The illusion of participatory democracy

Posted on October 3, 2016 in Governance Delivery System – Full Comment
October 3, 2016.   SPENCER MCKAY

A summer of seemingly endless town-hall meetings on various issues is now being capped off by the recent launch of an online consultation process on national security, cross-country hearings of the electoral reform committee, and Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef’s community dialogue tour. Canadians are being given lots of opportunities to share their thoughts with the government, but it remains to be seen if the Liberals are actually listening.

It’s not clear how the thousands of comments made by citizens across the country are supposed to condensed, summarized and incorporated into the policy-making process. Without clear criteria for how to bring the findings of these meetings together, how should citizens assess whether the process is working? The major problem with the government’s strategy is that none of these processes seem designed to actually facilitate decision-making.

Reports from electoral reform town halls note that crowds are often in favour of a new electoral system. This is unsurprising because those who want change are organized and have an incentive to attend, while those who do not care about the issue are likely to remain unengaged. The results coming from the current processes are probably not representative samples of the population.

One well-documented problem is that town halls often fail to include the marginalized voices that are regularly mentioned in the government’s rhetoric. The failure to provide translation to Inuktitut during the minister’s visit to Nunavut was a well-noted failure in this regard, but overall, older, wealthier and more educated people are more likely to engage in policy debates. A recent Ipsos poll found that despite the flurry of meetings held over the summer, only 19 per cent of Canadians know that electoral reform consultations are taking place.

It’s also not clear that the conversations being had at these events are thoughtful or informed. Consider, for instance, a town hall meeting that took place in Toronto on Aug. 16. The meeting was hosted by six local MPs and was supposed to discuss “climate change, innovation, defence and veterans affairs” within the span of 90 minutes. Trying to cram that many topics into such a short period of time does not allow participants the time needed to go in-depth on any of the issues, or to foster critical dialogue.

The single-issue electoral reform meetings are not much better. Many MPs simply do not know enough about the options for electoral reform and have enlisted academics and activists to fill the gaps, while others are left to rely on a toolkit that was widely panned upon release.

At best, the government’s zest for listening to constituents appears aimless or incompetent. While they promise participatory government, it looks more like an opportunity for the government to validate the thoughts and opinions of voters, while proceeding as it would have anyway.

Such a tactic relies on the conversational nature of the in-person meetings and the open-text answer spaces of the online consultations, which allows the government to select statements that support its position, while ignoring others. If participants feel that this has happened — if they don’t see their opinions reflected in the final decision — this might simply reinforce their distrust of elected officials.

The government’s willingness to listen is refreshing to many on the heels of a Conservative government that preferred to go it alone on major changes. When they work well, consultation processes can build trust and legitimacy for policies, but the opposite result might come about if the Liberals don’t clarify how they plan to translate what they’re hearing into what they’re going to do.

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One Response to “The illusion of participatory democracy”

  1. May Dubeau says:

    It is nice that some people are given the opportunity to feel heard, but I see it as a tactic to appease people who are privileged and educated enough to be able to attend any town meeting or online forum. It is not participatory democracy if all voices do not have an equal chance to be heard. Also, while voting elections are widely publicized, these online forums and town hall meetings are not as well known by the general public.

    Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet cannot make everyone happy but as elected officials they are expected to perform their duties with competency and impartiality, the same as any other person getting paid to do a job. I would not expect my mechanic to ask me how I might change the oil in my car, and I would be concerned if they wanted to hold online forums and unproductive town hall meetings to figure out how to do it.


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