The Peel plan is not ‘undemocratic’

If a tourist were to read recent letters to the editor disagreeing with the Yukon government's plan for the Peel watershed, he or she would have to assume that our current leadership forced their way into the legislature...

If a tourist were to read recent letters to the editor disagreeing with the Yukon government’s plan for the Peel watershed, he or she would have to assume that our current leadership forced their way into the legislature and carried out the Yukon’s rightful benign rulers in sacks.

These letters, of which there are many, refer to the “undemocratic” nature of the Peel plan enacted by a government underpinned by a “false majority,” and claim that the Peel plan and the government itself are illegitimate.

Luckily for us (and for our now-wary tourist) no unwashed horde has stormed the castle and our elected government remains intact. The Peel plan, whether one is for or against, is a valid document enacted by a legitimate, democratically elected body.

Across North America we are seeing a rising trend of citizens calling into question the legitimacy of the elected officeholder rather than debating the merits of the policies enacted by same. When U.S. President George W. Bush was elected to his first term in a tight election ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, a “not-my-president” movement emerged throughout the U.S. Citizens claimed that Bush was elected undemocratically through subversion of the electoral process and was therefore an illegitimate president.

President Barack Obama faced, and continues to face, the same calls of illegitimacy, in his case by a group of individuals called “birthers” who claim that Obama’s presidency is illegal due to his alleged place of his birth. In both cases, these groups are not fringe elements of American society, but rather mainstream movements comprised of members of Congress, the Senate and leaders of industry.

Democracy suffers when such movements take hold, as debate turns to the legitimacy of the officeholder rather than focussing on the actual policies enacted. The Yukon government is currently facing such calls of illegitimacy by a chorus of citizens claiming that the government’s Peel plan is undemocratic in nature. This movement argues that the Peel commission’s final plan should have been adopted as submitted and not subject to oversight or amendment by the government.

The issue with such a position is that the Peel commission was, for better or worse, simply an advisory panel. It is the elected officials that must, ultimately, make the tough decisions that we elect them to make. In fact it is that decision-making power that lies at the heart of our democracy, as it is the elected office holders that are ultimately responsible to voters for those decisions at the ballot box.

The irony here is that if the government did download unfettered decision-making responsibility to the unelected and unaccountable Peel commission, one could argue that such a delegation would be undemocratic.

A further argument posited against the government is that a majority of Yukoners oppose the Peel plan, and therefore the government’s decision to adopt same must be undemocratic. But even if a majority of the population is against the Peel plan, there is nothing undemocratic about a legislature taking a principled stand on an issue at odds with popular opinion.

The classic example of a principled stand in Canada is the federal government’s inaction on the issue of capital punishment. Polls over the past decades continually show that a large majority of the population is in favour of capital punishment for certain crimes. Yet the federal government, over the length of many prime ministers, has continually refused to adopt such a measure, a principled stand at odds with public opinion.

No one suggests such inaction is undemocratic. Acting against a majority of voters may be unwise, as elected officials must all eventually face the ballot box, but it is not undemocratic.

I have also seen the phrase “false majority” cropping up in relation to the current government and the Peel plan, shorthand for a claim that the current government is not fit to make decisions because it collected only 40 per cent of the territorial vote in the last election. The problem with that argument is that there is only one electoral system in place in the territory. It is not a system enacted by the current government, but a system that has been in use for centuries, since the mother-of-all parliaments in Westminster.

Arguing that the government is illegitimate because of a majority obtained under that system is kind of like saying our democratic system is not democratic enough, therefore it is not democratic. The logic doesn’t really hold up. One can disagree with the system, and point to flaws, but at the end of the day it is the democratic system we use, and the decisions produced by those elected are, by definition, democratic.

The above is not intended as a defence of the Peel plan. Rather, it is a defence of the legitimacy of the elected officeholders to enact the Peel plan. Whether one agrees with the government’s decision or not, one must recognize that a majority of the members of the legislature, each elected in a free and open vote of all Yukon citizens over 18 years of age, support the Peel plan.

Can you disagree with that decision? Absolutely. Free speech and freedom of association are pillars of Canadian democracy. Does the plan violate the Umbrella Final Agreement? Perhaps. The courts will decide that issue.

But is the Peel plan undemocratic? Absolutely not.

Graham Lang is a Whitehorse lawyer practising real estate and commercial law.