Democratic reforms - Make Every Vote Count. Restore power to Parliament and the people

GPC 2015 platform background paper

Electoral reform: The first-past-the-post voting system has lost the confidence of Canadians. It is the only system which allows a party with a minority of votes to gain majority power.  Canada urgently needs, and most democracies have, some form of Proportional Representation. The Green Party supports electoral reform to implement proportional representation as a matter of urgency in the next Parliament, as well as a comprehensive overhaul of the Fair Elections Act. To enhance the autonomy of our future MPs, party leaders should no longer be required to sign the nomination papers of candidates.

Parliamentary reforms: The obsessive power of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) makes a mockery of the elected House of Commons. The result has been a parliament that can at best be described as a democratic institution in name only. We can start by slashing the budget of the PMO and dismantling the all-powerful command-and-control network. Strengthening the operations of parliamentary committees and reducing party leaders’ and whips’ control of Parliament to enhance the autonomy of individual MPs is essential. Streamlining the cabinet and integrating departments to reflect 21st-century priorities would result in more informed and responsive legislation. Coordinated and comprehensive overhauls of the Accountability, Conflict of Interest, Privacy and Access to Information legislation are crucial to truly transparent and open governance. The secretive Board of Internal Economy should be revamped or replaced with an independent agency created by Parliament to oversee and regulate MPs’ expenses and business costs.  Modeled on the United Kingdom’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, its operations will be conducted with openness and transparency.  Restoring the long-form census is also a critical step to ensure Parliament has all the necessary and accurate information to guide appropriate and effective action on behalf of all Canadians and the Canadian national interest.


Electoral reform

Canada is one of the last free and prosperous nations in the world still to use the antiquated first-past-the-post voting system that allows a party with a minority of votes to gain majority power. Our current electoral system sidelines Liberal and NDP voters in the west, Conservative voters in cities, and Green voters right across Canada. Ultimately, it does not produce governments that reflect the diversity of people in Canada, nor does it do a good job of accurately conveying voters’ wishes.

Reforming the electoral system is an important step in repairing our parliamentary democracy and restoring confidence in our national government. The clearest path forward is some form of proportional representation (PR), which would include Mixed Member Proportional and Single Transferable Vote systems.  It is easy, however, to be cynical about the prospect of electoral reform.  The Green Party is pleased the federal NDP has offered to support the adoption of a new electoral process based on proportional representation in the next Parliament. While it has been NDP policy for many years, no NDP government in power provincially has ever acted on this promise.

Unfortunately both the old established parties (the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party), the only two parties that have held and tasted power since the inception of Canada, are either uninterested in change or indecisive about it. Commentators always note that political parties or leaders will support electoral reform while in opposition, but the moment they get into power and are in a position to carry through with it, they reverse their position. They opt for the certainty of eventual power bestowed on them by the first-past-the-post system, rather than the uncertainty of a system which would more accurately represent the popular will but might produce minority governments and ultimately require more coalition-building and compromise across the political spectrum.

Canadians are looking for less cynicism and more principle in Parliament. National politics would be improved with more civility and collaboration, and less of the mindless conflict that turns Parliamentary debate into the equivalent of a hockey brawl. The time has come for national parties to follow through on initiatives to institute electoral reform. This means clearly placing change of the electoral system on the post-election agenda for action, immediately establishing an all-party Democratic Voting Commission to review past research on electoral reform options, and conducting a public consultation on the style of proportional representation best suited to Canada.  Ideally, the Commission would make recommendations to Parliament for the necessary democratic voting reform, including draft legislation, within 12 months.

The Green Party strongly supports a proportional representation voting system that fairly and directly translates all votes into representation in Parliament.

The number of Canadians who vote has dropped drastically. Only a slight majority of Canadians, about 60%, now turn out to vote at general elections. This is a dismal number that makes the recently revealed use of robocalls for voter suppression – efforts to prevent people from going to their polling places – all the more reprehensible.

