Maybe Canadians are not too stupid to understand democracy!

By Andrew Cardozo

canada-peacetower

Canadians do care about their democracy. They may not care every day but political parties may mis-read this is a lack of interest or just stupidity.

The number of problem areas that need attention has been piling up over many years, and more recently made worse by the current Conservative government. This government has been cited for voting irregularities by Elections Canada, our internationally respected elections agency, more than any other government in Canadian history. Two Conservative Members of Parliament have had to resign as a result – one a minister, the other the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary Secretary, his trusted spokesperson in the House of Commons. One MP was taken to jail and another party member got a lengthy sentence. This has not happened ever in Canada.

But more importantly the Conservative government has made changes to our democracy in a manner that can only result in less voting and more irregularities.

You have to think that at some level, they made the political calculation that Canadians either don’t care or don’t understand these issues. It’s hard to believe that people just don’t care enough or actually agree with the shenanigans.
The ironically named “Fair Elections Act” of 2014, was anything but fair. It decreased the mandate of the elections agency and increased the requirements for voter identification, in order to curb voter fraud which never existed. As a result expect a number of disenfranchised voters come Election Day. The House of Commons committee studying the bill was not allowed to travel across the country to get the views of Canadians to some pretty fundamental changes to our democratic system, and the bill was rushed through Parliament.

That being said what we really need is a comprehensive look at a number of issues. The best route for such a review is to establish a special committee, either a House of Commons Committee or a Royal Commission, which would have two purposes – first to engage Canadians across the country in a dialogue on a range of important democratic issues, to develop a roadmap for democratic reform which would include a set of recommendations and a realistic timetable for action where necessary.

This paper combines several ideas that I have proposed in the past along with some of creative proposals put forward by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in June 2015.

So what are the major issues?

System of election

Let’s look at our electoral system. There is a growing sense that our current first-past-the-post system repeatedly elects majority governments voted in by a minority of voters (as little as 35%), which some critics have taken to calling a fake majority. That seemed to be tolerable at an earlier time but Canadians have been increasingly feeling uncomfortable with it and now we find ourselves with a majority government, elected with under 40%, that is particularly divisive and non-consultative, and is making some fundamental changes to our country.

So ideas of proportional representation (PR) or preferential balloting are gaining traction and need attention. Proponents feel that PR gets a more realistic outcome than the present system which also means that we will likely always have minority governments. That would will require a change in culture – towards a culture of cooperation among parties rather than perpetual antagonism, competition and campaign. Many countries use PR or a modified form of PR, one version being “mixed member proportional representation” where voters vote for a local member as well as for members off a national party list.

One of the advantages of the preferential ballot is that there is a major incentive for parties to be nice to each other during a campaign so that they can earn the second or third place ranking by voters. Imagine an end to attack ads! Democracy would be greatly enhanced. Another advantage of the preferential ballot is that it would not require a constitutional or even a major change. The voting would be exactly as it is now, with one voter having one vote for a local representative. It’s just that the tallying would be different. The winning candidate would need to have 50% plus one votes, whether gained through voters’ first choice or subsequent choices added in, as the lowest person in the ranking is eliminated.

My sense is that preferential balloting would result in more majority governments, but that is not necessarily the case – nevertheless if there is majority government, it will have been the first or second choice of a majority of Canadians.

Making democracy more robust

One of the serious issues plaguing our democracy is the continuously low voter participation, which has been in the 60% range for several elections, generally on a downward trend. And if that wasn’t bad enough, by-election rates are even lower. In one by-election in 2014, the turnout was a shocking 15%.

Voter participation among young people is even lower as it is among some groups of Canadians such as Indigenous Peoples and new Canadians.

Various solutions need to be examined. First, Elections Canada should be given a renewed mandate to be actively promoting the importance of voting at all times, with all age groups, and sometimes with programs that focus on certain groups This part of its mandate was seriously curtailed in the so-called “Fair Elections Act” of last year.

Other solutions include mandatory voting legislation which works well in Australia, for example. Or online voting, which is increasingly used by political parties for leadership selection. Or a combination of the two. If you can vote from home, or from wherever you are in the world, what reason do you really have not to vote?

Improving the House of Commons

The new Liberal proposals put forward by leader Justin Trudeau in June,( https://www.liberal.ca/justin-trudeau-delivers-real-change) include more free votes, stronger parliamentary committees, mandatory consultation for Supreme Court appointments, and an end to the monumental omnibus bills which have become all too common and which disallow proper public analysis before the laws go into effect. The problem with omnibus bills is that they are fundamentally an affront to the notion of parliamentary debate and oversight, especially when they are forced through the House with “time allocation”, the euphemism for shutting down debate. When this is the norm in a majority Parliament, you really don’t need a House of Commons anymore. The cabinet can just decree what it wants….and when the cabinet in turn is under the thumb of the prime minister, you hardly need democracy!

