Stronger democracy

Before the 2015 federal election, I had a sense of the need for democratic reform in Canada. But it took four years in Ottawa for me to realize it is an urgent priority.

After four years as a Member of Parliament (MP) including more than three as a cabinet minister, I’m sad to say that Parliament Hill is the most dysfunctional place I have ever worked.

This is not to say that government is not a force for good. I know that it is. This is not to say the current government and those before it have not advanced our country in countless positive ways. They have. Hundreds of kind, smart, thoughtful people are elected every few years to become MPs. They go to Ottawa and work long hours on the most important challenges facing our nation and our world. They are surrounded by thousands of public servants who literally run the country and do so with intelligence, compassion and dedication.

But the democratic systems of this country could be so much better – and Canadians would be the beneficiaries.

I’m not an expert in democratic reform. But let me highlight three broad areas where I think we could improve: elections; the daily function of the House of Commons; and the approach to party power.

Let’s start with elections. The basis for democratic elections is supposed to be representation by population. But we continue to accept a system in federal (and provincial) elections called first-past-the-post under which the makeup of the legislatures does not reflect the electoral wishes of the people. A political party can receive votes from less than half of Canadian voters and still gain a majority of seats in the House of Commons. This is fundamentally unfair and it means that many voices go unrepresented and therefore unheard.

Many people have thought and written about this for decades. I’m not going to describe all the challenges and potential solutions for electoral reform. I simply want to be added to the list of those who are convinced that the voting system must change as soon as possible.

We should adapt ballots for federal elections such that voters can rank the options by order of preference. This should be accompanied by the complex but essential transition to a system of proportional representation. This would mean, for example, that if a party receives votes from 10% of Canadians, then they should have 10% of the seats in the House of Commons. For now, I won’t detail the steps that will get us from here to there most efficiently and effectively. But I’m ready to use any platform possible to push for this change. Every Canadian needs to know that their voice will make a difference. We need to inspire more Canadians to get out on election day and exercise their right to vote.

A second area that needs to be fixed is the daily functioning of the House of Commons. Quite frankly, there’s a shocking amount of wasted time. Question Period is a sad charade and not a place where government is actually held to account. Both questions and answers – as well as speeches on legislation – are commonly written by unelected political staff. The debate is rarely about how to serve Canadians better. It’s more often about scoring political points.

An enormous amount of time is spent on voting in the House. Yes, voting is good. Voting is essential. But Canadians might be surprised how many votes are simply procedural. Many hours are spent on votes introduced purely to cause delay, such as a commonly moved motion “that the House do now proceed to Orders of the Day.” These can interrupt the work of a large number of people, including outside experts who travel great distances to testify at Commons committees, only to find that shenanigans in the House of Commons could disrupt their entire special visit.

The other surprising thing about votes is the way they are directed by political parties and staff. For almost every vote in the House of Commons, political staff distribute a paper to the desk of MPs indicating how they are expected to vote. It is true that parties allow “free votes” to varying degrees, depending on the type of vote and topic. But direction is almost always given by the party and the expectation is that MPs will follow that direction and may suffer negative consequences if they do not. The result is that MPs could essentially check their brains (not to mention their conscience or their constituents’ views) at the door. They don’t need to know the substance of the bill or the motion before them because someone else is directing how to vote.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as guilty of following along as any of my colleagues. MPs and Ministers are very busy people. It’s next to impossible to have read every bill in its entirety, let alone taking the time to consider its merits and develop a system to know the views of constituents and the evidence to support or oppose the legislation. It was when I became an independent MP (having been ejected from my former party caucus) that I had a better perspective on how easy it had become to vote without fulsome consideration because that’s how the system works.

There is not space to outline all the peculiarities and predicaments of Parliament. Suffice it to say there is much room for improvement. There is room for more collaboration and a grown-up discussion about how to structure the daily functions of the House of Commons in a more respectful, efficient manner. There is room for more responsibility and freedom in the hands of individual MPs. We should take steps to make Question Period a time of thoughtful debate and extemporaneous questions and answers driven by a genuine commitment to accountability.