How can we deal with this important problem of voter apathy? Along with electoral reform, voting could be made a legal obligation of all citizens, as in Australia, where turnout is above 90% mandatory voting. Those who, for reasons of conscience, did not want to vote could spoil their ballot.  In the interest of engaging young people in the decisions which will shape the future of their country, the Green Party also supports lowering the voter age to 16 to encourage more youth participation.

The Green Party will undertake a comprehensive overhaul of the bill with the Orwellian title, Fair Elections Act. This controversial Act was drafted by the Conservative government with little or no public consultation; then it was rammed through Parliament. It is legislation designed by the Conservative government, for the Conservative government, certainly not for the Canadian people or the national interest.

The Act does nothing to increase voter turnout and in fact may have the effect of suppressing the vote especially on behalf of those who are unlikely to vote for the Conservatives.  Among other things, at least initially, the legislation would have disenfranchised the over half a million Canadians in 2011 who did not have proper ID with their address on voting day. Ultimately, provision was made for such voters to swear an oath regarding their correct address as long as another eligible voter corroborating the address swore an identical oath. In 2011, 400,000 Canadians used Voter Information cards for identification.  This is now prohibited, something that will negatively impact students, First Nations living on reserves, and seniors in long-term facilities.

In addition, the Act transfers the power to investigate dishonest campaigning from the Commissioner of the Elections Canada Act to the Director of Public Prosecutions who reports to the government rather than to Parliament.  It also fails to provide the important additional powers that are needed to compel testimony in investigations especially with respect to witnesses in robocall inquiries.

The Green Party supports a comprehensive overhaul of the law that involves extensive consultation with Elections Canada (the one office that knows the most about elections). This process should involve the appointment of an all-party committee to study the issue and propose amendments or draft entirely new legislation. The Green Party is of the view, among other things, that responsibility for the investigations into campaign irregularities should be returned to the Commissioner of Canada Elections (CCE) and that the Commissioner should henceforth report to Parliament (not as under existing legislation to the Director of Public Prosecutions). The Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) should be clearly mandated to take steps to encourage voter turnout, and both the CCE and CEO should be appointed by an impartial Public Appointments Commission.

The Green Party also supports amendments to the Elections Act to remove the requirement for national party leaders to sign the nomination papers of candidates for their respective parties. This does not preclude appropriate vetting of accuracy of qualifications, but it does mean that MP’s will have greater autonomy and be much less likely to toe the leader’s line unthinkingly in Parliament.

Finally, the all-party committee will review and re-establish electoral spending and contribution limits.  We must examine the extraordinarily generous tax credits for contributions to political parties: why are they so much more generous than if individuals donated to important scientific research? We should certainly consider restoring the per vote annual funding that parties received until its ill-advised abolition by the Conservative government.  The per vote subsidy is, in fact, the most democratic part of the federal political finance system, and its abolition was a purely partisan move to cripple the Conservative Party’s less well-financed competition.

Parliamentary reform

With the lack of checks and balances in the current Canadian political system, our Prime Minister is the most unfettered head of government among Western democracies. During majority and minority governments of both the Liberal and Conservative parties, executive action by Prime Ministerial fiat has undermined the counterweight of Parliament essential to limiting arbitrary action in a parliamentary democracy. While this has been a trend since Pierre Trudeau created the PMO megastructure in 1970, the abuse of power under Stephen Harper has eroded democracy to the point that Canada is now essentially an elected dictatorship.

The tendency toward the centralization and abuse of executive power on the part of the Conservative government was evident in the two minority Parliaments following the 2006 and 2008 elections, perhaps best illustrated by the controversial prorogation crisis. Stephen Harper began his use of massive omnibus budget bills in 2009 and 2010 to push through unpopular measures. However, the centralization of executive power and its abuse became more obvious and uninhibited after the Conservatives obtained a majority in Parliament in the 2011 election.

