The parliamentary process
in Canada is facing pressures that threaten our democratic system itself. Voter
turnout is at an all time low in peacetime. This article looks at some of the
reasons for our apparent disaffection with politics.
We are living in a period of serious “democratic
compression”. By that I mean the space between decisions made by
government and the individual or collective concerns of citizens is seen to be
too large, the distance too great. There is pressure to reduce that
space. The role of delegated intermediaries, whether in the financial
world or the democratic political world is seen as dispensable in some measure,
because of the potential role of technology.
The notion advanced is that
just as technology and digital communications allows people around the world to
connect more readily and at lower cost than ever before, both financially and
in terms of so called “real time”, so too can technology facilitate a more
direct democracy where citizens can be consulted directly by government without
the need to have their views “translated” or “mediated” by elected
In research done by Dr. Paul
Howe of the IRPP as part of our “Strengthening Canadian Democracy” research
series in 2000, the views of Canadians with respect to the electoral process
indicated a general approval of how the system worked, but, as one approached
the issue of electoral participation – i.e. voting and political party
membership, the level of perceived benefit and utility falls off noticeably.
Less than 2% of Canadians have even held a party card of any kind.
In the last election, the largest group of eligible voter chose not to
vote at all.
If we count the Canadian way,
i.e. comparing the amount who voted to the permanent list, close to 62% voted –
an all time low. If we count the way our American cousins do, i.e. those
who voted compared to those who had the right to vote, we had barely a 57%
turnout. There is no reason for Canadians to feel superior to our
American neighbours and their 50% or so turnout in Presidential elections.
Especially among young people,
this does not reflect a diminished interest in public affairs, or issues of
public concerns. It reflects instead a broad belief that political party
activity and/or voting are not among the most effective ways of achieving change,
improving living standards, promoting a cleaner environment or fighting
poverty, high taxes or illiteracy.
Joining and supporting
uni-focus lobby and advocacy groups, or volunteer community groups, like the
Sierra Fund, The Red Cross, Greenpeace, The Taxpayers’ Federation, etc., are
seen to be more effective and impactful on public life and real life outcomes.
To the credit of young
Canadians, and in this regard they have company around the world, the messages
that the marketplace is at least as important as the political arena, or that
the real problems and challenges of this larger world are less about political
parties and voting, and more about international citizen efforts in support of
AIDS prevention, economic and social opportunity, environmental integrity, and
the like, have clearly had impact. Domestic parliaments and the parties
competing for local elections often take more parochial views on these issues.
Part of the challenge faced
here by parliamentarians is that the parliamentary system, while very much tied
to the government versus opposition adversarial dialectic also implies within
the caucus of the various political parties an ongoing and dynamic process of
compromise. These compromises exist for very important reasons – to
reconcile different regional interests, to address views that divide urban from
rural, left from right, labour from capital, public from private sector.
These compromises constitute the essence of democratic political parties
which seek to broaden their tents to include as many of their fellow citizens
as possible. Yet this very compromise process, wherein environmental
interests may be reconciled with industrial concerns, or military priorities
are softened by social program exigencies all conspire to encourage those who
care passionately about a particular issue to avoid that part of the political
process, that is self propelled on compromise.
For the elected
parliamentarian, whether in a first past the post single member constituency
system or in a proportional representation public list system, or a hybrid of
the two, the legitimacy challenge here is quite real.
Governments elected with
40% of a turnout of 61% or with 24% of the eligible voters, contribute to an
uninspiring disconnect between the formal processes of our parliamentary
democracy and the day to day aspirations of the people.
While it may initially strike
us as strange that a young person may feel more comfortable getting her
information via the navigation of a foreign NGA website, or that of a local
advocacy group than addressing or visiting their local member of parliament’s
office, we would be utterly disconnected from the biases of modern culture and
the criticisms of the political process now endemic to that culture not to
Parliamentary government is
about process and procedures that are fair, afford time for debate, result from
bureaucratic deliberations and the deliberations of caucuses and cabinets.
Life is about real time – with real time results. Suggesting months
and years in the context of a legislature process on an issue, when problems
are here and now is a critical disconnect for not just our youngest citizens.
The advent of information
technology and the hyper-charged world of defined purpose lobby groups are not
disconnected. The successful deflection of the Multilateral Investment
Agreement was very much the result of groups from around the world using
cyber-culture technology to link up and cause the states actively involved in
the negotiations serious pause. The motivation of large multinational
groups of protesters at various locations, Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa, and
elsewhere reflects a similar coming together of anti-globalization and
information technology culture.
