Another election, the “premier” event in liberal democratic politics, is on the horizon. Up to 40 per cent of Canadians may sit it out while many more will “hold their nose and vote.” The public indifference and hostility to politics-as-usual is a significant factor in these low turnouts.
Why does the relationship between government and citizens continue to deteriorate despite the introduction of a number of seemingly important reforms intended to strengthen the political system? The Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted to protect citizens against government abuse. The citizen’s right to know was to be guaranteed by the passage of the Access to Information Act. Public (government and individual) financing of parties was adopted to remove the influence of big money on parties. Election dates were fixed to minimize the uncertainty surrounding them and check the powers of the prime minister. A number of “ombudspersons” were appointed to check possible party-government abuses. These and other less significant “reforms” have not, however, stayed the trend to ever higher levels of political alienation. There are two connected reasons for this.
First, the “democratic” reforms conflict with the demands our adversarial party system places on those enacting them. The system wins out, and politicians subvert their own reforms. One example, access to information legislation is adopted but it conflicts with the competitive interest of the governing party to retain information that provides its critics with ammunition. After the passage of the Act, the Annual Reports of the Freedom of Information Commissioner report the Commission’s ongoing battle to require the government to respect its provisions. The PMO leads the fight against transparency, setting an example for others in the bureaucracy. One commissioner noted, that, with the adoption of the Act, “… government record keeping started slipping as officials became adept at finessing ministerial guidelines.” This has continued to the point that now, editor David Berlin writes: “The attitude has truly become, “Why write it when you can speak it? Why speak it if you can nod? Why nod when you can wink?”
The goodwill and support the government might have earned with the transparency promised by the access to information statute and other reforms is lost as the media reports its failure to abide by its own statutes. Attempts to “paste” democratic reforms on a system based on adversarial party politics regularly fail.
The second, and even more fundamental reason, why reforms fail to check alienation, is the failure of the political class to listen to those it claims to represent as they adopt reforms. They introduce reforms to maintain “their system,” but ignore the desire of citizens for a radically different system of representation based on constituency rather than party representation.
After the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, Prime Minister Mulroney established the Spicer Commission to probe the political values of Canadians. This extensive consultation concluded: “ … there is a perceived need for mechanisms which will (a) require members of parliament to consult their constituents on major issues; and, (b) either give them more freedom, or require them to vote according to their constituents’ wishes.” Years later we wait for action on its recommendations.
The desire of the public for constituency representation is eminently reasonable today.
The party system of representation evolved in the l9th century to accommodate the competition of elites fighting for power and patronage in an era of tiny government. Now government is, by necessity, large and intrusive. Our well-being is heavily dependent on it functioning well. We want, and need, a more significant voice in its operations than government-by-party allows.
The public desire for a different mode of representation will, however, only be implemented by a party government when the demand for it is irresistible. And that will occur only when we reject one of the dogmas of political “science” i.e. without parties we cannot have democracy. The truth is the reverse: we cannot have the kind of democracy we need today as long as we depend on feuding parties to represent us rather than organizing to speak for ourselves.
We could, for example, elect a “constituency parliament” in each riding to deliberate with its MP in developing a constituency position on significant issues. The MP would then represent these positions in the House of Commons. Members of the constituency parliament would have to be provided with the time and information needed to reach informed, responsible policy positions. Yes, this would cost, but very little..
In this system, elections would only choose a constituency representative. Locally elected constituency parliaments would voice the policy preferences of citizens through their MPs in the Commons. The myth that elections can do both would be jettisoned. The adoption of this model of representation would set in motion a cascade of other desirable political changes. “Yes we can” break out of the institutional box that leaves us with government that often does not represent us and is too weak to govern effectively.
Elections loom. Ask each candidate how they would end the “democratic deficit”; ask them how, as a practical matter, they propose to represent their constituents; tell them how it might be done if they seem puzzled by your question.
The twentieth century did not belong to Canada, as Laurier predicted in 1904, but Canada could lead the liberal democracies to an advanced form of democratic governance in the 21st.