The first budget after the 2011 election involved two more enormous omnibus budget implementation bills – Bill C-38 and Bill C-45.  The two bills were nearly 900 pages long and contained amendments to over 60 pieces of legislation. No other Prime Minister has ever put forward such massive bills. Due to their sheer volume, the omnibus bills were only subjected to minimal debate in Parliament.  As a result, numerous unexamined amendments damaged many of the principles and programs that Canadians value, dismantling our environmental legislative infrastructure and providing ministers more discretion, for example, to define “suitable employment” in the employment insurance (EI) regulations, to create new categories of immigrants and to decide what energy projects should be accepted or rejected over the objections of the National Energy Board. Since 2012, omnibus bills have become the instrument of choice of the increasingly centralized and insular Harper administration.

Several specific reforms are crucial if we are to constrain Prime Ministerial authority, curtail the politicization of the executive branch, and re-engage Canadians with their government. A first step would be to slash the budget of the PMO.  Cutting its budget by at least 50% would be a healthy start.  This would be the only way to dismantle, as soon as possible, the office’s pernicious communications regime and the staff that operates it – those who have shifted the focus of governance from the public interest to “message control” for partisan purposes.

In addition, many political staffers are working in the federal government as “exempt staff,” partisan political employees not subject to the hiring rules of the federal public service.  They hold such varied appointments as policy directors, communications staff, information officers, advisers, and assistants. According to one estimate at the end of the 2011-2012 fiscal year, the federal government employed about 1,500 communications staffers in ministers’ offices and almost 4,000 “information services” employees. Instead of paying legions of partisan employees (the total should be reduced by 50%), the money should go toward hiring enough non-partisan professional civil servants so that Canadians who need important government services such as Employment Insurance or Old Age Pensions or Veterans’ benefits can access real people, not just voicemail or websites.

Greatly reducing the size of the cabinet would also decrease the number of political staff while simultaneously revitalizing the government. Stephen Harper’s PMO controls all decisions made by members of his caucus and issues ministerial “talking points.” Cabinet ministers no longer direct their own departments. As former Progressive Conservative Senator Lowell Murray succinctly noted, “The [centralized command-and control] system [entrenched by Harper’s PMO] makes ciphers of ministers, reducing from substantive to symbolic the autonomy, authority and accountability that they should exercise in our system of responsible government.”

The current 39-member cabinet, which includes one Associate Minister of State and 12 Ministers of State, leads to compartmentalizing within departments matters that should be shared with the whole cabinet. Altogether, a smaller cabinet would better reflect 21st-century priorities. For example, a sustainable development portfolio could combine concerns about the economics of energy security and climate change, thereby ensuring that environmental concerns were integrated into all cabinet and public discussions from the start.

In the interest of transparency, we also need to remove all government advertising contracts including government websites and paid media messages from control by political operatives.  Instead these could come under the supervision of a small team of public policy and communication professionals tasked with exposing partisan abuses and preventing the hijacking of public funds to finance party propaganda.

In addition, we need to limit the Prime Minister’s power to shut down Parliament through prorogation by requiring a two-thirds majority vote in favour of such an act in the House of Commons. New rules should also be established for the summoning of Parliament (within 30 days of the date of an election), and for the dissolution of Parliament (fixed election dates should be adhered to, a practice implemented but subsequently ignored by the Conservative government).

Instead of the Prime Minister having the power to appoint deputy ministers, associate deputy ministers, members of boards and commissions, and ambassadors, we should have an impartial and objective Public Appointments Commission. A fully independent and transparent appointments process should also be established for judicial and quasi-judicial positions, including a meaningful parliamentary confirmation process.

Committees of the House of Commons have a vital role to play in examining the policies, programs, and actions of the government. Committees need to have adequate budgets no longer controlled by the Board of Internal Economy, but through the Library of Parliament, in order to function vigorously and independently. They should have a clear set of rules and check their partisanship at the committee door (unlike Harper’s 200-page manual on how to derail the work of parliamentary committees). Committee chairs should be selected through a secret preferential ballot, and they should be encouraged, where appropriate, to return with a report, amendment, or recommendation by unanimous decision, as is the case in the United Kingdom. This would put greater pressure on committee members to engage in constructive consensus-building. The autonomy of individual MPs could be enhanced by appointing committee members for a full session of Parliament, instead of annually, and more generally by restraining the party leaders’ and whips’ control of Parliament.