I’d like to add one more theme in democratic reform – because it is at the root of some of the challenges identified above. That is, the power of parties. Political parties are not mentioned in the Canadian Constitution. They have not always held such sway. Until the 1970s, party names were not listed with candidate names on ballots. But in the past fifty years, political parties have increasingly been the drivers and the beneficiaries of dysfunction in the House of Commons.

Although my family had historic ties to Liberal politics (including my great-grandfather Angus Dickson who was a farmer and a Liberal Member of the Legislative Assembly in Ontario from 1934 to 1945), I was never a member of a political party until May 3, 2011. I joined the Liberal Party of Canada the day after Stephen Harper won a Conservative majority government because I was frustrated with the direction our country was going and decided it was time to get involved. I chose the Liberal party because it most closely reflected my perspective on major policies. But like many Canadians, while I can see some good in most parties, I don’t align exactly with any of them. Neither MPs nor voters should be forced to squeeze ourselves into accepting the rigid confines of party policies without robust mechanisms to accept respectful critique.

MPs can and should be able to disagree with the government, even if it is their own party. It’s actually the obligation of a representative of the people to speak for a diversity of views. An MP’s loyalty should rest with his or her constituents and with the greater good of the country.

I’m not naive enough to imagine that Canadian politics would do away with political parties - though Canadians should know there are models of government (including that of Nunavut) that function well without parties. The Constitution did not envision the House of Commons as a team sport. It envisions representatives who put their loyalty first to constituents, even if they serve as a member of a political party. Canadians would benefit if we could address the imbalances that exist as a result of party discipline and the extraordinary powers that are currently exercised by party leaders and their staff. It is time to put power back in the hands of the Canadians who elect representatives and expect the views of constituents to be respected.

What are your priorities for democratic reform?

Showing 21 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Rachel Johnstone
    followed this page 2019-07-10 16:55:28 -0400
  • Jack Hopkins
    followed this page 2019-06-18 15:16:28 -0400
  • Robert Kirby
    followed this page 2019-06-16 03:41:21 -0400
  • Jan Kuehn
    followed this page 2019-06-15 18:10:49 -0400
  • Oliver Hockenhull
    commented 2019-06-13 16:08:55 -0400
    A pioneering exercise in digital democracy. The simple but ingenious system Taiwan uses to crowdsource its laws https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611816/the-simple-but-ingenious-system-taiwan-uses-to-crowdsource-its-laws/?
  • Naftali Nakhshon
    commented 2019-06-12 09:11:42 -0400
    I think any and every way of strengthening democracy should lie on the foundation of existence and availability of public factual and, especially, scientific knowledge. The misinformed and confused masses led by slightly better informed and arguably more confused parliament is not what democracy should be about. And in historically pivotal times, like today, it’s a recipe for disaster.

    It would unfortunately seem we are in the midst of a period of extremely high politicization of every sphere of the human activity. From sex to philosophy and arts, from particle physics to commerce, this dangerous trend has also engulfed science and education. And the latter is a fundamental problem for having a meaningful discussion, let alone making informed decisions. On some topics, I cannot begin a conversation without being associated with a particular political ‘wing’ even before I laid out my position. Sometimes, by the way, I imagine the movement of a winged creature with its left and right wings working furiously to thwart one another.

    Here are two examples of such a hopeless situation from the personal experience: The moment one mentions the politicization of education, they are usually assumed ‘right-wing’ by both partisan sides. The moment one mentions dialectics non-negatively, they are immediately labelled ‘Marxist’ and ‘Frankfurt School’ by the ‘right wing’.

    In that kind of atmosphere, that foundation of knowledge I mentioned erodes, instead of strengthening. As a result, I doubt the society today can meaningfully discuss such complex, existential issues as climate change and artificial intelligence, or, closer to the topic, strengthening democracy.
    That is especially evident with the conversation around the global warming. Laypeople and the absolute majority of commentators quite neatly divide into those who are ready to question the roundness of the Earth in order to undermine the prevalent scientific conclusions on the issue and those who believe in science as if it were a religion, scientists its priests and prophets, and media their mouthpiece. It’s hard to find a voice of sanity. A voice that calls things what they really are: models that are used to predict the climate changes are no less and no more, however different, than any other scientific and engineering models. And as such, they have always been a subject of constant changes, from fine-tuning to major revamping. Which means we cannot be prudent about the future of the planet if we totally rely on the results of the current application of those models in charting our actions.