Parliamentary committees also need to review how they function. In the current formation, each member gets to have a single six or seven minute exchange with witnesses – who can be ministers, officials, or members of the public. Sometimes there may be five witnesses from different organizations or backgrounds appearing during a one-hour meeting. So the system is designed to have only a very superficial exchange, often reduced to a rhetorical and political statement followed by a perfunctory question and a short answer. From the perspective of witnesses, the Finance Committee’s annual pre-budget hearings perhaps have the poorest reputation of being more like an assembly line of almost meaningless rapid fire presentations and exchanges – for those lucky enough to get a question. Parties need to review the format, length of questions and length of meetings and for example, allowing for fewer but more in-depth exchanges.

Often times committee meetings are interrupted by votes in the Chamber. That would suggest there has to be a way to better organize the business of the House so that the timing of votes is established well in advance and does not coincide with committee meetings. Not difficult to do, really, provided all parties are willing to set aside game playing around House votes. The same can be done for the Senate.

And for the record the Conservative government shut down debate over 100 times during the course of this government, which is far more than any government in Canadian history.

The Liberals are also proposing to restore the independence for the supposedly independent parliamentary watchdogs and the parliamentary budget officer. And my favourite, they plan to improve Question Period. Bringing Grade 1 style decorum to QP would do more for the reputation of politics than any other single reform. All this would require a PMO that is enormously less controlling than the present one. It would mean that ministers do not rely on pre-screened responses to any and all questions that may come.

With regard to free votes, it would be useful to have clearly articulated guidelines for the designation of party votes (usually referred to as “whipped votes”) as opposed to free votes, with the latter being the default approach, unless otherwise designated. There is currently an approach for “confidence votes” which are those related to expenditure of money. When a confidence vote fails the government is deemed to be defeated. So the starting point would be that all non-money votes would be free votes. Free votes also change the role of back benchers giving them more influence and will also require ministers to do a lot more to build a consensus on a bill.

Senate Reform

The Senate of Canada seems to be plagued with controversy primarily over the issue of expenditures by some senators, but this has brought into sharper focus the issue of Senate reform. There are a few, perhaps only a handful of expenditures that are really criminal while much is a problem of interpretation of loose rules that have not been clarified. Despite this there are calls on a regular basis for the Senate to amend or reject certain bills that have been forced through the House of Commons.

Perhaps the prime systemic issue is that we have an appointed upper house that in effect oversees the elected House of Commons, and can over-rule it, and the appointments are made by one person without any check, the prime minister.

“Abolish it!” cry the NDP, a party not usually given to simplistic populist sloganeering. The reality of doing that is of course a lot more complex as it required unanimous agreement by all provinces, requiring us to get into a major round of constitutional negotiations which will inevitably lead to other issues being included. The Liberals have moved with a batch of modest proposals, starting with cutting the “Senate Liberals” free from their caucus. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/trudeau-to-boot-senators-from-liberal-caucus-in-bid-to-restore-senate-independence/article16567413
The Conservatives, the party that have proposed Senate reform the longest time, seem moribund on the issue. They have committed to place a moratorium on senate appointments. (http://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/stephen-harper-slaps-moratorium-on-senate-appointments-ahead-of-election-calls-on-provinces-to-accept-reforms-or-abolition The problem is that the Constitution says that appointments “shall” be made, leaving no option in the matter, beyond a reasonable delay. But something has to happen with the Senate and how members are selected.

The constitution will still require the Governor General to summon people to the Senate on the advice of the Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister can still draw the names from various sources, including from an advisory committee or eminent persons.

The Liberal approach does have some issues that need addressing. If there is a Liberal or NDP government in place after the election, the government will not have a party in the Senate to introduce its legislation or someone to pilot it through the Upper House, while there will be a strong majority of 60 or more fairly partisan Conservative senators. In short, we will need to have a new cooperative political culture in the Senate.

Other issues

There are other issues too…..many issues. Issues of accountability and transparency, gender balance, Indigenous participation, the government’s war on charities and interest groups that differ with its politics, political advertising, using government advertising for political purposes, etc.

There is also the issue of selecting our head of state in a post Monarchical era – something I think is coming, perhaps after Queen Elizabeth passes away or steps aside.

If there were to be a Liberal and/or NDP minority government, Canadians have reason to expect and in fact, demand, a more cooperative Parliament, and this is a platform that both parties could readily embrace….more or less!
Time for a national dialogue on democracy and a new roadmap! Canadians do care and I have a sense that the parties that do show a willingness to more openness will be called on to improve our democracy.

Andrew Cardozo is President of the Pearson Centre. He has served as a Commissioner of the CRTC, Executive Director of the Alliance of Sector Councils, and in other leadership roles. He currently also teaches in the School of Journalism and Communications at Carleton U. and writes for the Hill Times.

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