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?