    For example in 1955, the ecologically clean thermonuclear fusion energy was first forecasted to be available in a couple of decades. In 1976, it was announced there were no showstoppers on the road to fusion energy. Yet today, the Humanity is still far away from harnessing it. What would have happened, had rush political decisions of existential importance been taken in 1955 based on the initial prognosis?

    Another major risk factor in implementing global warming reversal plans is the geopolitical one. There are powerful non-democratic state actors who could easily thwart any such plan in order to exhaust our economies. Such regimes don’t care even about their own people, let alone the fate of other nations. Those that possess globally significant land masses, could at the same time increase their industrial power by boosting non-sustainable technologies and weaken our economies as our best LOCAL sustainability efforts would collapse due to GLOBAL ineffectiveness. What could have been the consequences of such a scenario?

    For the global warming challenge, such mistakes could mean devastating effects of it are not staved off, but huge global resources are wasted and not available for adapting to the new harsh conditions. Which could mean many millions of lives lost around the globe. And I think the way to avoid those mistakes is not in shouting louder, not clinging to ideological clichés, and not strong beliefs.

    Instead, we should be strengthening the only mechanism we know has brought the Humanity, in due course, evident and significant results: that of the IMPARTIAL, OBJECTIVE, and IDEOLOGICALLY INDEPENDENT scientific research. In the meantime, the society should accumulate resources needed to cope with the effects of the global warming until scientifically sound solutions are found.

    This is just one, less politically-charged, example of how complex long-term challenges can be
    addressed.

    In the past, some argued for no rush on important changes in order to prevent them from taking place – out of naked political expediency. Not being a politician, my motivation for proposing prudency over rush is straightforward: I simply do think that notwithstanding the urgency of some issues we are now facing, there is a great, overarching need for long-term changes in education, in the information media, and in the structure of democratic institutions. So that we have general public that is more educated about how science works and what the purpose of the democratic process is, journalists that really understand the complexity of the issues they report on and do not pander to political interests, and politicians that truly care about their constituent and the country more than winning the next elections.
  • Naftali Nakhshon
    commented 2019-06-10 21:23:15 -0400
    Thanks Jane for yet another refreshing, almost unusual step: engaging on the topic of the political system and governance directly with the people. In my personal view, this is an issue of the utmost importance for this country and the rest of ‘the West’.

    Strengthening democracy today, to me, is about helping the masses know and understand more, making the mass media responsible for the quality of their IMPARTIAL work, enhancing the separation between the legislative and executive branches of government, ensuring the independence of the judicial branch, and significantly increasing the professionalism of the executive branch.
  • Ryan Campbell
    commented 2019-06-07 21:45:59 -0400
    Karen Nelson – Under the forms of pro-rep proposed for Canada (STV and Scottish-style MMP) independents to as well or better than under first past the post. Check out the case of Margo MacDonald in Scotland (very similar to this situation) and of the 19 independent MPs elected in Ireland in 2016 under STV.
  • Oliver Hockenhull
    commented 2019-06-07 14:20:52 -0400
    Thank you for your honest and crucially important analysis, much of which
    I agree wholeheartedly with.

    What stands for Western civilization is collapsing in front of our eyes; the extremes of economic inequality, climate change, rising fascism, pervasive corruption and the general miasma of despair generated by a profound lack of leadership infects all strands of the social body.

    Canada has a role to play to heal and renew our world. But only if we deliver on own brand — the hope of a post nation state committed to rationalism, science, creativity, radical democracy, compassion and justice.

    1.
    My question to you has to do with the incredible lack of innovation, research and development
    regarding applying technological solutions to governance. I acknowledge that we are still in the
    nascent phase of developments regarding the application of AI and tech to governance and certainly there are bias and problems related to their application yet we should be at the very least begin the process of research and trial with these new technological tools in terms of
    governance and democracy.

    Governance should be a rational and based on evidence and foresight. What better way then
    limiting rhetoric and ideology and depending on the references of science and logic?