Taking Democracy to the People
What are the positive opportunities
this process of “technological disintermediation” presents for the
It is wholly understandable
that a passion for parliament and its historic role in our societies makes
innovation hard – as does the competitive context between the political parties
present in parliament. But more model parliaments that take place in high
schools and youth centres, cyber-parliaments where websites allow citizens to
research parliamentary debates, committee discussions in consumer friendly ways
would all help breakdown misconceptions and cultural biases about the
parliamentary system. These projects should be undertaken by parliaments,
speakers of the House and support organizations of their own accord.
Grass roots support for parliamentary democracy is about building and
sustaining the parliamentary brand. This should not be left to
happenstance or volunteer efforts.
Fundraising reform, which
always is a sensitive question in every democracy, is nevertheless quite
fundamental to the perception of the process. And when circumstances
conspire to make those perceptions situationally quite negative, the centre of
any particular alleged scandal is not the only one negatively impacted.
All those in the system pay a price every time the relationship of money
to the public policy process is deemed to be undue in terms of influence.
Reforms made that are not
scandal driven have the distinct possibility of getting ahead of the curve in
terms of public cynicism.
The voting process must also
be brought into the 21st century although I do not necessarily mean the
use of computers or various ‘Rube Goldberg voting machines’ – innovations which
may well fail the comprehension or security test essential to modern democracy.
Paper and pencils work just fine. But where people vote, over what
period, what rules pertain to absentee ballots, the handicapped and the
preparation of the voters list all conspire to either invite or, however
unwittingly, discourage participation. If parliamentary democracy were a
business, which it is not, or even a community service organization, which it
should be, and it had growing challenges in terms of public interest and
popular legitimacy, parliamentarians would be actively engaged in assessing the
impediments to public engagement and positive interest in support of their
market share in the fight for the hears and minds of their voters. This
is not just about why voting and the parliamentary process is important.
It is also about what the risks are when people do not participate –
outcomes reflective of small minorities, parliaments disconnected from the
views of entire segments of the public.
Governments come and
governments go, but the institution of parliament is one of those frameworks
that must endure, and must never be taken for granted.
Many globe spanning
organizations – NATO, the UN, The Red Cross, have done some of the work vital
to sustaining public understanding of their purposes and goals via free
standing citizen organizations – such as the United Nations Associations across
the world or The Atlantic Council throughout the NATO countries. It may
be very useful for a commonwealth wide Citizen’s Organization for Parliamentary
Democracy, with strong local chapters, devoted to promotion and awareness around
the benefits of parliamentary government to come into being. It would, by
definition be non partisan and related constructively to the work you do.
It could well take on the popularisation of the parliamentary approach
and the promotion of dialogue, debate and engagement about parliament at all
strata of society.
When I worked in government
both at the provincial and federal level, I was always impressed by the various
new points of reference all submissions to Cabinet had to address. How
well did a proposed measure impact women’s rights, or the handicapped, or small
business, or potential trade rules, or federal provincial relations, or foreign
We should, perhaps be seeking
new point of reference – how does any measure proposed, impact the health
and vitality of parliamentary democracy, as a protector of both the democratic
will of the plurality or majority, and the legitimate rights of all those who
voted against the government of the day?
We fail to ask that question
at our collective peril. Parliamentarians are the elected essence of a
pluralist democratic institution that reflects or ought to reflect the full
breadth of the society they serve. Citizens who are democrats look to
parliament as the crucible of national debate, legitimate and strongly held
opinions and the framework for national reconciliation wherever possible.
It is a human institution
seeking through the hard work of its members to serve the genuine interests of
citizens throughout the realm. It deserves not to atrophy to the point of
And those who care about
parliamentary democracy need to be nimble in our response to those who would
dilute its relevance or circumvent its vital importance.
For those who prefer a
“clickstream of digital data” on an issue, we should insist that parliamentary
debates are cross referenced, indexed by subject, time and speaker, and be
available on independent and universal search engines, in many languages. For
those who prefer NGO’s and the cyber debate, we must constantly array the
positive interaction between NGO’s and parliamentary committees in support of
well informed and timely parliamentary action. For those who decry all
partisanship as self centered and corrupt, we must make the case for the vital
role of all political parties in making collective action and political
participation real. And for those who opt for “disintermediation” by
diluting or diminishing the parliamentary process, we should make the case for
the public forum. Parliament is where different views are out in the open for
all to see.
Not everyone in business,
bureaucratic, academic, or community sectors cares deeply about this risk of
atrophy, or have even reflected on the costs to civil society should that
transpire. That is precisely the reason that those who do care about the
promise and prospects of parliamentary democracy must.