March 04, 2013

Top 5 Ways to Redesign Parliament

by Jennifer Phillips

Despite Canada’s standing as one of the world’s great democracies, mounting evidence indicates that citizens, as well as MPs, are increasingly dissatisfied with the ability of Parliament to serve Canadians and tackle the public challenges that confront us.

The question, of course, is what citizens, and those we elect, can do to ensure Canada’s democratic system does what it should: represent the diversity of Canada’s citizens, make laws, ensure tax dollars are spent responsibly and hold governments to account.

Samara’s latest Democracy Report
 “Lost in Translation or Just Lost,” which detailed how the House of Commons represents the issues Canadians care about, spurred us to ask:

What change would you propose to “redesign” Parliament, and the way it works, so it’s more relevant to  Canadians?

The response was overwhelming. We received ideas from Members of Parliament, heads of leading think tanks, academics and citizens across the country.

The Globe and Mail produced a week-long series on the topic, and many other newspapers, radio and television stations and national online news sources contributed to the discussion. 

For the past month Samara featured a daily blog post sharing the best ideas we heard. 

Today we’re writing to highlight the top five ideas on how to “Redesign Parliament,” and ask for your help in encouraging greater attention to these, and other, ideas that can strengthen Canada’s Parliament.

amara's Top 5

Below are our top 5 picks for the best idea to “Redesign Parliament.” You can find many more ideas, grouped thematically, on the new
Redesigning Parliament section of Samara’s website.

  1. Parliament, Meet Pixar. The world’s top companies put tremendous thought into how the design of their workplaces influences their organization’s culture and employees’ effectiveness. Parliament should do the same and consider how slight adjustments – such as lounge space and seating arrangements – could create a more modern workplace. 
  2. Parliamentary Policy Labs. Citizens want a louder voice, and it’s time we trust them with the megaphone. Citizen assemblies, Parliamentary policy labs, improved petitioning processes and taking better advantage of websites and mobile apps are all ways to start making decision-making more open and inclusive. Other countries and organizations, including many in Canada, do this well. Why can’t Parliament. 
  3. Signed, sealed, delivered. Since the 1970s, election law requires party leaders to sign the nomination papers of all their party’s candidates. The threat of an unsigned nomination paper hangs over the heads of every MP and, many claim, affects their decision-making.  It also disempowers local riding associations and volunteers. It may be time to change this law.
  4. Parliamentary Drone Watch. MPs—from all parties—complain that they are required to speak from prepared notes and that their responses are scripted. So why not stop? A “drone alert,” calling out meaningless, scripted statements might encourage MPs to show citizens that they are human and capable of real discussion. Ditch the script!
  5. An antidote for Allodexaphobia. That’s a fear of opinions. What’s so wrong with a good old Parliamentary debate? Many of you argued that limits on the use of confidence votes, time allocation, closure and omnibus bills would be a great way to encourage discussion, and you’re probably right.
What's next?

Ultimately, Members of Parliament will have to reclaim their workplace and determine the changes that are most required. Some are easy: for example, MPs could stop reading scripted statements tomorrow. Other changes will require a more united effort.

As citizens, we give our elected officials permission to act, so we hope you’ll contribute to igniting and sustaining this conversation. The above five ideas are among our favourites. What stands out to you?

Here are a few ways you can keep this conversation alive:

  • Visit our ‘Redesigning Parliament’ page and share the series, our Top 5 ideas or your own Top 5 ideas with your networks and on Facebook and Twitter;
  • Send your Member of Parliament one idea you think could really make a difference and ask them to advocate for it;
  • Discuss the ‘Redesigning Parliament’ series at your next book club;
  • If you’re a teacher, take the ideas to your class and ask your students what they think;
  • Help Samara translate this series into other materials – such as classroom curriculum, or Democracy Talks discussion topics – by making a donation to our work

Thank you for your continued interest in and support of Samara.  If you have any ideas or suggestions, please don’t hesitate to
contact us at any time.
  • Redesiging Parliament

4 Comments Permanent link to this post



  1. Mark Henschel

    06 Mar
    I'd like to respond the the
    "What's next?" above.

    In a recent column John Ibbitson called on our MPs to be more courageous.
    However, our elected representatives are caught between a rock and hard place
    of torn loyalties and split allegiances.