    2. The CDN gov. contributes huge sums of money to the CBC. It also funds the CMF, the NFB, Telefilm, etc. It does not use these media tools in a way that encourages democratic involvement. The media in Canada is thoroughly centralized in Toronto
    and basically in terms of content follows the same commercial intents as any other media company.
    A central concern is that our national and provincial media organizations — the NFB, Telefilm, the educational channels, and especially the CBCTV rarely play well together and they have become more or less irrelevant players within the larger media scape of the country and the world. This marked irrelevance can be traced to the lack of foresight as to what is important, what is crucial for our life as a nation.

    These organizations promise of informing, educating and delighting Canadians and our democracy is not kept because these organizations are insufficiently committed to their own raison d’être. They are bureaucratic fortress of anemic mediocracies — without commitment to evolving their structures to fit the new technical possibilities and new social and ecological responsibilities — despite the rhetorical flourishes of each passing administrative change.

    The media agencies and media institutions in the country should be a preeminent example of transparency, and democratic public engagement for the Canadian people.

    2.
    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    “There are currently no rules that govern how federal parties collect and use data about Canadians. While parties are now required to publish privacy policies, there is no independent oversight or review to determine if they’re actually following those policies.”

    The beginning of wisdom: Know Thyself

    Here’s an experiment — two days a week for a half a year all parliamentarians are wired up while Parliament is in session. Their eeg is monitored for lies, half truths, naps, etc. https://www.emotiv.com/ _ the reading is abstractly presented as a colour coded gradient on a large screen for
    citizens to see.

    3.
    Why are leaders corrupt? Prof. John Antonakis explains what he and his colleagues—Dr.
    Samuel Bendahan, Prof. Christian Zehnder, and Prof. François
    Pralong—found in two experimental studies. Both power (leader choice
    set and number of followers) and the person (baseline testosterone)
    caused corruption. The implications of this study are far reaching and
    should make individuals responsible for organizational governance
    mechanisms to pause and think about how much power and discretionary
    choices leaders should have.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoLLPNZLBAo
  • Rhonda Shaddick
    commented 2019-06-07 09:41:47 -0400
    Very enlightening post. Your honesty in dealing with the “good old boys “ system is much appreciated by more than you realize. You are bringing action from the top level which is refreshing to see in order to improve an out dated and biased system . It is a bold step which hopefully will replace the step we “at the bottom rung of the ladder” have been taking for years such as voting strongly to replace governments which haven’t been working in the interest of their voters. Sadly, that has only resulted in voting in a group with yet another off the mark agenda .
    Keep up your good work, you will achieve more than you set out to by taking this road never travelled.
    Good luck in all you are doing. I am standing behind you and Jodi as you move forward.
    Yours in truth,
    Rhonda Shaddick
  • Hagop Sherinyan
    commented 2019-06-06 15:29:23 -0400
    كلام صحيح ١٠٠%
  • Sheri O 🇨🇦 🌲⏳
    commented 2019-06-06 15:18:45 -0400
    Thanks for sharing your experience as an independent MP. You took a strong stand to support JWR and the real change agenda put forward by the Liberal Party in 2015. Your ouster shows us how little commitment to the real change agenda came out of the Trudeau gov’t (in terms of open/transparent gov’t & electoral reform). Now we can no longer trust Justin Trudeau and every other party, save the Green Party, suffers from whipping and top-down organizational structure. We’ve got climate crisis undoing us now and we lack a coherent response to take our best swing at stopping us from going off the edge of a cliff.
    Climate activists identify the imbalances and distortions in winner-takes-all voting as a source of change to hasten action on the impending climate catastrophe in less the next decade. Within a proportional system of voting, voters could get a single transferable vote (STV). A voter ranks their vote such that elected reps respect the wishes of the electorate, including votes for independent MPs. The other top-off PR system from a list favors parties more.

    Governments now use citizen assemblies, which sometimes include politicians acting in a non-partisan capacity (?) for their savvy with law making, to come up with better solutions to difficult problems. Ireland, lost the grip of the Catholic church, and got marriage equality and reproductive rights via citizens’ assemblies. One such assembly is now tackling climate catatrophe in Ireland now, for the Irish people.