One fundamental principle of government is that Parliament controls the public purse.  However, these days MPs do not have the information they need to vote on budgets. One of the most vital Commons committees is the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates, charged with reviewing and reporting on government expenditures. A June 2012 report disturbingly concluded that the vast majority of government spending is never examined and further found that any estimates not examined are simply deemed to be approved. This “deeming rule” dates back to 1968, but was exacerbated by an amendment that slipped past unnoticed in the 2007 omnibus Budget bill which completely removed Parliament’s oversight of non-budgetary spending – the millions of dollars of loans and loan guarantees provided through Crown corporations, notably the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Export Development Canada, the Farm Credit Corporation, and the Business Development Bank of Canada. When former Senator Lowell Murray appealed to the government to correct the error, the government refused. According to Senator Murray, both Liberal and Conservative governments “have effectively programmed the House of Commons to the convenience of the executive cabinet and reduced MPs’ traditional ‘power of the purse’ to mere ritual.”

Restoring parliamentary oversight will require reviewing both budget and estimates at the same time, eliminating the “deeming rule,” requiring the government to release budgetary information in a timely fashion, and giving MPs the resources to examine the government’s accounts properly. As well, the Parliamentary Budget Officer must be given actual independence to carry out his or her work. According to the former PBO, Kevin Page, the system of parliamentary oversight of the government’s fiscal and economic policies and its debt management strategies is so broken that it may take a Royal Commission to fix it.

More openness and transparency must also extend to the spending of members of both the House of Commons and the Senate. The secretive Board of Internal Economy should be revamped or replaced with an independent agency created by Parliament to oversee and regulate MPs’ expenses and business costs.  The structure and operations of the agency could be modeled on the United Kingdom’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

Accountability and transparency

Finally, a comprehensive review and overhaul of the legislation and regulations dealing with accountability, transparency, and the matters of privacy and access to information is long overdue. 

The Harper administration has been the most centralized and secretive government in Canadian history. It brought in legislation ostensibly to clean up “Liberal corruption.” Remarkably, it has actually made things worse. It abandoned numerous promises it made while in opposition regarding transparency and accountability. Its ironically-named Accountability Act has twelve new blanket exemptions and exclusions preventing certain kinds of government documents from being released, and it allows for the possibility that wrongdoing exposed by whistleblowers could be sealed from public scrutiny for up to fifteen years. The Accountability Act still does not provide for the enforcement of the “duty to act honestly” on the part of senior civil servants and cabinet ministers by an independent Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner reporting to Parliament.  This “duty to act honestly” is referenced only in a set of Accountability Guidelines – Accountable Government: A Guide for Ministers and Ministers of State – the enforceability of which lies only with the Prime Minister.

The Green Party proposes the following measures to reinstate government accountability and transparency:

  • amend the Accountability Act to ensure that all those who monitor government are completely autonomous from those they oversee, so as to eliminate the blanket exemptions on the release of government documents to the public and to guarantee transparency and openness for all government activities;
  • enact effective whistleblower protection for public and private sector employees;
  • institute a Code of Conduct and an independent complaints process to ensure that public funds are not used for pre-election partisan purposes;
  • institute mandatory training in ethics for MPs and their staff, requiring all MPs and staff to take in-house training on the basics of good management and ethics in Parliament;
  • strengthen the mandates of independent Officers of Parliament, including the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Privacy and Information Commissioners, and the Auditor General;
  • reinforce the independence of government watchdogs: the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the Military Complaints Commission, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, the Veterans’ ombudsperson, and the ombudspersons for victims of crime.
  • withdraw the unconstitutional move to put the RCMP in charge of Parliamentary security, reporting directly to the Prime Minister; and request instead the Speakers of the House and Senate jointly to ensure the protection of Parliament through an expanded and consolidated Parliamentary security force with jurisdiction throughout the parliamentary precinct.
  • implement stand-alone legislation to create an independent Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development, removing the office from its current position of subservience to the Auditor General;
  • replace the current Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, who reports privately to the Prime Minister, with an independent Commissioner reporting to Parliament and appointed through a merit-based process, with strong powers to investigate government officials and lobbyists;
  • provide parliamentarians with independent regulatory audits on the effectiveness of government regulations in meeting their stated public purposes; the audits would be conducted through the Auditor General’s office;
  • make service improvements a higher priority for all agencies and departments, with systematic citizen feedback and a schedule for periodic program review;
  • require the autonomy of public sector employees who oversee/police industry (such as those responsible for such areas as fisheries, science, and drug licensing), from having any interest in promoting those industries;
  • require long-term public departmental service plans to report on government program purposes, costs, reforms, and performance;
  • strengthen the rules of conduct for lobbying. All lobbyists’ contacts with politicians and government bureaucrats, both formal and informal, must be reported and made public.

