At the timetis
article was written Jean Augustine was the Member of Parliament for
Etobicoke–Lakeshore. This is a revised version of her presentation to the
Inaugural Seminar of the Canadian Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary
Association held in Ottawa, November 21, 2001.
Globalization and other issues of
importance to the public are prompting non-governmental organizations to become
more active in shaping policy agendas. This article looks at the role of “civil
society” and its relation to the parliamentary process.
The term “civil society” has been around for many years and is subject to much
debate. Scholars and indeed governments differ in their views about the nature
of the relationship as well as on the dividing line between civil society
and the state. Further they disagree on the content of civil society — does it,
for example, include market relations, churches, criminal groups? One thing
that is agreed, however, is that civil society has an essential role to play.
It is a necessary element in
encouraging governing systems to work. Organizations in Canada and around the
world have been responsible for forcing reforms in the public interest. Civil
society is necessary to ensure that governments adhere to the principles of
transparency and accountability. It is even more necessary for fostering
In liberal democracies such as Canada,
the concept of civil society is predicated on principles such as the rule of
law, political and bureaucratic accountability and freedom of association and
Civil society is rooted in an idea that
links civic responsibility (citizen engagement) and community service. Civil
society sustains and enhances the capacity of all its members to build a caring
and mutually responsible society. It means that all citizens — individual,
corporate and government — assume responsibility for promoting economic and
Civil society uses non-governmental
organizations to fill the gaps that governments cannot adequately reach, and in
return is a source of information about what is happening at the grassroots
Civil Society and Parliament
Parliamentarians are the link between
civil society and government. Our responsibilities demand that we be in contact
with the pulse of our constituencies, understand their needs and encourage
citizen participation. Civil society is a valuable conduit in ensuring this.
Connection between government and civil
society can be fostered through participation and partnering by
parliamentarians in community events and initiatives. This connection is often
obstructed when there is little trust between government and civil society.
Legitimate concerns over the
appropriate role of civil society in influencing government policies are
feeding this mistrust. Building and finding ways to foster trust-based
relationships with civil society is one of the challenging tasks facing
parliamentarians. We must walk that fine line of balancing the interests of
civil society with those of government.
The federal government supports and
encourages the development of civil society. Government cannot operate in a
vacuum. It must build collaborative working relationships and partnerships to
achieve its objectives. One sector that the government supports in this regard
is the voluntary sector.
Recently, the Government of Canada put on stream what is known as the Voluntary
Sector Initiative in order to build capacity within the voluntary sector and to
encourage participation among Canadians. The initiative aims to develop and
provide the government with a strategy to reconstruct the relationship between
the federal government and the community.
Civil society is a necessary ingredient
in the participatory process. NGOs and other like groups cannot replace the
representative functions of parliaments but they can ensure that governments
maintain and extend democratic principles that are consistent with
In June 2001, Parliament committed
$94.6 million to the Voluntary Sector Initiative, and it has allocated $30
million to examine ways of involving the voluntary sector more effectively in
the development of government policies and programs.
The initiative is under the stewardship
of a Reference Group of Cabinet Ministers selected by the Prime Minister. This
group will coordinate government activities with respect to the sector, and
will advance dialogue with it. These collaborative relationships will add value
by bringing new resources, insights and expertise to the table thus fostering
cooperation and collaboration.
Government delivers a myriad of
services and programs to the public in many areas. Therefore, civil society
organizations and the voluntary sector are central to the delivery of
government services. The federal government funds civil society in Canada and
By funding civil society organizations,
it encourages civic engagement, promotes social responsibility and
accountability in our federal system.
Government hears from the civil society
on public policy issues through mechanisms such as parliamentary committees
where individual Canadians and non-governmental organizations can voice their
concerns over a particular legislative and policy direction of government.
Committees are avenues where the government can communicate with the public and
conduct the business of Parliament in a transparent way.
The dialogue between the public and
parliamentary committees is necessary if we are to have substantive debate on
critical public issues. In this process we endeavour to balance the concerns of
the public with the priorities of government.
Recent experience in Canada, in
particular with negotiations around the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas
(FTAA), has stressed the importance of working in cooperation with civil
The Standing Committee on Foreign
Affairs and International Trade held regular meeting with government ministers
and a range of individuals and groups on the progress of FTAA negotiations and
related issues over the years leading up to the fourth Summit of the Americas
and the target date for the completion of a Free Trade Area of the Americas.
At these meetings civil society
expressed concern over environment and human rights issues to name a few. They
also expressed concern over the lack of openness in the process.