    We have solutions. We have talent. We have heart. But we don’t have time on our side. We must all step up as you did.
  • Hagop Sherinyan
    commented 2019-06-06 15:10:39 -0400
    عزيزتي السيدة فيلبوت انتي من النساء التي تستطيع المواجهة والصمود وتحقيق الوعود وصاحبة رأي ثابت والدليل على ذلك نضالك وعائلتك في مساعدة الاطفال في افريقيا وإصرارك على تحقيق التقدم هناك في المجال
    الانساني و الصحي سيدتي
  • Joli Scheidler-Benns
    commented 2019-06-06 14:56:10 -0400
    Thank you for raising these concerns. I agree with all of them. The daily functioning of the House of Commons is a concern and the type of person who will put up with being directed on how to vote without knowing the issues is a growing concern. We shouldn’t follow in the US’s footprints here. In Provincials governments, we are seeing the same effects. To find knowledgeable, caring, and dedicated people who will be true to constituents is hard to do. You are a shining example of the possibility for this type of leader. The future of Canada would be bright with more representatives like you. Thank you Jane!
  • Sheri O 🇨🇦 🌲⏳
    followed this page 2019-06-06 14:51:43 -0400
  • Charles Ormrod
    commented 2019-06-06 13:02:20 -0400
    Thanks, Jane. Your post is thoughtful and covers the question of your stand on your democratic reform positon well. Economically, Independents are hobbled by the lack of tax credit until the writ is dropped. This perpetuates the party structure. Please add a modification to those rules to your list of democratic reform.
  • Ray Russo
    commented 2019-06-06 04:09:48 -0400
    Doesn’t it seem normal these days when politicians break their promises? Yes we vote every few years but then we must get back to our hectic life the next day . . .with both parents working . . . Etc. . . & we allow some politicians (who promise to be our LEADERS ) write the history . . .
    & Our grandchildren have every right to blame us for it . . . . . Right?

    No accountability?. . . What a sad joke !

    Canada needs LEADERS not just politicians . . . and a True Leader welcomes true transparency into all aspects of his/her personal life including but not limited to his/her financial affairs . . . After all, making the wrong decisions for a country is either rooted in stupidity or corruption. . . Let’s eliminate at least one possibility and see . . . Please forgive my pessimism, I’m a senior citizen and I’ve seen a lot of mistakes in Ottawa but it’s getting worse. . . Specially with money laundering and housing market crisis. . . Canada used to be the peace keeping center of the world. . . Remember?
  • Hagop Sherinyan
    commented 2019-06-06 00:29:45 -0400
    You are a great women with a great idea I hope one day became the primeminester of canada
  • Rhonda Levert
    commented 2019-06-05 23:42:47 -0400
    👏Many thanks for a well-written insider perspective that highlights significant harmful gaps in our current democratic systems. Personally, my passion is electoral reform which I believe when evolved (it will happen) will be the foundation from which House functioning and behaviours, and party voting, will grow and change from. The impact of true House representation on unwritten governing procedures and tactics will ripple throughout all aspects of the House; accountability to constituents motivating MPs to change the ‘rules’ that have unfolded over the past 40 years, since they will be playing a different ‘game’. The day the Liberals abandoned electoral reform they lost my vote; I happen to live in your riding so am grateful for your decision to run again. Thank you for sharing, I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on all topics.
  • Philip Fernandez
    commented 2019-06-05 21:29:33 -0400
    The concept of proportional representation combined with preferential ballot is intriguing. The devil is in the details that once brokered by politicians in an electoral reform bill will obscure our objective that we started off with. very high in my preferences. So my #1 objective is to have representatives elected by a simple majority of votes cast in that constituency. Then my #2 is ensuring constituencies voting population sizes are the same across the land. Lastly, my #3 priority would be to have effective recall mechanism.
  • Karen Nelson
    commented 2019-06-05 21:13:39 -0400
    How would proportional representation affect people running as independents? How would the party decide who of their party would be chosen to make up their representatives elected? How would we make sure that each region was then represented? It is an interesting idea, but I am struggling to understand how it would work. I do like the idea of being able to vote for “first choice, second choice” and so on.

connect