There is much hand-wringing over the decline in voter turnout in federal elections to around 60 per cent. There shouldn’t be . The gap between what is promised voters who go to the polls and what is actually possible for voters to express is so wide that it is surprising that the turnout is as high as it is. Political elites should be happy that habit, a sense of duty and, perhaps, an exaggerated idea of what their vote can accomplish results in as large a voter turnout as it does.
That is a brutal indictment of elections, often portrayed as the “glory” of liberal democratic politics. It is justified by far more than the fact that with only 38 per cent of the vote, the PM is able to claim a policy mandate from Canadians. That is just the start of the story of the gross inadequacy of our representative institutions, and could be partly corrected by the adoption of a PR (proportional representation) electoral system. There is, however, a far larger problem with the system that can only be overcome by a much more fundamental change in our political institutions. Canadians have indicated support for one such change over the last century.
The phenomenon of institutional atrophy – now infecting our political system — is a familiar one. An institution is “constructed” to meet the needs of some people at a particular moment in time. Times and needs change, but those who benefit from the institution resist adapting it in ways that would damage their interests. Those who see the need for change, but are unwilling or unable to muster the force needed to bring it about, find themselves forced to suffer with the atrophying institutions’ dysfunctions. It is frequently asserted that only a crisis bringing about a change in the balance of power of those resisting and those demanding change will “retire” the institution or change it significantly. The phenomenon is on display in our election-based system of representation.
The present system of choosing MPs, and then party-MPs, by voting has a long history. In recent years, government has grown enormously and become a major factor in the quality of our lives. At the same time, we have become as well educated and, potentially, as well-informed with modern communications technology, as most of our leaders. As a result, we have become less willing to accept the notion that our politicians know our interests better than we do ourselves. Indeed, it may be that we can be more objective about those interests in that we are not engaged in, and subject to all the pressures of, adversarial competitive party politics.
The need for an institutional adjustment to the needs of this “new” citizenry is recognized by many of our political leaders. They promise to attack the “democratic deficit;” their governments routinely charge a minister with responsibility for democratic development, etc. On the other hand, politicians in office, content with the system that elected them, were notably absent from the three (losing) provincial referenda campaigns for PR.
Apart from rhetoric and gestures, the major defence of continuing to rely on elections as the means by which citizens communicate with their party governors , is a series of outrageously exaggerated claims for what citizens can do with their ballot. These are advanced to citizens as they have become more critical of the limited policy-making role they are assigned in our formal political system. As circumstances dictate, our political leaders suggest that with our pencilled “X” on a ballot we can:
- punish or reward a government or an opposition party or parties for its performance;
- choose a PM from among the party leaders;
- choose an MP from among those nominated by the parties;
- punish or reward the incumbent MP for his performance in office;
- mandate the adoption or rejection of a complete party platform or of particular policies of that party.
A citizen in “democratic” Canada should be able to express his or her opinion on all these matters but to even infer that we can do even one clearly with a single “X” after the name of a party candidate is silly. Votes cast by Canadians intending to “say” very different things are pooled and politicians and are left with wide latitude to interpret them as they choose. Even the defeat of a governing party by voters is not a clear popular decision. In voting against a governing party, many voters may have wanted to punish the incumbents rather than replacing them with one of their competitors.
A number of suggestions have been put forward by people concerned about the decline in voting. These include giving votes to l6 year olds; holding mock elections in high schools to establish a voting habit early; compulsory voting; even paying people to vote. These measures and others have an air of desperation about them; none of them address the problem that it is hard to be enthusiastic about an act that will send only a confused and limited message to our political leaders.
We recognize and try to overcome this weakness in the system by a number of makeshift arrangements each of which presents its own set of problems. The argument that elections have mandated our elected representatives to adopt constitutional amendments is challenged, accepted, and the Charlottetown Accord is put to a referendum. As mentioned, the issue of electoral reform has been referred to provincial voters. Again, the mandate of our elected representatives is recognized as being too weak for them to decide the issue. A leading Canadian reformer, Gordon Gibson, urges the organization of citizen assemblies, each to deal with a significant issue, relieving the legislature of the responsibility to deal with it. The Americans have tried a variation of this approach of by-passing, instead of reforming, their legislatures.
In the early years of the 20 th century, American voters recognizing that powerful interests were “buying” their state legislatures, adopted the devices of direct democracy (referenda, recall, initiative) to insert citizens directly into the policy making process. The record of government existing with a “parallel power” to that of the elected legislature has, not been impressive. Yet that is the direction we are heading: with elections unable to allow voters to truly mandate legislators, alternatives, however unsatisfactory will be sought.
Fortunately, the answer to the problem of giving voters a clear, informed and responsible voice on policy questions is clear, and rather simple – properly organized constituency representation. Getting a practical model “out there” so that citizens can demand that it be adopted is the difficulty. Understandably, parties use their dominant position in our politics to suppress any discussion of alternatives to their representation.
Despite the lack of political leadership, however, for the past century, and now, Canadians (89 per cent) have expressed a preference for “constituency representation” rather than representation by parties. Parties want office so that they can impose their agendas and leadership on us and their kind of “representation” is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Canadians.
To make constituency representation work in a responsible manner, the constituency views the elected MP would represent in the House of Commons would have to be well informed, i.e,. “worthy” of representation. This informed constituency position on issues could be determined by electing a “constituency parliament” that could claim legitimately to be the voice of the constituency. It would have to have resources of time and information needed to arrive at informed positions on policy issues. Deliberating with its MP, the constituency parliament would decide the position in the Commons the MP should take on significant issues raised by the government, and suggest others that should be raised. The multitude of important questions that voters now attempt to offer an opinion on by voting in federal elections would now fall to constituency parliaments to answer. And it could do so clearly.
Elections would have one function: choosing a constituency MP. The “input” of citizens on public policy questions would originate with constituency parliaments and be carried by that MP to the House of Commons. Citizens would have the kind of representation they overwhelmingly favour. The adoption of the constituency parliament model would lead to a cascade of other long overdue changes in our political system as citizens exercised the powers they should have in a democratic state.
The addition of constituency parliaments to our system would bring government into a close working relationship with its constituency of citizens. It is the obvious next step in the evolution of popular democracy.