OPINION: Who do our leaders speak for? An alternative way to watch the debate

A challenging but magnificent feature of democracy is the way it makes each citizen reliant upon the character and good judgment of all others.

Democracy comes to an end if citizens and politicians act only in their narrow, short-term self-interest; but all of us asking the right questions can help keep it alive.

As we approach the halfway point in this campaign, and with the leaders' debate looming, it is worth asking whether party leaders are seeking to buy our votes by cutting tolls and fees, and promising bridges in one place or another, or whether they are offering us a vision of the kind of society in which we wish to live.

1. Is it to our narrower self-interest that the leaders appeal or to the common good of all?

With all the private cash in politics, we have reason to be alert to the inevitability that the parties will be particularly responsive to the interests of their donors.

Money in politics undermines public trust because it forces us, the voters, to wonder how the promises parties make align with those donors.

2. Will the leaders transcend partisanship?

Parties have a tendency to become oligarchies because their raison d'être is winning elections. This competition militates against other functions parties serve: representing constituents, finding legislative compromises through deliberation and encouraging internal democracy.

While some degree of partisanship is desirable — disciplined parties are absolutely necessary in a parliamentary democracy — good government demands a spirit of compromise and a commitment to public service.

3. How well do the leaders speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, like those among us living in extreme poverty, the homeless, children, nature or future generations?

Many of our fellow citizens will not vote on May 9, as they may well be struggling to survive from one day to the next.

They may lack the skills and knowledge to be active citizens. They may have given up on a system that ignores them.

Low turnout is correlated with fewer goods and services. We can judge our leaders by their responsiveness to the voice of the voiceless.

Finally, we should consider whether we're being gamed. Our first-past-the-post electoral system encourages the perpetuation of a two-party system in which polarized parties struggle to reach the threshold of majority government, often by narrowly parsing the vote and targeting swing ridings.

Strategic voting is another unwelcome effect of the incentive structure of our electoral system. A more proportional system would foster more parties and create incentives for them to work together between elections.

So as we watch, we must all remember that even if we can't immediately change the system, we can certainly probe it and ultimately control our response to it.

The act of voting is not a small thing. It is about making the story of democracy our own. The heart of that story is the epic struggle for free and equal citizenship. Our task is to be worthy of that struggle by holding our leaders accountable to democracy's robust demands.

Max Cameron is the head of UBC's Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.