If Parliament is broken, say experts, then we need better voters and representatives to rebuild it.
Canada’s 40th Parliament dissolved last March after two prorogations, dozens of unfinished bills and hundreds of hours of acrimonious debate. Just nine per cent of Canadians now pay close attention to the House of Commons, according to a fall 2010 poll by Nanos Research, with almost half ignoring it altogether.
“Today Canadians are tuned-out, turned-off and skeptical of the effectiveness of the House of Commons,” writes Nik Nanos of Nanos Research. Voters are dissatisfied with their government, he concludes, and would support changes to improve it.
Raucous debates aren’t a new trend in the house, say experts, but neither are minorities. Lester Pearson passed many laws to create medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and the national flag despite vicious Parliamentary duels between the parties in his minority government.
So what’s changed? And how do we get Canadians interested again in their government?
Politics as war
Political consultant and former national director of the NDP Robin Sears, writing in Policy Options, traces the problem back to Brian Mulroney’s landslide victory of 1984.
After 1984, parties turned to more vicious personal attacks to regain ground, taking hard-line stances to secure their base of support both inside and outside their parties. “Nothing secures your position and the tribe’s loyalty than an enemy’s head on a stake,” Sears writes. There was plenty of rage in the house in Pearson’s time, he notes, but MPs also had working relationships with each other and could co-operate on issues.
Politics has become professionalized, says Paul Thomas, the retired Duff Roblin Professor of Government at the University of Manitoba, dominated by consultants and pollsters. “These people are paid to win, and it becomes all about winning.”
The prime minister sets the tone of Parliament, he continues, and Stephen Harper created a tone of war. He criticized Harper for proroguing Parliament to avoid confidence votes, interfering with the public service and running attack ads outside of an election.
Thomas says he’s personally disgusted by the partisanship that has resulted. “The public is deeply turned off by this,” he says, and has stayed away from the polls as a result.
But voters aren’t blameless, notes John Williams, former Conservative MP for St. Albert and current CEO of the Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC). Canada’s pretty peaceful, he says, and we’ve started taking our democracy for granted. “We just assume the democratic process will keep everything on the straight and narrow.”
There’s a reason why Canada doesn’t have a Musharraf or a Gadhafi, Williams says. “Peace and prosperity depends on democracy,” he says, and democracy depends on voters.
No quick fixes
All four national parties have proposed measures to restore voter interest and make Parliament more functional. The Liberals have proposed online ballots and Question Periods, for example — both good ideas, Williams says. “These new modern electronic ways are getting young people engaged, and this is great.”
The NDP and Greens have both called for changes to the electoral system. One of the more frequent ideas is proportional representation, where parties get seats based on their proportion of the vote.
Terrible idea, says Williams. “The problem is that you don’t have an MP you can hold accountable,” he says, as you vote for a party rather than a specific candidate. Our current first-past-the-post system is also problematic, as anyone who doesn’t vote for the winner in a riding does not contribute to a party’s overall total. He favoured a move to a preferential ballot (where voters rank candidates based on preference) or a runoff system (where the top two candidates hold a runoff vote) instead.
“I lament that we spend so little time in school on how important democracy is,” Williams says, a fact he says has led to our low voter turnout. He and Thomas both called for more emphasis in schools on the importance of democracy and the operation of Parliament.
MPs also need more training on how to do their jobs. MPs have tremendous power in the government, Williams says, but few realize it. “Governments have the authority to govern, but that governance is subject to oversight and approval by Parliament,” Williams says. “That’s the fundamental rule by which we govern.”
Thomas called for the creation of a national school of politics to train MPs on the issues and workings of Parliament. Williams runs similar training sessions for new MPs through GOPAC.
There are many other ideas out there — stronger committees, themed debates and a revised Question Period, for example — but none of them will happen unless MPs and voters demand them. “What it will really take is a new group of backbenchers who want to go to Ottawa and make a contribution,” Thomas says.