A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Report on Canada’s Democratic Institutions.

This post is based upon the report on “Public Consultations on Canada’s Democratic Institutions and Practices:” as commissioned by our “New” Conservative Government in January of 2007. Whilst the process was questionable, consisting of just 12 largely unpublished forums across the country and a “national survey”; and little new came out of it, it is perhaps worth reading. The 82 page (465kb) PDF report has seen little light of day but would seem to confirm what most of us know intuitively, namely that “there is a sense that politicians are not to be trusted.”

I have taken the time to copy and paste portions of the overview part of the report and post them here in that I believe this report must not gather dust on a shelf but needs to be the basis for change. (The extracts have been reformatted and contain major snips for ease of reading, and my bold highlights, please see the original article for the full unedited report)

The forums explored the engagement of citizens in their society and in democratic institutions, and the efforts of the federal government to consult and involve citizens in its decisions.

Forums Overview
All the forums were presented with essentially the same substantive introduction to the subject of the role of the citizen in democracy, as detailed in the Participants Workbook.
At all forums, participants saw much value in citizens participating in both voluntary organizations and in the democratic process but did not see much relation between the two.
At all forums, participants saw genuine government consultation as highly desirable but voiced unawareness that government actually consulted people.
To the extent that they perceived government consulting the public, participants did not perceive the consultation as genuine
Participants were frequently skeptical, occasionally cynical. They wanted governments to report back to the public on actions take or not taken following consultation exercises. They want to see results or feedback or both, and also more respect. To the extent that they were aware of MPs’ constituency offices, they tended to see potential for such offices to play a helpful role in consulting the public.

Apart from the recurring theme of better, more respectful consultation, another recurring theme was better education. The schools ought to make a stronger effort to teach young people how our democratic system works. This view emerged at every forum, usually eliciting much support.

The House of Commons Forum Overview
The general sense is that people tend to know more about the House of
Commons than the Senate and some other topics, and yet feel that they ought to know more. A desire for more civics instruction in school re-emerges as a theme. Media-reported Question Period figures prominently in what they know.
They have mixed feelings about how much priority Question Period should have among the roles played by MPs. On the one hand, some forum participants felt strongly that the open debate of Question Period is essential to democracy. On the other hand, quite a number of participants called for more decorum, substance, and to some extent cooperation among Members speaking in Question Period. Many participants wanted a stronger hand by the Speaker in ensuring decorum.
When discussing the House of Commons, forum participants placed special emphasis on Members, far more than on the Chamber as a whole or on its Committees. Mistrust of MPs and the House of Commons as a whole figures prominently in what forum participants said. A recurrent theme is that citizens do not always understand MPs, what they say, or the nature of their motives.
Another recurrent theme is skepticism about MPs’ willingness and ability to follow through on promises. MPs are often seen as powerless because of the importance of party lines or merely un-genuine. Quite a number of participants highlighted a conflict between Members’ obligations to their constituents and their obligations to their party line.
Crossing the floor—leaving one party for another— emerged as one of a number of factors arousing mistrust, especially in some of the Western forums.
Participants weighed the right or duty of Members to leave a party in principled disagreement vis-à-vis the desire of Members to leave a losing party for a winning for career-building considerations. One recommendation was to allow Members to become independent but require them to win in a general or byelection before joining another party.

The Senate Forum Overview
Forum discussions of the Senate represented a marked change from discussion of the Commons. The key difference is how much less forum participants felt that they knew about the Senate than about the Commons.
Participants’ previous lack of knowledge about the role and activities of the Senate led to some mixed feelings about the institution. Some misgivings about the utility of the Upper House were paralleled by separate misgivings about Senators being appointed by the Prime Minister instead of being elected. An underlying concern was apprehension about the patronage or partisan basis of selection.
In discussing the Senate, many participants nonetheless embraced the idea of the Upper House as a chamber of sober, second thought and hence as a counterpoint to the Commons.
A sizeable number of participants, especially in the West, were concerned less about the absence of Senate elections or the role of patronage in selection than about the numerical under-representation of the West. Many would like Western representation increased to reflect demographic changes. Many would also like to see parity of regional representation to the benefit of Western and less populated provinces or regions. Yet they were often reluctant to embrace a multilateral process entailing provincial consent for fear of opening a kind of Constitutional Pandora’s Box. “Moderate Senate reform or no Senate reform,” said one Newfoundland and Labrador forum participant, “we don’t want big constitutional change.”
Participants in the western forums tended to be uniform in advocating stronger provincial or regional representation, albeit sometimes with different justifications. Attendees at the forums in Alberta and B.C. were apt to justify greater representation in order to reflect the reality of their increased provincial populations. Attendees at the forums in Saskatchewan and Manitoba were apt to justify their desire for greater representation in terms of the need to have their voice heard.

