At the time this article was written Joan
McNiven was a student at J L. Ilsley High School in Halifax. This essay won
Third prize in an essay contest sponsored by the Nova Scotia Branch of the
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
Parliamentary democracy is alive and
struggling in Canada today. To maintain the necessary relationship between
society and its elected representatives in a parliamentary democracy, the
people must be consulted on governmental problems and their proposed solutions.
However, with the increasing complexity of issues, this task becomes more and
more difficult. Since the future of parliamentary democracy is substantially
dependent on maintaining a close relationship between the people and their
elected representatives, the need to revitalize this relationship is apparent.
Originally in Great Britain. the form of
government consisted of the King and his ministers, who were responsible only
to the King. Parliament actually played a very small part in governing. The
Glorious Revolution of 1688 established the rights of Parliament over the power
of the monarchy. Parliament become the real ruler of England. The King's
ministers came to be responsible to the House of Commons, the elected
representatives of the people, rather than to the King. Canada adopted the
basic principles (1848) and form of British parliamentary practice through the
British North America Act in 1867. This system is known as a parliamentary
democracy, a government by the people through elected representatives.
Ideally, parliamentary democracy serves as a
powerful reflection of the views of society. It allows for a fair
representation of public policy through elected legislators who speak for the
people. This system differs from a direct democracy in which the people
participate directly in the making of laws and policies. As opposed to direct
democracy, parliamentary democracy supposes a good deal of order. It is also
capable of effectively dealing with a large population. Guarding against
absolutism by a continuous process of checks presented through the different
parties, parliamentary democracy is a healthy, adaptable form of government.
But theory and practice are two different
things. In practice, the system is limited because of the need for effective
communication between the population and its elected representatives. To make
the necessary improvements for the people – representative relationship means
that the people and their representatives must be in contact with each other,
that there must be more and better information available to both parties and
that there must be a more sophisticated comprehension by the people of the pressing
issues. It also needs a revitalization of party structures and the Senate.
If the people are to be kept well informed
of current affairs, then the people must understand what the issues mean to
them. The increasing complexity of issues puts extra demands on the role of the
representative to meet and discuss the problems with the people. The issues
first need to be clarified at a level comprehensible to the average person.
"The problem about politics is that the system must put choices before the
people and these are usually complex choices."1 "It
parliamentary democracy) had in its early stages limited franchise but it
worked well at that period largely because ... the issues were limited."2
They have become progressively become more complex and if this is any
reflection of things to come, then steps must be taken now to ensure a clearer
path for parliamentary democracy.
To know and understand the issues, the
people must be in constant contact with their Member of Parliament or
Legislative Assembly. This contact also provides a chance for the people to
attain a confidence in their representative and have an understanding of his
role as a legislator.
But how does the Member of Parliament keep
in close contact with each of his 100,000 or more constituents? Obviously one
representative cannot be frequently available for personal contact. But there
are alternatives. The media, for example, is an excellent contact. More time or
space should be allotted daily on local television or in the newspaper for the comments
of one or more representatives on specific pressing issues.
Another source of contact is through more
frequent issuing of House of Commons reports sent by the Members of Parliament
to each home. A representative could also issue questionnaires with each report
so as to get a better knowledge of the issues his constituents feel are
important. To get the people closer to their representatives the initiative
must be taken by the representative to know what the people want, and the
constituents must understand the position of their representative.
Continuous "grass roots"
involvement is most effective in a parliamentary democracy, as it provides for
public input. To encourage "grass roots" participation. the local
party structure must be revitalized. Too few people are interested in politics,
The only time many people come into contact with their government is during an
election campaign, through volunteers from the local polling station who
canvass the area introducing people to their candidates. Election campaign
activities and policy discussions provide opportunities for direct involvement
in the government process. Unfortunately, when the campaign ends, so does the
brief surge of public participation. Interest should be maintained by means of
regular policy meetings and informal "referenda" on issues, sponsored
by the local party organization. For example, a Member of Parliament may call
for a local, informal "referendum" on the influence of foreign
investment. He would present the pro's and con's of the issue and ask for the
public opinion. The information would be used for the formation of policy. The
Canadian Federation of Independent Businessmen (CFIB) holds
"referenda" among its members to find their opinions, which it takes
to Ottawa. The Member of Parliament is also responsible to encourage youth
groups, women's organizations and senior citizen's groups to stay active
In order for the elected representatives to
speak for the people, they must know what the people want. Again, there is a
demand for a close relationship between the people and their representatives.
To find out the demands and opinions of his constituents, the representative
has a number of alternative methods aside from their quarterly reports. Members
of Parliament might gain more information through committees, advisory boards,
and task forces. These serve as important liaisons between the representative
and his constituents by allowing for public input. The government should
respond to the reports rather than simply regarding them as extra information.
Not only is it important for the
representative to form committees to research problems in his constituency, but
the Member of Parliament should be involved in various parliamentary
committees. They provide an opportunity for the member to gain expertise on
several complex problems facing the government as well as giving him a chance
to recommend changes. To support research and the development of local
committees, the representative needs a greater budget. More funds are needed
for the appointment of qualified staff to assist the member in his research and
for qualified researchers for the local committees and task forces.
Committees and task forces assist in the
foundation of public policy and allow for citizen input. The Member of
Parliament should take advantage of these opportunities to find out the
opinions of his constituents. The people should be kept informed on the
progress of the committees, and more task forces should be used to disclose
public opinion. Committee hearings outside Ottawa increase public
participation. White papers are a useful method of providing public information
on government policies. "These papers (White) have the potential of
strengthening the role of Parliament in policy making activities through debate
and public discussion of issues."3 Since the policies are not
yet "carved in stone", the publishing of them gives the public an
opportunity to give a constructive opinion.
Finally, a revitalization of the Canadian
Senate so that it is open to regional influence is needed. The Senate could be
made more responsible to the regions it represents by having its members either
elected by the province, or appointed for a fixed term by the provincial
legislature. This would create more of an interest in the Senate by the public
and provide an effective channel of communication.
The trend which has developed in our
parliamentary democratic system seems to be one of a growing reliance on
impersonal bureaucracy. As the issues get more complex. it takes more of an
effort to make the system work. However, parliamentary democracy is a healthy,
adaptable system well able to bear the pressures of the changing times. It will
take a team effort on the part of the government and the people to attain the
close working relationship needed to assure a brighter future for parliamentary
1. John Ricker, John Saywell, How Are We
Governed? (Clarke, Irwin and Co. Ltd., Toronto) 1980, p. 316.
2. Ibid., p. 304.
3. Audrey D. Doerr, "The Role of
Colored Papers", Canadian Public Administration, XXV, 3 (Fall,
1982), p. 366.