What I Would Change About Politics in Canada

Elizabeth May

Democracy is, as Winston Churchill once quipped, the worst system of government, except all the others that have been tried.

He also, less famously said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter,” but I don’t think the average voter is our problem in Canada. And I do think we’ve got a problem.

The symptoms of the problem are easy to spot — low voter turnout, with worryingly low levels among young people with no sign they will start voting once they are over 30, a less than vital Fourth Estate, undermined by an alarming level of concentration of media ownership in very few hands, public apathy, indifference bordering on antipathy toward the whole process, excessive power in the hands of the few (or the one, since I refer to PMO), a loss of respect for the fundamental principle of the supremacy of Parliament, misuse of the talents of Members of Parliament of the large parties as MPs are expected to toe the party line on every issue, big and small, and its flip-side, excessive control by the un-elected top party brass in all three main parties.

Add to this, that the average voter in Canada — if anyone can be called “average” — is incensed by the goings on related to the excessive claims of certain Senators and the outrageous accommodation for Senator Duffy by the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff cutting him a cheque for $90,000 so he could make it seem he had personally paid back what he took through inappropriate means. The fact of a $90,000 cheque from the Prime Minister’s top ranking staff member and closest confidante remains just simply stunning. It was, on its face, illegal. It makes no sense and no sensible explanation has been offered.

So, what could we change to restore the kind of healthy democracy that would re-engage voters, stop the growth in public cynicism and give Canadians a system — and individual politicians –they could believe in?

Here’s a short prescription for what ails our democracy:

  1. Get rid of “first past the post” and elect MPs, as is done in most modern democracies, by some form of proportional representation. Make sure every vote counts so voters feel the impact of their vote. Thanks to first past the post, in 2011, a minority of voters elected a majority government. Such “false majorities,” as University of Toronto Prof. Emeritus Peter Russell has dubbed them, have occurred for Liberals as well as Progressive Conservative and now Conservative governments. Such results are only possible due to First past the post.
  2. Reduce the powers of the Prime Minister’s Office — regardless of who is the occupant. It is an invention, not mentioned in our Constitution. Its powers and budget are unchecked and unaccountable. It is now at $10 million/year. Cut it in half to $5 million…or cut it more. Its total power in times of majority Parliament is anti-democratic, especially in a situation of a “false majority.” Cut the power of PMO. Restore a healthier Cabinet system of government.
  3. Restore a respected, professional civil service. Return to evidence-based decision making. Rebuild the wall between the PMO and the PCO (Privy Council Office). Only under PM Harper have the political operatives in PMO run roughshod over the civil service, contaminating government information with partisan spin. This must be stopped.
  4. Pass legislation that deals with concentration of media ownership to encourage the rebirth of local journalism and reduce the powers of a handful of owners (our current legislation dealing with competition in the news media fails to deal with this issue and only addresses issues of the price of media products.)
  5. Restore respect for the supremacy of Parliament. Ensure that the control of the public purse is restored to Parliament, where it belongs.
  6. Remove the power of leaders of federal parties to sign the nomination forms for their party’s candidates. Allow the caucus members of parties the right to trigger leadership reviews.
  7. Senate reform — open conversations and negotiations with provinces. Is abolition possible? Could a council of the federation with more effective representation from municipalities, provinces and territories bring something useful to Parliament?
  8. And perhaps most important of all — re-assert the constitutional requirement that MPs are elected to represent their constituents, not to be mere ciphers of the back-room hyper-partisan spin doctors who call the shots.

Bring back Westminster parliamentary democracy. All our rules say we have one; only our political habits tell us we are moving toward an elected dictatorship. This prescription to restore and heal democracy can only be filled when the citizens of Canada demand it.

Canada Day 2013 is a good time to start.

Originally published in the Huffington Post.