BUILDING CANADA’S DEMOCRATIC INFRASTRUCTURE FOR THE NEXT 150+ YEARS
For Canada’s 100th birthday, the federal government invested heavily in physical infrastructure across the country—many arenas are adorned with Canada’s Centennial logo to this day. These physical spaces were a legacy that encouraged Canadians to come together and build community.
Fifty years later, in 2017, this sesquicentennial year calls for a renewed investment in our democratic infrastructure. This may be less tangible than the physical kind, but it remains just as vital to the success of Canada.
This sesquicentennial year calls for a renewed investment in our democratic infrastructure.
While the 360 doesn’t show failing grades, there are signs from abroad and within Canada that democracy is fragile and requires everyday attention.
More importantly, a country as rich in resources and people as Canada should strive for “exceeds expectations” rather than “meets expectations,” in report card parlance. How might Canadians go from Cs and Bs to As?
Here are five suggested answers:
(1) Civic education, both in and beyond the classroom
Politics functions like the systems that exist under a city: the location of water pipes and power cables is known only to a few. When approaching politics, Canadians need a map of the underground before they start digging. In other words, Canada needs to create a system where everyone gets a thorough civics education.
On top of increased civic education, Canada needs to address the very real barrier of low motivation. Before anyone considers investing time and energy into a cause, they must be motivated to do so. As Samara has shown in previous research, engaging unsuccessfully with an opaque bureaucracy can be off-putting for many.
In schools, national, coordinated investments should be made in civics education, at every grade level, to inspire active and informed citizens.
But this education around how politics works cannot end with high school graduation. Decisions made by politicians and government affect Canadians every day, and when they don’t understand how decisions are made and how to make the political process work for them, their lives are made poorer. But how can people outside of schools be reached? It’s much harder.
Decisions made by politicians and government affect Canadians every day, and when they don’t understand how decisions are made and how to make the political process work for them, their lives are made poorer.
Workplaces could provide in-work training and support around civic education and our rights and responsibilities as citizens. Some of this work has been done by labour unions in the past, but with unionization rates falling steadily, new efforts are needed.
The media plays an important role in informing Canadians about government, so that citizens can hold government to account. Yet, some argue that the decline of media outlets and the scarcity of journalists may make it more difficult to provide substantive coverage of policy issues, even as increased access to entertainment media makes it harder than ever to capture Canadians’ attention.
It is equally critical that political leaders themselves consider how they can contribute to Canadians’ civic knowledge or detract from it. Politicians need to begin to explain policy simply and without toxic partisanship. Political parties can educate and include Canadians in policy development at the grassroots level.
Additionally, community-based organizations, including associations, clubs and even the local YMCA, can reinforce learning by inviting political leaders to speak, educating first-time and reluctant voters, and bringing groups together to advocate for causes of concern to their community. Community organizations and settlement agencies can take an active role in explaining how newcomers can contribute to Canada’s political culture by knowing who their representatives are, by joining a political party or even running for office themselves.
(2) Meaningful consultation of the public by MPs
As representatives, MPs have a unique ability to bring constituents’ attention to important public issues and to solicit their input. MPs can host information sessions, consultations for citizen input, or issue campaigns. Too often, efforts like town halls feel underwhelming at best, or dominated by “usual suspects” at worst.
Robust consultation by MPs is still in its infancy. MPs do not enter Parliament as experts at consultation and, indeed, they don’t always have the authority to enact what they hear. They need training, guidance and nonpartisan support on how to effectively and meaningfully consult their constituents. Consultations are not easy to do: they raise expectations and they don’t typically result in consensus. But doing them right is an investment in our democratic infrastructure that could pay dividends in connecting citizens to politics, and in solving Canada’s most complex problems—something that cannot be done by government alone.
(3) Civility in political discourse
Canada’s current political culture too often risks turning citizens off, rather than inspiring their involvement. Accusations, online attacks and unwillingness to compromise have become embedded in the culture, such that only those with the skin of a rhino are willing to put themselves forward for public office.
While everyone has a role in encouraging civil political discourse—journalists can cover politics as though it’s a realm for change; citizens can discourage bad behaviour in MPs and each other—MPs and parties can take the lead by modelling the communication that is acceptable in the public sphere. Personal attacks and aggressive antagonism between political leaders sends a message that throwing mud is what politics is all about.
MPs can hold themselves to a higher standard during House of Commons debates, scrums, media interviews and social media engagement. Samara’s research showed that 69% of MPs believe heckling is a problem in the House of Commons. Parties can opt into a standard of “truth in advertising” such that they don’t denigrate the entire political class. And last but not least, when something goes wrong, even if they aren’t personally responsible, political leaders can engage in that most Canadian of activities and just say “sorry.”
(4) Empowered Representatives
While Canada’s democracy means each Canadian has a representative in the House, the reality is that power has become more centralized within the offices of the party leaders, and especially the prime minister. Only a small majority (54%) of Canadians agree the work and decisions of MPs influence the direction of the country.
There are real risks when decision-making power ends up concentrated in the hands of a few. Politics becomes less transparent, less open to ideas, and ultimately less responsive to Canadians’ needs, even if it may be more efficient in the short term. Striking a healthy balance of power between parties, party leaders and MPs is at the heart of meaningful and effective Parliament.
What would empowered representatives look like? MPs would have the time and autonomy to study legislation and hold government to account. (In this report, MPs’ performance on “holding government to account and watching how they spend money” received the lowest marks.) It would also mean that the work of cross-partisan committees are empowered and respected. There would be fewer whipped votes and more chances for MPs to vote against their party, when they choose.
Opportunities for systematic review and renewal of Parliament’s rules and structures that shape the ability of MPs to exercise influence and accountability don’t arise all that frequently. The most recent, comprehensive efforts to study and recommend changes occurred last in 2003 and, before that, in 1985. The Liberal Government in March 2017 has asked an existing committee of MPs to consider a broad suite of procedural reforms. This review is well worth undertaking, particularly if the committee studying it can maintain a spirit of multi-partisan independence that prioritizes what is best for Parliament, and not what’s best for the Government or the Opposition. An even bolder study in 2017 would consider examining the role of political parties, that enjoy limited oversight despite their central role in Canada’s democracy and the public subsidies they receive.
(5) Increased Diversity in Representation
Power that is diffuse and diverse can lead to solutions that are innovative and well-suited to the population served. That diversity begins with who is in the House. Canada’s first House of Commons was made up of 180 white men. Over the last 150 years, it has evolved to include women, visible minorities, MPs as young as 19 and Indigenous peoples. However, the data shows that there is still a long way to go.
Ensuring a diverse House requires the commitment of parties and electoral district associations as well as party leaders. These groups have an opportunity and a responsibility to ensure that 2019 features candidates who look like Canada. Improved civility in the House and some power sharing will also go a long way towards making Parliament a place where more people feel comfortable and want to work.
As Jennifer Welsh asserted in the 2016 CBC Massey Lecture, “[We should] remember that our own liberal democratic society was not inevitable—that it required sacrifice, compromise, and leadership—and that we must all, as individuals, take more active role in its preservation and growth.”
Can Canada build a better democracy? One that is representative, transparent and consultative? Yes! However, unlike physical infrastructure, there is no chief planner to take charge. Renewing our democratic infrastructure will be a messy, collaborative process involving both citizens and political leaders. It will take citizens to demand change and responsive leaders to make it happen. Our democracy can only be improved when Canadians are engaged to build a better political system—and a better Canada—for everyone.