Canada’s penchant for oligopolies is understandable: a vast territory and sparse population are deterrents to upstarts challenging engrained empires. Moreover, in fairness, other comparators are not always pretty: the global financial crisis proved humbling for advocates of unfettered markets in much of the world, whereas our banks proved steady and strong.
Any oligopoly, however, must adapt or grow stale and oblivious to its own shortcomings. The banks are a case in point: though protected domestically by a regulatory regime that forbids foreign take-overs (and those once sought mega-mergers, for that matter), the emergence of Internet and now mobile banking are powerfully disruptive. Apple is currently in negotiations with Canadian banks to launch Apple Pay, as just one example of both the clout of incumbency and the fluidity of this space.
The similarly oligopolistic telecommunications sector is likewise challenged by an array of forces, notably online streaming and a globalizing marketplace of new platforms and tools for producing and sharing content. The ripple effects on media organizations (some subsumed by enlarged corporate conglomerates) are no less profound.
The point, then, is that in the private sphere oligopolies are often disrupted by change and, in recent years, the Internet has certainly played its part. In the political sphere, by contrast, and most especially in terms of the parliamentary electoral process, the reverse is true. And that’s a problem.
Yet again, in 2015, the coming election will feature the usual suspects in terms of political parties: three quasi-national brands, the Bloc Quebecois, and an upstart Green Party searching, seemingly in vein, to disrupt this long-time oligopoly. While true that two parties have new leaders this time around, this centralized focus on five individuals – rather than the nearly two thousand Canadians running for federal office this fall – merely accentuates the rigidity of partisan structures and antics.
Once upon a time, political parties were actually open and democratic – with annual conventions and riding associations providing meaningful input into such platforms. Indeed, a leader would be hard-pressed to override such grassroots input. Today, donations and voting are all that matters. Life is no better even for those elected: a steady stream of recent books documents excessive control and widespread dissatisfaction.
Such oligopolistic tendencies stifle innovation – and the resulting diminishment of parties themselves is striking. Fewer than two percent of Canadians belong to one federally and voting rates have steadily declined, most acutely amongst younger Canadians who have long since adapted to new banking and new media but await a new politics. Ironically, a key aspect of the election itself, the leader’s debate, is overseen by an oligopoly of television broadcasters that determines who participates and on what terms.
Where, then, is the Netflix equivalent of the televised leader’s debate? How can the Internet spur more awareness and discussion amongst candidates and voters? In short, how can we leverage the Internet to democratize the electoral process itself?
In a recent class discussion on democratic reform, a group of students made the sensible idea that instead of relying solely on party platforms, an election should be framed by the issues and concerns of citizen’s themselves. Perhaps a citizen’s panel of sorts could be formed in the months leading up to an election – to produce a set of topics and priorities for debate during the election itself. Can we leverage social media to create a virtual public square within each riding to showcase all candidates and spur vigorous and civil discourse?
As has been the case in the recent British election, new political formations can help spur interest and new ideas. But new processes are required as well. As Will Brett, head of media at the Electoral Reform Society, told a 2014 U.K. Parliamentary Committee on Voter Engagement: “We need a combination of public policy, institutional reform and cultural change, all driven by a relentless focus on what will re-engage the public in politics.”
A leading British think tank, the IPPR, echoed this sentiment, calling for the 2015 national election to be the last under the traditional Westminster regime. There, as here, an antiquated system of politics requires a strong dose of democratic disruption in order to once again flourish.