Political Parties Forum Overview
The general image emerging from the forums is one of parties losing attention and respect from their potential clientele or members. They are generally perceived as non-accountable and, in some instances, as secret.
Parties were generally characterized as not immensely interested in recruiting members or hearing from ordinary citizens. They are perceived as neither good nor especially honest in communicating. Aspersions were cast on the quality, clarity, and ethical integrity of party platforms. Many participants wanted the parties to take the lead in galvanizing and integrating youth. Yet, participants remained doubtful of the integrity of parties.
In the spirit of their skeptical views of political parties, forum participants were unenthusiastic about public funding for party-affiliated foundations or think tanks that would undertake outreach programs to youth or other low participation segments in the electorate. As in the case of the other topics explored at the forums, participants saw a role for schooling and education to encourage an understanding of and participation in political parties.

The Electoral System forum Overview
Given the broad scope of the consultations, participants were not asked to choose one electoral system. They were asked to focus on the broad principles that should underpin the federal electoral system and if there is a need for change. In practice, it was not always easy for participants to prioritize their values. Some participants valued fairness above all, others accountability, and still others effective or stable government, simplicity, or direct links between a Member and a local constituency or community. Some participants placed an equal importance on all of these values as well as on other potential values. Furthermore, participants did not always agree about what each value signified.
For some participants, accountability meant the accountability of governments; for others, it meant the accountability of individual MPs.
In practice, the key sentiment that emerged in the forums was a sense that the Canadian electoral system, defined narrowly as how votes are counted and transformed into seats, is not sufficiently problematic to require fundamental change. The general disinclination to change among forum participants is paralleled by evidence of strong satisfaction with the current system from the survey research, as reported in section 6.3.
Observers attending the forums would likely note tentativeness and mystification in the remarks of participants when discussing electoral systems. Forum participants’ thoughts on electoral systems and their principles seemed more inchoate or preliminary than on other topics. One might conclude either that the public has not yet formed opinions on the electoral reforms it would welcome or has concluded that our system is working well enough as it is.
The strongest case that the public is open to reform rests on comments made at the forums. Many participants said that they were open to change even if they were not currently calling for it. The strongest case that the public opposes change rests on the survey data. Survey respondents reported high levels of satisfaction with the electoral system. Furthermore, they tended to embrace values and principles that favour our current plurality electoral system rather than potential alternatives to it, as discussed in section

Research studies often produce a combination of clear conclusions and
uncertain ramifications. From this study, the clearest substantive conclusions are that Canadians know far less about how our democratic system functions than they would like, and call for greater efforts by provincial governments through Ministries of Education and the federal government through Parliamentary and departmental communications and program efforts to inform Canadians, especially young Canadians, how the system works;
Want to know a lot more about the roles of MPs in consulting the public and in their Committee roles, which the public values highly, than they do about MPs’ roles in Question Period, which Canadians value less and perceive as undermining respect for the House of Commons;
Desire a quantum leap in the quantity and quality of governmental efforts at consulting the public on prospective policies and bills with far greater effort at clear communication and genuine consultation;
Embrace elections to the Senate and are receptive to parity of representation by region while wishing to avoid Constitutional changes that would require provincial consent; express strong satisfaction with our first-past-the-post or plurality electoral system and the values it embodies while being open to considering options for change; and are mistrustful of federal politicians and political parties, whose promises they cannot often trust and whose communications they cannot often understand or identify with.

Participants in the forums arrived at the gatherings with a certain mistrust of politicians. Public mistrust and disrespect in the case of politicians represents an important challenge. In the view of forum participants, public misapprehensions about politicians are a factor driving the long-term decline in voter turnout, participation in parties, and public attentiveness to national issues.
Public misapprehensions about politicians are a major challenge because of the paucity of tools for turning around public sentiment. One tool, recommended by survey respondents and forum participants, is for the leadership in the Commons to exercise more discretion in the tone and demeanour of Question Period. It is unclear what other tools might become available.
The public wants more honest talk from politicians and fewer promises that are not kept.
Politicians can change their conduct to help enhance the public regard in which they are held. But changing the public image of politicians may require the efforts of more than politicians alone. As both the forum participants and the survey data showed, federal and provincial efforts at educating and informing citizens about the democratic process would help produce a more informed public. The media may also have a role to play, strengthening their reporting on the elements of the Parliamentary process that the public values and respects highly (e.g. Committees and public consultations) and downplaying elements that are valued less (Question Period). Canadians value their democratic institutions but want improvements. Too often, there is a sense that politicians are not to be trusted. The degree of public misapprehension is remarkable given that politicians are meant to represent the public interest and paradoxical given that politicians are often ordinary, nonelected citizens for years before embarking on Parliamentary service.

Looking to the future, the ability of Canadians to draw comfort, satisfaction, and pride from our democratic institutions will depend in no small measure on the country’s ability to strengthen bonds of trust between citizens and the people elected to serve them.


In short, our citizens do not trust our politicians, know little about our parliamentary system and do not believe that what little “public consultation” that takes place is genuine.
They do however want to know more, believe that our children must be taught more about our electoral and parliamentary system and want “a quantum leap” in the quantity and quality of governmental communication with the public.

This almost exactly mirrors our own feelings and is why this blog was started. The only surprise was that the participants did not see our electoral system as a major part of the problem. I will be exploring each of these issues further in future articles, meanwhile let us know what YOU think. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

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