May 1, 2019

What’s the power of one voice? Democracy in Canada and questioning the illusion of the inevitable

Every sector of society has what it believes to be unassailable truths. But now, in a time of flourishing grassroots political movements and activism, it seems like established ideals are being questioned more than ever before.

Earlier this year, in the United States, when Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts senator Ed Markey introduced a proposal for a Green New Deal to reset and revitalize the U.S. economy, opponents' reaction was harsh and dismissive.

Detractors immediately labeled the proposal communist and un-American. Part of the resolution called for a reduction in the carbon footprint from the meat industry, with Ocasio-Cortez later saying during an interview, "maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner." Critics latched on to this comment, mocking her for suggesting Americans stop eating hamburgers.

In another American example, in 2013, when then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned the sale of 20-ounce serving sizes of sugary drinks (a ban later overturned by a state court judge), he was derisively referred to as "Nanny Bloomberg." The food-industry lobby group Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) even took out a full-page ad in The New York Times, with the slogan "You only thought you lived in the land of the free."

In today’s politics, trivializing concerns about potentially harmful activities is a common (and effective) way to stifle debate and reinforce the status quo — especially for industry lobbyists.

"The CCF challenged Bloomberg's big cup ban by essentially equating freedom with the right to consume junk foods," says Dr. Charlene Elliott, PhD, a professor in the Department of Communications, Media and Film in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts and Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing, Policy and Children’s Health. "Whether or not you agree with Bloomberg’s initiative — which sought to limit the normalization of ever-increasing serving sizes — it's interesting that the push-back pivoted on consumers’ right to consume giant servings of sugary soda."

Elliott says the ad is reminiscent of another CCF slogan, "It's your food. It's your drink. It's your freedom." "In this case, CCF equated freedom with the 'right' to donuts, cookies and pop," she says. "This framing of the ‘right’ to junk food works to trivialize the notion of rights. One would certainly hope that our democratic freedom entails much more than that."

What makes such tactics so effective is that they position the opposition as an attack on the things we take for granted, that we never question — of course it's our right to eat as many hamburgers as we like, or drink as much pop as we want. Why are they wasting our time even talking about this?

The power of dominance

Similarly, many of us simply accept that the wealthy and powerful will remain wealthy and powerful, and that this is the way it should be. That's just how the world works. This is also why we're always surprised when an "underdog" scores an "upset" victory over the established, dominant figure, whether it's in politics, sports, business or movies.

The idea of established, inevitable dominance is illustrated by Dr. Liza Lorenzetti, PhD, an assistant professor in UCalgary's Faculty of Social Work, during a classroom activity. "We start with a barter system using four colours of paper, cut into small squares," says Lorenzetti. "Once the students have traded and accumulated paper, I change it and tell them each colour has a specific monetary value. I put those without much money out into the corridor, while those with money stay and make decisions for what's going to happen with our economic system."

They know if they've got the money, they get to make the decisions.

The illuminating part of the exercise, says Lorenzetti, comes when the students realize they willingly went along with it, because that's just the way the world works. "Every single one of them knows how dominance works," she says. "They know if they've got the money, they get to make the decisions. They know if they don't, they have to stay outside. No one questions it. And these are social work students!"

According to Lorenzetti, this acceptance of the inevitability of social structures helps explain why certain norms always seem to perpetuate themselves. "We are taught to expect that when we go to see 'the manager,' or our doctor, or people who are viewed as important, we expect to see a certain individual of a certain race and probably a certain gender and probably a certain age, and someone without disabilities," she says. "This becomes inevitable to us. We start believing this is how it should be."

That's just how the world works. It's inevitable.

The power of perception

A belief in the inevitability of the status quo isn't limited to average people, either. Even in the highest echelons of the Canadian power structure, there's an acceptance of a certain order of things.

For the most part, we all assume power rests entirely with prime ministers and their cabinets (or Opposition leaders and their shadow cabinets), and that backbenchers are merely there to provide the numbers come voting time. And maybe to ask the occasional pointed question during Question Period.

And we're not the only ones. Turns out the experts think the same thing. "We've had this trend in political science research over the last 20 years or so, which says all the action happens inside Cabinet and inside the bureaucracy," says Dr. Ian Brodie, PhD, an associate professor in UCalgary's Department of Political Science. "We tend to assume that unless you're in Cabinet, you're kind of irrelevant."

This perception, says Brodie, is exacerbated when there's a majority government. "The idea is that if you get a prime minister with a majority government, they just run roughshod over the representative and deliberative functions of parliament." After all, if one party has the most votes, what's to stop them from pushing through whatever legislation they want? Any resistance on the part of the Opposition becomes token, a mere going-through-the-motions exercise before a bill passes.

Interestingly, the literature bears out this idea. "Our textbooks tell us that private members, people who aren't in cabinet, government back-benchers and opposition MPs, can move their own legislation, but that private members’ legislation hardly ever passes," says Brodie. "That parliament is decidedly in the second or third tier of useful institutions in Canadian politics. And that once the prime minister decides they want a piece of legislation, if they have got a majority government, they just force it through."

