start a renewed public conversation with our newly-elected political representatives.

During an election, each federal riding has multiple candidates representing members of different political parties. After the election, there is only one representative. The elected member of Parliament takes on the responsibility to be in dialogue with and to represent all constituents, regardless of political affiliation and voting preferences.

You can take the first step in this important political conversation. It can be as simple as writing a letter to your MP congratulating them for their election victory, and naming one or two key issues you want to see addressed in the upcoming parliamentary session.

Request that you be placed on a constituency email or mailing list. See if your parish social justice committee or CWL group can write such a letter.

There is a good list of current social justice issues in the Canadian bishops 2011 Federal Election Guide (www.cccb.ca). Address the issues that are closest to your experience.

For example, if you and your parish are supporting a local food bank or St. Vincent de Paul group, raise the issue of a national poverty reduction strategy and a federal commitment to an ongoing program to address issues of homelessness and affordable housing. Even better if you can include a brief story addressing the issue from your own experience.

This political dialogue should go beyond specific issues. In the last parliamentary session, important concerns were raised about issues of government transparency, parliamentary accountability and public disclosure of government financial information.

CONTEMPT OF PARLIAMENT

Things got so bad that Parliament ended in a "contempt of Parliament" vote. We are fully justified to demand a higher standard of performance from our elected officials.

During the recent years of minority governments, opposition parties were able to hold the government accountable on an ongoing basis through the power to defeat government legislation and the threat to trigger an election. In a majority government situation, opposition parties lack this power.

It is very important with a majority government in the Canadian political system that the electorate, you and me, hold all our MPs accountable through continuing dialogue within an ongoing relationship of respect. This type of public engagement can be a start to overcoming cynicism and alienation with our politicians, and to respond to the call of our Canadian bishops to build a healthy political community.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)