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Democracy in the 21st Century & Beyond

Tue, September 26, 2006   |   Author: Ron Gray   |   Volume 13    Issue 40 | Share: Gab | Facebook | Twitter   

Sometimes, what seem to be random coincidences highlight important underlying principles.

On my return from speaking to a Senate Committee in Ottawa, I watched both the ABC movie Path to 9/11 and the CBC-TV special The Secret History of 9/11, and I also read a fascinating newspaper interview with a Norwegian rabbi who is a member of the Cabinet in the Israeli Knesset.

The common theme in all four was how bureaucratic self-interest can prevent governments from doing what's right.

The Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs had invited representatives of the extra-parliamentary parties—(there are 15 registered federal political parties in Canada, but only four have seats in Parliament)—to comment on changes to the Elections Act imposed by Bill C-2 (popularly called 'the Accountability Act').

Note that the Commons committee—representing the four parties already in the House, the very politicians who are trying to pull up the drawbridge behind them—did not invite the smaller parties to comment on the Bill. That's consistent with a history of backward-looking amendments to the Elections Act, all working to preserve the hegemony of the big parties and shut out new voices.

That's one of the drawbacks of the Westminster System: it gives those already on the inside immense influence and control over re-election, and so becomes oligarchic. Even Proportional Representation—which would end the disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of voters—doesn't cure the disease of self-interested power.

And that aspect of government—the barrier self-interested bureaucracy imposes against doing what's right—must be examined in considering parliamentary reform.

The fact that the Senate was much more broad-minded than the House of Commons shows that there is inherent value in an upper chamber, and those who would abolish it are wrong. It also points up the error of those who would make it just another elected chamber: who needs more partisan politicians in the mix of government? Of course, the system of appointment by the Prime Minister is also wrong, for that also results in partisanship. Instead, the provinces should be able to choose their own senators—by election or by appointment, as each province chooses. Then the Red Chamber would truly become a regional balance to “rep by pop”.

But perhaps, as well, we need some kind of insulation between the Cabinet and the departments individual ministers direct. Too often—as Rabbi Michael Melchior (chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, head of the Knesset caucuses for Arab-Israeli cooperation and the environment, head of the left-wing religious Meimad party and chief rabbi of Norway) pointed out in his interview with the Jerusalem Post - concern for departmental budgets over-rides what's best for the nation as a whole. If the present Deputy Ministers could become full Department Heads, and the whole Cabinet had collective responsibility for policy direction (and budget allocation)—but no individual ministerial link to budget size and department power—a much more coordinated view of overall policy would result.

Instead of tinkering with government accountability piecemeal, perhaps it's time for a long-term survey of overall government structure: proportional representation, senate reform, election financing, cabinet structure and accountability—the whole works.

Maybe, in fact, it's time for a wholesale re-evaluation of how democracy and the legislative process can serve the people of Canada—rather than political parties—in the 21st century and beyond.

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