Democracy and the decline of Parliament
TheStar.com – opinion/comentary – Growing disconnect between Canadians and Parliament may have serious consequences for democracy.
May 02 2013. By: Bob Hepburn
Since his days as Paul Martin’s campaign chairman ended, David Herle has given a lot of thought to the state of our democracy and the increasing disconnect between Parliament and Canadians.
And the more Herle studies the issue, the more the former prime minister’s strategist worries.
“There’s a growing gap that could have serious long-term implications for the health of our democracy” from voter turnout to policy formation, Herle says over coffee one recent afternoon in downtown Toronto.
“Voters look at Ottawa these days and feel the issues being debated up there have no impact on their daily lives,” he says.
“There’s also a serious decline in what people expect from government. As well, they’ve stopped looking to government for help and for the most part they don’t think it matters who is in power.”
Voicing concern about the growing disconnect between Canadians and Parliament is nothing new.
But Herle brings a unique perspective to the issue. As a principal partner at The Gandalf Group, a Toronto-based research and consulting company, he has access to polls that detail the depth of voter disenchantment with politics in general and Parliament in particular.
For several years now, Herle has examined everything from voter turnout rates to the public satisfaction levels with Ottawa. In virtually all surveys, Canadians are saying they are fed up, tuned out and have given up.
For example, a poll last fall suggested barely 27 per cent of Canadians believe Ottawa is dealing with issues we really care about.
Most people are worried about daily issues, such as their children’s education, looking after aging parents and getting decent health care. But other than writing cheques to the provinces, Ottawa has opted out of health care, education, transportation and other issues that affect our normal lives.
There are no bold new ideas emerging from Ottawa today that will engage Canadians and make them feel that what happens in Parliament really does play a role in their lives.
No longer is there serious talk in Ottawa of programs that would affect most Canadians directly, such as a national child care strategy, a national plan for big cities or an agreement for natives along the lines of the Kelowna Accord signed by Martin.
Instead, there is a narrow set of issues that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is pursuing and for the most part the opposition parties are adhering to them.
Because voters have stopped looking to Parliament for help, Ottawa has stopped responding to their needs, Herle believes.
“People are no longer putting demands on government and aren’t flocking to politicians who claim they can help them,” he says. “They’ve simply given up on Ottawa altogether.”
The implications for democracy are huge when you consider so many people believe it is a waste of time even to try to make a difference or that installing a new government will create meaningful change. Such attitudes provide the ruling party with enormous leeway to abuse parliamentary traditions and procedures.
Herle isn’t alone in voicing concern over the growing gap between voters and Parliament.
Conservative MP Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills), writing in Policy Options magazine in 2010, predicted that “if Parliament is becoming increasingly irrelevant to Canadians and is not central to public debate in Canada, then public policy will be determined in an increasingly non-democratic fashion.”
Chong suggested that reforming question period, the insult-laden daily shouting match that is the only reference most Canadians have with politics, is a necessary first step to restoring Parliament’s relevance. He called for improved decorum, more time both for questions and answers and a requirement that ministers actually respond to questions directed at them.
Chong is correct about the possible consequences for democracy and the role of Parliament. That’s because if voters have given up on Parliament, it means they have lost faith in politicians to look after their interests.
Herle doesn’t claim to have the answers on how best to re-engage disaffected Canadians or how to make Parliament more relevant.
What he does believe, though, is that we require “a paradigm shift” by Ottawa in how it relates to Canadians, in ways that go beyond merely handing out the occasional small tax rebate cheque.
Such a shift is essential because Canadians need to feel connected to Parliament and Parliament needs to be seen as relevant to their lives.
Only then can we begin to close the gap between voters and our political institutions with the goal of ultimately strengthening our democracy.
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