That's just how the world works. It's inevitable.

The power of backbenchers

Brodie says the view that a majority government can simply do whatever it wants, ignoring Opposition MPs and backbenchers, is part of what fuels public desire to change the first-past-the-post system, where whoever gets the most votes wins, regardless of vote percentage or proportion of representation. "It's not just an academic argument, it's a public one, too," he says. "Hence the discontent with the party system, and all the demand for democratic reform and changes to electoral systems."

However, says Brodie, all is not as it seems. "Private members bills pass all the time. And some of them have had quite an important impact on public policy. But we keep telling ourselves that this doesn't exist.

Private members bills pass all the time.

"All sorts of changes have been made to the structure of political parties as a result of private members' legislation. All sorts of changes to the Criminal Code. Labour relations. Look at human trafficking — the federal legislative scheme for regulating human trafficking is almost entirely the creation of private members' legislations, not government legislation."

Brodie is planning a research project to take a closer look at how private members' bills pass, and the effects they have on policy, legislative agendas, and the inner workings of cabinet.

"I want to put down some political science markers about what actually goes on in the parliamentary debate," says Brodie. "And what are the sources of the opposition party's power, the back-bench government MPs’ power."

Aside from updating the literature, Brodie hopes his research will have an empowering effect, too. "Private members can develop their own legislative agendas and pass them, regardless of whether the prime minister wants them to pass or not," he says. "I think if we document how that happens and why that happens, not only would we have better understanding of what goes on in our system of government, we'd have a better understanding of the state of democracy in Canada. In fact, maybe new MPs would look at that and say, 'Hey, maybe I can do that, too.'"

The power of marketing

Bill S-228, the Child Health Protection Act, is a current example of a private members' bill making its way through the legislative process. Expected to pass this year, the bill prohibits the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children under age 13. Like the suggestions above — of maybe eating slightly less meat or not consuming soda pop in quite such large quantities — to many people, such an idea is an unthinkable. What do you mean, no advertising junk food to kids? That's just how the world works. It's inevitable.

Similarly, much of the parliamentary opposition to the bill revolves around "unintended consequences" like children being subjected to ads for beer instead of pop, or community hockey teams for youngsters, sponsored by national doughnut chains, suddenly losing their funding and collapsing.

Marketing to children

Children are often unprepared to tell marketing from facts on food labels.

Unsurprisingly, says Charlene Elliott, even young people can't imagine a world without food promotion, and are largely opposed to the idea of banning unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children. In research she conducted with teens aged 12-14, Elliott found that teens framed food marketing as a way to meet their consumer needs. "They could not conceive of a world where they were not advertised to," she says. "And even though they thought marketing is often misleading, they didn't view regulation as a solution."

That's just how the world works. It's inevitable.

“The problem with this,” says Elliott, “is that many of the teenagers we interviewed were powerfully influenced by food marketing messages, and could not separate the marketing appeals from the factual elements on food product packaging. They were cynical about food marketing, but that didn't mean they were critical consumers.

"Giving teenagers the skills to navigate a complex foodscape is important for health reasons, but also because the perspectives they currently hold provide a window into the views they hold in later life as adults and as voters. And so there is an opportunity to draw teenagers’ attention to issues beyond consumption — namely, the ways they are influenced by marketing messages, the ethics of food marketing and broader questions related to public health."

The power of youth

Ian Brodie sees the current state of democracy in Canada as a looming conflict between two voting blocs on opposite ends of the spectrum — one entrenched and established, and one emerging and just beginning to assert its power.

Two women look at a mobile phone screen

Canada's voting demographic is changing.

"The demographic reality has changed," says Brodie. "There's a chunk of Baby Boomers that's getting old pretty quickly, with costs and policy implications. They're probably not that interested in an ambitious policy agenda. They're more interested in conserving what they have than in starting big new projects.

"On the other hand, is another large generation, soon to become the biggest part of the electorate. 35 and younger, who have the sorts of views that people should have when they're 35 and younger. 'Things are possible. I've got a different view than my dad or my granddad or grandparents did, and let's make some changes here.'"

Fight the power

Liza Lorenzetti sees a similar tectonic shift in the voting landscape in Canada. "We're in a time of contesting power in a way that I don't think I've ever seen," she says. "With equity movements, Truth and Reconciliation, #MeToo, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women — these are frameworks that are being planted in Canada right now that are going to impact our youth. People in power are being questioned and taken down by people with less power, but who have social power, collective power. That's where you see growing movements."

This doesn't have to be the way the world works. Nothing is inevitable.

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Dr. Charlene Elliott, PhD, is a professor in UCalgary's Department of Communications, Media and Film in the Faculty of Arts, and Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing, Policy and Children’s Health. Her main program of research focuses on obesity and public health, taste and communication, and intellectual property and sensorial communication. Read more about Charlene's work

Dr. Liza Lorenzetti, PhD, an assistant professor in UCalgary's Faculty of Social Work. Her teaching, research, and community practice center on anti-oppression, peace-building and social justice. Read more about Liza

Dr. Ian Brodie, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. Read more about Ian

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