Your seat in the House of Commons? MPs by lottery selection

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Leadership Monday, February 02, 2015 View Count = 3352

Your seat in the House of Commons? MPs by lottery selection

House of Commons doors

Today’s guest blog comes to us from Richard Pereira, a former House of Commons researcher and economist, currently with the Global Ethics Program at the University of Birmingham as a doctoral researcher. Pereira proposes selection of MPs by lottery as a way to make our Parliament more representative, along with greater use of referendums.

More women in politics. More women on corporate boards. This is perhaps the most common refrain for improving equality and democratic representation of diverse perspectives in society. This is fine. But why do we so glaringly neglect other forms of equality and representation that are lacking?

As legitimate as women’s representation in legislatures across Canada is, so is the issue of First Nations representation. This perspective is sorely lacking in our political and legislative make-up and discourse. Likewise, a Parliament that is not reflective of the diverse income groups and occupations that make up the country is not representing numerous important perspectives that are needed to create meaningful laws and public policy. If we have large numbers of Canadians who are officially and unofficially unemployed and underemployed, because of no fault of their own, then perhaps we should ensure proportionate numbers of people from these groups are included in Parliament. It is not enough to only increase the representation of women if we are to have a meaningful democracy.

The main political parties are adept at “whipping” their MPs into line, which radically diminishes the real representation and input that we need from our politicians. Two ways around the broken party system of representation are to have a legally-binding referendum system to take the most important questions directly to Canadians on a regular basis (Switzerland has this for example), and to include MPs in the House of Commons who have been selected by lottery. 

If the majority of Canadians hold a position on an issue – whether it is action on environmental challenges or any other topic – they should have their voices heard and legally respected. Protection of minority rights is essential and not all questions can be decided this way, but many vital issues concerning citizens can be taken directly to the people ensuring everyone has a say. 

Likewise, the only way to achieve a truly representative Parliament is to do so randomly – by lottery. We could reserve one-third, or half of seats in legislatures across Canada for lottery selection, and see who performs better in the interests of Canadians – those randomly selected or those representing political parties. And this would provide a way to include those currently excluded. It is not so easy for a disabled person to go knocking on 10,000 doors campaigning for a seat in Parliament. Some may not be natural fundraisers, but they may have a depth of knowledge on important issues that currently get ignored or mishandled by MPs (or simply whipped into line by party interests against citizen interests).

Those selected by lottery may feel inadequately prepared for the role and would have a chance to refuse the role of MP (as in the case with jury duty). But many Canadians are extremely knowledgeable and capable of fulfilling the role of MP; they simply wouldn’t want to enter Parliament under the current restrictive system of extreme party discipline and messaging or leader control. A portion of seats in the House allocated by lottery would open the doors of our primary national political institution to these more diverse and less partisan people.

Despite the media portrayal, political parties are not essential to democracy. Arguably, they create much more harm than good. Great achievements have been recorded in parliaments with large numbers of independent, non-party affiliated legislators, such as New Zealand’s when it was the first jurisdiction in the world to give women the vote. Meanwhile, municipal politics in Canada is largely free of party influence – there are definitely problems of a different nature with local government in Canada, but the absence of parties does not preclude the functioning of government at this level. 

And so the question remains: if only between 1 and 2% of Canadians are members of a political party, why should nearly 100% of MPs be affiliated to parties – and whipped into voting conformity in the process?

Let’s take a chance on real representation. We might just win back our democracy in the process.

To read more proposals for reforming our national legislature, check out Samara's "50 Ways to Redesign Parliament" or give a listen to CBC 180's series on democracy hacks.

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