Time to address democratic deficit
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Wed Jan 27 2010
Canadians like to think of themselves as nothing if not democratic. Since the days of Baldwin and LaFontaine, we have enjoyed the fruits of responsible government – responsible, that is, to Parliament.
But a report today from the Institute of Wellbeing – a non-partisan research group – suggests that our democracy is being eroded on a variety of fronts. Turnout in the last federal election was down to a pathetic 59 per cent of voters, a record low. It is even lower in most municipal and provincial elections. Just 2 per cent of Canadians are involved in advocacy or political groups. Surveys show Canadians are dissatisfied with their democracy. And women and visible minorities are grossly under-represented in our parliament and legislatures.
“The disconnect between Canadians and those who govern on their behalf is deep, wide, and growing,” says Lynne Slotek, CEO of the Institute of Wellbeing. “At a time when people are demanding greater accountability and transparency, they see their government institutions becoming more remote and opaque.”
The institute’s findings are based on research done before the latest uproar over prorogation. So it is likely the “disconnect” is even greater today. But the prorogation dispute is encouraging in one respect: it shows some Canadians still care about their democratic institutions.
The governing Conservatives seem determined to stir up prorogation protesters. We have heard Prime Minister Stephen Harper suggesting that Parliament is bad for the economy because it creates “instability” in the financial markets, one of his ministers (Jason Kenney) sniffing that he “get(s) more done when the House is not in session,” and another minister (Tony Clement) saying that only “the elites” care about prorogation. These are fighting words.
The opposition parties, to their credit, have come forward with ideas to limit the power of future prime ministers to prorogue by first requiring a vote in Parliament. These ideas are worth adopting.
But we must go further in addressing our democratic deficit. Over the decades, long before Harper’s time in office, Parliament has lost clout as our political system has become presidentialized, with power concentrated in the hands of the prime minister. Reversing that trend won’t be easy. Electoral reform, the panacea favoured by some, would result in an even more fractured Parliament, with likely more power in the hands of the executive.
Canadians clearly want to see changes in their democratic institutions. This is an opportunity for the opposition parties to give them more sweeping ideas for reform than mere limits on prorogation.
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