Many groups that appeared as witnesses
before the Committee demanded the release of the FTAA text — a request that the
Foreign Affairs Committee supported. The unavailability of the text prior to
the Summit and the requirement for agreement among the 34 states to release it
became a symbol for a lack of transparency in the process.
The decision of the other participants
in the Summit to finally accept Canada’s recommendation and release the text
was a welcome one. At the Quebec Summit, civil society was given the
opportunity and supported by the federal government to host a parallel
non-governmental organization summit.
Consulting the public is another way in
which civil society participates in the policy-making process. Government
consults the public when it intends to make a significant shift in policy and
when it needs to gage public sentiments prior to making such a shift.
Some notable reasons for consulting the
- Policy improvement – by eliciting
informed advice from academics, for example, or from NGOs with unique
first hand experience in the field.
- Democratization – by engaging Canadians in
formulating, implementing and evaluating the policies of their own
- Assessment of domestic public opinion –
to determine what Canadians want, expect or will tolerate in public
- Legitimation – to appeal for public
acceptance of the procedures and outcomes of policy-making, thereby
reinforcing policy durability.
- Relationship building – to create and
institutionalize a routine of consultation between government and its
agencies and the interested Canadian public.
- Persuasion – to convince sceptics and
critics that government intentions and conduct are reasonable within the
bounds of “the possible.”
- Co-optation – to subdue public criticisms
of the government by recruiting potential critics into the policy process.
- Finally through the demonstration effect
– encouraging other governments to open themselves to public scrutiny and
advice by a display of productive openness in our federal system.
If not followed through in an open and
systematic way these objectives can be a source of discontent for civil society
and government. Therefore, governments and civil society must articulate their
expectations and goals clearly in order to diminish misunderstanding and
In so doing, government will be able to
sustain its relationship with NGOs and others willing to form long-term
relationships in the policy-making process.
Our governments are signatories to
various international agreements, and NGOs see us as a channel through which
governments can be reminded of their commitments made abroad. For example, the
Canadian Association of Parliamentarians on Population and Development (CAPPD)
engages civil society in our discourses on population and development related
issues. Though we balance our relationship with civil society against our
political priorities, nonetheless the CAPPD views civil society as an important
partner in pushing forward the development agenda.
To this end, whenever the group
convenes a meeting on cross-cutting issues of population and development, for
example HIV/AIDS we ensure that there is civil society participation at the
meeting. Its members have much to offer to the discussion and act as a source
of information, helping us to keep abreast of the issues.
Such partnership, gives substance to
public policy making and serves to illustrate that we do indeed care about and
are attentive to how policies are carried out by government.
The relationship between
parliamentarians and NGOs can be ambiguous and weak, owing to the fact that
parliamentarians view civil society organizations as adversaries and are
sceptical of NGO politics. Likewise, civil society is suspicious of the state
and its institutions and question whether these are truly committed to engaging
There are concerns on the part of
parliamentarians about being co-opted by a particular interest group and about
public policy-making pandering to specific interests as opposed to the
interests of the public at large.
A Case Study in Co-operation
In 1996 Canada hosted the Ottawa
Conference which brought together governments and NGOs with the stated purpose
of banning the use, production and stockpiling of anti-personnel landmines.
As this matter was viewed chiefly as a
security matter the participation of civil society in the anti-mine campaign
was discouraged at the outset.
Civil society was, however,
instrumental in prodding governments to change their thinking on this front
with the argument that we were dealing with a matter that was largely a humanitarian
one as well.
In the Ottawa process, the idea that
like-minded countries and organizations can work together in partnership to
achieve impressive diplomatic ends took hold.
The unprecedented level of cooperation
between governments and NGOs was essential to the success of the ban and
enabled governments to probe more deeply the nature of the partnership with
The partnership was intense, in that it
involved daily contact among governments and NGO leaders — establishing an
extraordinary degree of equality between state and non-state actors. This
partnership was possible because there was a will and a commitment to bring
civil society into the process and give it a role — thereby enhancing the
capacities of both sides.
Without the participation of civil
society, core states in the anti-personnel mines campaign such as Canada would
not have been able to mobilize the skills and bring much needed publicity to
bear on the problem.
By including NGOs in the negotiation process
as delegates in meetings and as equals in certain fora, the Ottawa process
guaranteed that the reasons provided by diplomats for their governments’
policies were made public and exposed to criticism by groups from civil society
and other governments.
This level of cooperation reinforced
horizontal accountability and provided government with a fresh perspective on
how it can work with NGOs to achieve shared goals. It also signalled that this
kind of partnership can work and should be encouraged.