Access to information, and privacy

The Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act both date back to 1983 before the Internet and the widespread use of mobile devices. They therefore require comprehensive overhauls to bring them into the 21st century and permit greater transparency of and accountability for government activities.

In March 2015, the Information Commissioner made 85 recommendations to modernize the Access to Information Act which she said had actually become “a shield against transparency.” Her recommendations favour extending coverage by the Act to all institutions wholly or partly government funded or controlled.  This would include Parliament itself which is funded by $500 million of public money.  A new “duty to document” expenditures would be added to close a popular loophole used by decision-makers to avoid public disclosure of inconvenient information simply by not documenting verbal discussions in writing. All exclusions would be eliminated, including the one for cabinet confidences and PMO records, and strict limits would be placed on the exemptions that remain to protect specific types of information. Decision-makers would also have to consider the public interest in the information. Finally, the system would change from an “ombudsperson model” to an “order-making model” whereby the Commissioner would receive appeals and act as adjudicator and mediator, and have the power to order disclosure from institutions.

The Green Party welcomes the Information Commissioner’s proposals for long overdue reforms and looks forward to the implementation of these changes in the next Parliament. To complement the reforms that require the disclosure of MPs’ expenses, the Green Party further recommends that the secretive Board of Internal Economy be revamped or replaced with an independent agency created by Parliament to oversee and regulate MPs’ expenses and business costs.  Modeled on the United Kingdom’s Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, its operations will be conducted with openness and transparency.

The Privacy Act requires a similar overhaul in coordination with that of the Access to Information Act to ensure that we are striking the right balance between Canadians’ right to know and the legitimate protection of information.  The Privacy Act predates the Internet and new surveillance technologies such as digital video, linked networks, global positioning systems, black boxes in cars, and radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs). Among many other things, urgent attention is needed to supplement the social media industry’s weak self-regulation over disclosure of private subscription information, such as the browsing habits of users. As early as 2006, the then Privacy Commissioner said: “The urgency of reforming the Privacy Act increases with each passing year. What is needed is legislation that is responsive to the complexities of contemporary governance, provides an effective framework to minimize risks to informational privacy in the face of new technologies, enables public accountability, and allows Parliament to fully assume its role of guardian of our fundamental values, including the right of informational privacy.”

Despite the obvious urgency, the Conservative government has shamefully delayed even the most basic reforms to the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which were recommended in 2010 following a lengthy PIPEDA review that began in 2006.

Finally, the Green Party calls for the restoration of the long-form census as an essential step to ensure Parliament has all the necessary and accurate information to guide appropriate and effective action on behalf of all Canadians and the Canadian national interest.  Replacing the census with the National Household Survey seriously undermines efficient governance which depends on having the quintessential public good – data.  Five years without the long-form census by the Conservative government and the damage is becoming all too evident. Researchers interested in tracking poverty, immigration and public health in Canada know less and less about Canadians as time progresses. Municipalities can no longer rely on census data to plan the provision of services such as public transit, emergency response, and affordable housing. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce advocates bringing back the long-form census because business can no longer understand employment trends and demographics, nor measure the effectiveness of social programs and economic policies.