There are many reasons to prefer Canadian over American citizenship. However, capping all of them is the latent ability of Canadians to move beyond the currently unrepresentative politics plaguing both countries. The US is mired in its dysfunctional system – on sad display now as its politicians wrestle with the health care issue. Canada, on the other hand, may be on the brink of a significant democratic advance.
Candidate Obama campaigned on the promise of “change,” writ large. It was understood, however, that change was to take place within the existing political framework. But is really significant change possible without change in the institutions guiding, if not dictating, the behavior of legislators?
President Obama would not dare suggest that the “machinery” of government should be changed to give more weight to the views of citizens and get the system out of the quagmire it’s in. Abolish the US Senate: unthinkable! The country is too firmly anchored to a Constitutional framework adopted in the different world of 1787. The work of the Framers has been venerated down through the years. Vested with a respect that should be reserved for religion, the wisdom of its provisions are not debatable.
Incremental changes in the original document have been few and, apart from votes for women and the popular election of Senators, insignificant in terms of empowering citizens. The US government must limp along as presently constituted its performance disappointing most of its citizens and arousing fear and hate from many fringe groups.
The contrasting Canadian openness to democratic change is striking. Canadian politicians agree that we face a “democratic deficit” and citizens overwhelmingly concur. Institutional change, far from being sacrilegious, is “in the air.” A long list of reforms actual and proposed – Senate reform, resort to referenda, freedom of information, public financing of parties, a new electoral system, endless consultations, etc. show a people, and many of its leaders, struggling to get out of the confines of a political system that has become dysfunctional.
We are not out yet, however. Our leaders take us to the brink of significant change but, then, to protect their investment in the system, back away. But as the various incremental reforms in the system fail to produce the results we desire, more and more people will look outside the confines of “electoral democracy” for more satisfying politics. When they do, they will note that most of their fellow Canadians –- seventy-five per cent of them — want a fundamental change to a system based on constituency representation, properly organized.
Commenting on a 2004 poll in which Canadians endorsed the statement, “Effecting significant changes to Canadian political institutions to make them much more open and democratic . . . ” Bob Rae, then out of office and Chairman of the Canadian Unity Council, observed: “. . . these results show that if and when political institutions do move toward change, Canadians will certainly be ready.”
The adoption of constituency representation would, in turn, lead to other system changes. Canadians would then have a government “rooted” in its citizenry. A collaborative policy making process that engages citizens, their elected representatives, the executive and the bureaucracy could replace our often mindlessly adversarial politics. We need that new way of managing the public business if we are to deal effectively with a list of long-festering and new social and economic challenges.
Many newly-elected MPs now go to Ottawa committed to representing their constituents. On arrival, however, they quickly recognize that they must play follow the leader. The institutions that would support them representing their constituents do not exist as yet. Insisting on its creation is our challenge. The needed institution – an elected local assembly, provided time and information, to liaise with the constituency’s MP – would be easy to organize.
The difficult part of establishing the higher level of democratic governance that these local assemblies would support is persuading Canadians, conditioned to follow leaders with a vested interest in the outworn institutions, to follow their own judgment. We are the “experts” on how we should be represented in the House of Commons. And we want the person we elect to represent us to actually do so rather than parroting a party line. That change is overdue, rather than radical.
It is our right to demand this change in our mode of representation. Given modern communications, it is perfectly feasible. Given the demands on government that it cannot meet without our supportive collaboration, it is absolutely necessary.
Our American friends, unfortunately for them and for us, will not be able to follow our example for the foreseeable future.