    Although we vote for individual candidates and parties simultaneously, voters
    are encouraged by our outrageous electoral system to vote on a party basis such
    that the typical MP can only regard their successful election as a consequence
    of their party affiliation and little else. Who do you think they are going to
    represent in parliament?

    What's more, the inherent nature of our single member plurality system means
    that, on their own, relatively few MPs actually have the support of even 50% of
    the constituency that elected them. Often they have much less. Again, who do
    you think they are going to represent, the minority that voted for them or the
    majority that didn't... not even considering party discipline?

    And if MPs do debate and vote conscientiously according to what they believe,
    then who represents the rest of their constituents? Or if they do attempt to
    represent the entire constituency, how can they put their hearts into it? It
    makes no sense to rig the system like this so that MPs are so powerless to act
    according to their own recognizances.  

    In these circumstances it would take delusions of grandeur, not courage, for
    MPs to begin to stand, speak and vote according to their good offices,
    convictions and conscience. There's no electoral grounding for such behaviour.
    And, according to research by Samara, they know it.

    No, what we need is the emancipation of the electorate and its
    representation in the House. In a functioning democracy power originates with
    the people: power must be transferred up. This isn't happening in Canada. To empower
    our MPs we need to empower voters. Our electoral mandate
    must delivered more clearly, more articulately and more unambiguously to each
    and every representative. Canada needs an electoral system whereby voters
    choose their representation on an individual basis rather than primarily by

    When our vote is truly fair and effective such that
    each of our MPs individually possesses a solid mandate and, insofar as it can
    happen in a reasonably-sized assembly, everyone who votes obtains
    representation, then our MPs can be "courageous"... and should be.

    Sufficient electoral reform is the enabling technology that must be in place
    for any redesign of parliament to be truly successful.

    Hope this helps.   
  2. Ethan Smith

    06 Mar
    I'd love to see what I call "floating parliament".  I know there's be an expense but I'd like to see, at least 1 month of the year, parliament being held at different venues around Canada.  At least 2 locations per province (maybe Legion halls?); a different riding each time.  I want people to get engaged in politics again, something that's in the back of and nearly forgotten about in too many minds.  This way people could actually go and watch politics in action without having to fund a trip to Ottawa.  Maybe politicians wouldn't be so blind to bad policies when they see people all across the country come out to protest, not just those who can make it to Ottawa.  I think it would be and amazing step towards bringing politics back to the people.
  3. Mark Henschel

    20 Mar
    This comment concerns amplifying citizen voices.

    OK let's look at this from a different perspective... from the ground up.

    We have a population of 30-odd million people. We recognize that the country is too big and too populous and that those millions of people typically have busy lives that preclude their useful, dedicated participation in a direct-style democracy. Canadian democracy -- of necessity -- must be electoral and representative. And that's not a bad thing.

    Let's assume that we all have opinions (hopefully informed), particular life experience (often rooted in a particular region), abilities in solving real problems, practical ideas for doing productive work for the country and the will to vote as well as the franchise to do so.

    Let's acknowledge that in this highly complex and diverse country with its heterogeneous population spread over a heterogeneous geography there is a really rich human resource to be tapped by our electoral process; to choose and to be chosen; to deliver the best and the brightest into our democratic engine. In other words, sprinkled throughout the country are exemplars of these qualities, individuals who are truly good candidates for political office and many more equipped to help choose them.

    In other words, it's Canada and it’s the democratic responsibility of each and every one of us to strive to turn as
    many of these candidate exemplars as possible into representatives.

    Logically, you'd want your "hiring" process to a) look in every corner of the country for these "bright lights" and b) have a way to identify and choose amongst them to wind up with the maximum number of them in the House.

