Two days to go – two days until Joe Biden is in and Donald Trump is out.
Out but not gone. Out of the White House, but not out of sight, out of action, or out of the news. The Monster of Pennsylvania Avenue faces a second impeachment trial in the Senate, this time for “incitement of insurrection.” Before long he will be in court, or fighting to avoid court, on variety of criminal and civil complaints involving his private and business lives. The taxman will be after him. The Trump real estate empire may well collapse. His nimby neighbours in Palm Beach will intensify their campaign to prevent him from making his Mar-a Lago resort his permanent residence. And while all this going on, Trump will surely be feeding red meat to the neo-fascist Proud Boys and other alt-right extremists, racists and conspiracy theorists to keep his base primed for a campaign to restore him to the presidency in 2024.
American democracy survived a close call during the Trump presidency. The danger now is that the Trump circus will continue to suck so much oxygen out of the political theatre that steps needed to protect the democratic system will not get the attention or action they require. Although Canadian democracy is not in so much danger – not yet anyway – it faces similar pressure and a similar need for protection.
In theory, the parliamentary system offers protection against takeover by a populist who crosses the line to emerge as an unstable, erratic, lying, narcissistic demagogue – a Trump North – but as long as the demagogue can control the caucus in a majority government, their power would be as absolute as Trump’s, and they could be as difficult to remove as he proved to be.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, like the U.S. Constitution and its amendments, protects such fundamental rights as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. But these rights are not absolute, as the courts have recognized. There are necessary limits. Freedom of assembly does not extend to a right to belong to a criminal organization, such as the Hell’s Angels. Freedom of expression or speech does not extend to a right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, or to spread hate or to advocate insurrection.
The limits are sensible. But they are not carved in constitutional stone. Some of them – and I’m thinking here of freedom of the press in particular – are subject to modification, to strengthening or weakening, through interpretation, re-interpretation and re-re-interpretation on a case-by-case basis in the courts.
It seems to me the definition of basic rights, the extent to which they may limited, and the circumstances in which limitations are appropriate – in wartime, for example – are issues that should be dealt with by Parliament. It is Parliament’s job to make laws and the courts’ to apply them. Judges today frequently struggle to interpret Parliament’s intent when it enacted a law. They would welcome clearer definitions from the lawmakers on Parliament Hill.
The explosion of social media – and their exploitation by extremists – has created a new need for clarity of limits and of responsibilities. Should we be free to say or post whatever we wish on Twitter and Facebook? If not, where are the lines, the limits? Are there certain groups or individuals that should be banned from social media? Who should be responsible for imposing limits or bans – the police, some public or governmental agency yet to be created, the profit-driven owner/operators of social media platforms?
The use of social media in election campaigns to spread misinformation, outright falsehoods and character assassination is an issue – an outrage – that must be addressed. It is a direct threat to democracy in both Canada and the United States. Should political parties and candidates be blocked from social media platforms during elections? Should their communications be censored? I don’t know. These are questions for Parliament to answer. We do have monsters in Canada, too. Let’s not let them out.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, retired this month from teaching political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].