Journalist James Travers observed that it has taken 500 years for the people (demos) to wrestle power from the king and only 50 years to get the power back in one man’s office. Scholars of parliament have long lamented the erosion of Canada’s democratic institutions.
The last two parliaments have witnessed a precipitous decline in the ability of parliament to hold government to account. The government has chosen to prorogue parliament rather than face a motion of confidence or uncomfortable committee hearings on Afghan detainees. Even the British government has cited Canada as an example of what not to do in a minority government. They denounced the present government’s refusal to compromise and their use of confidence motions to threaten an election.
The continued disengagement of its citizens from the political process should be worrying to all Canadians. Voter turnout has hit an all-time low. Cynicism is killing our democracy. We need to be able to show that government can and must play an important role in improving the lives of its citizens. We need every Canadian to understand that the role of all parliamentarians — regardless of party affiliation — is to hold the prime minister and the cabinet to account. We need meaningful mechanisms for citizens to be heard. We need Canadians to believe that engaging in our democratic processes means that they can shape public policies not only at election time but also between elections.
The challenges presented by the democratic deficit need the attention and input of all Canadians. What does representation in parliament mean in the 21st century? How can parliament do a better job in holding the government to account? How can government be more open and transparent? How does government obtain the best possible information with which to make decisions?
Our goal must be to find real solutions, for the real challenges, by real people. We have to begin by creating mechanisms that effectively address the disconnect between citizens, their representatives and the decisions that get taken on their behalf. Technology can help. But we urgently need your advice. We must chart a course that will make Canada a nation that’s stronger, fairer and more vibrant as a democracy.
On Sunday, Jan. 16 at Christ Church Deer Park (1570 Yonge St.) Ursula Franklin and Matthew Mendelson, founding director of the Mowat Center at the University of Toronto, will be the special guests at our roundtable on democratic renewal. We will hear from them and then divide into three break-outs :
1. Representation and Holding Government to Account
2. Openness and Transparency
3. Best Possible Information with which to Make Decisions
We will then report back to the large group and post our suggestions online with the reports from across the country. We need to decide what things we could change immediately in order to build back the faith Canadians should have in their democracy.
Modernizing the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives is essential to maintaining our representative democracy.
Parliament grew out of the need to protect citizens from the arbitrary use of power by the state, to provide rules for the conduct of life in a democracy. Five centuries ago the state was a relatively minor player in the life of the average citizen, today it is the most important, yet the ability of parliament to hold government to account has never been weaker. Please join us to make sure that your observations and ideas can be part of the solutions. Let’s make 2011 the year we fight back for our democracy.
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