    Now we could continue to "single source" candidates and trust the parties absolutely to attract a stable of
    diverse and capable individuals but history demonstrates that parties tend to homogenize points of view and suppress exceptional talents in favour of compliance to larger (and exaggeratedly polar) party aspirations. There is clearly no guarantee that that trust won't be betrayed if left unexamined or unchecked. So, it must be up to us, the voters, to shoulder this responsibility. But we need the proper tools to do this job well. There's little point in changing things to do it poorly. We need to acquire good people by deliberate intent not
    by accident.

    If the electoral system is designed to pick representatives on an individual basis then voters will be empowered to be directly responsible for the choice of 300-some-odd unique representatives instead of being limited to the 3-4 voices they get if they mark an "X" against a political party on their ballot (even if that's a "party"
    vote on an MMP ballot). To facilitate this each ballot must offer several choices of candidates for each party. The most elegant way to accomplish this is to use preferential ballots in multi-member ridings.

    This is the minimum we can do to raise citizens' voices. Remember: the possible number of unique combinations of voices, experience and skill sets is equal to the number of seats in the House. Ultimately, this necessarily represents a minimum concentration and filtering of diversity of thought in the order of ~100,000 fold.

    To raise citizen voices even further would require breaking the glass ceiling of the 300 by instituting a system of
    distributed constituency parliaments as proposed by Vaughan Lyon elsewhere on this site and in his book, Power Shift.
  4. Mark Henschel

    20 Mar
    Regarding the “top five” and the ramifications of electoral reform:

    In previous comments to this project I have hinted that electoral reform is probably the single most essential reform that exists to remediate Canadian democracy. I'd like to argue again for particular, substantive electoral reform in the context of Samara's top five renovation choices.

    To review I've argued that we need to empower voters to choose the best individual representatives to participate in the discussions and votes in our parliaments. We want to do this by enhancing the ability of voters to more fully express their electoral intent and thereby raise their voices both in the diversity of opinion and in collective faithfulness.

    Empowering MP individually, instead of as proxies for their party's head office, has profound and pervasive benefits in Parliament.

    First of all, as a product of an empowered and articulate electoral constituency, each MP has a solid mandate to speak and vote as an individual with a unique point of view, a point of view that is representative of his constituency. This inherently raises and multiplies the voices of Canadians within the House. 

    As a collection of unique voices, an enhanced breadth of opinion is delivered into the House with an obligation to be expressed and be attended to in a way that they cannot be when opinion is homogenized down to simplistic party platforms.

    Such parliaments would also be more disposed to the critical parliamentary function of bringing forward ideas for consideration and actually discussing them in contrast to the scripted partisan dramas that have "played" out in our recent parliaments in advance of predetermined votes. 

    A parliament so constituted would also be predisposed to listen to Canadians. In the case where MPs are elected for their qualities and beliefs, and truly owe their seats to their respective electorates, when an issue arises that spurs public outcry, such MPs -- and the governments, cabinets and oppositions that they are a part of will be much more open to listen to Canadians. 

    Consequently, while the opinions of Canadians will then tend not fall on deaf ears -- or at least less deaf ears – and because our politicians would be electorally responsible to us and because we had a more clear and articulate say through our votes will mean that there should be less need to take to the streets to be heard. That's a very good thing.

    So. What would the ramifications of implementing a truly empowering electoral system be on the top five fixes listed above?

    Certainly a more discussion-oriented parliament would be more partial to any additions and alterations to the physical working space that would facilitate those priorities. It would be hoped that they would recognize the pioneering work done in the creation of the facility in B.C. that was the home of their Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

    With citizen voices already raised electorally to constitute each parliament and with members predisposed to listen, we would have a head start of developing more open venues for real citizen engagement.

    Since MPs would owe their seats to the voters first and foremost the practice of the party leader sign-offs should, naturally, go by the way or become moot. 

    Scripted speeches would be an anathema to an empowered "membership" as would a fear of opinion since each MP would be elected expressly to voice their opinion (and consequently the electorate's) in every parliament.

    It should also be clear that effective elections would work to improve representative job satisfaction, rebalance power in the House, institutionalize checks to maintain that balance of power in a more stable and sustainable

    If electoral reform works to achieve all this, then we can and should do more with our 5 top choices. 

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