Preston Manning is a former member of Parliament and served as leader of the Opposition.
Democracy is a system in which governmental authority is vested in the people and exercised by them, directly or indirectly, through representatives periodically selected via free elections. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Democracy’s principal physical embodiment is a chamber in which the elected representatives of the people meet to deliberate and pass laws – in present-day Canada, these chambers take the form of the federal House of Commons, the legislative assemblies of the provinces and territories and the municipal council chambers of local governments.
The health of a democracy is measured by the quality of representation in these elected assemblies, the level of debate that takes place within them and the quality of the laws they pass. By these measures, particularly as applied to the House of Commons, Canadian democracy is seriously ill.
Under the current government, Parliament meets less frequently than ever before. When it does, it mainly ratifies decisions already made by the executive branch. Question Period is a joke, in terms of providing insight into government policies or holding the executive accountable for its actions. Much of parliamentary debate is not debate at all, but sequential soliloquies and responses thereto, delivered from texts written largely by partisan backroom personnel and having little or no effect on the issues or bills being debated. Committee work is hampered by the governing party’s control of agendas and procedures, which often prevent the effective cross-examination of officials and expert witnesses. Sadly, but understandably, an increasing number of Canadians consider the elected House of Commons to be dysfunctional and increasingly irrelevant.
So what can be done to address declining interest and faith in Canada’s elected assemblies – especially the House of Commons? One suggestion well worth considering is to provide Canadians a visible and tangible demonstration of what a truly effective elected assembly could accomplish if it were organized differently. What we require is a non-partisan group of small-d democrats to finance, build and operate a Democracy House. It would be a model 21st-century parliamentary chamber that would demonstrate what the House of Commons could look like if it were fundamentally reformed. Such a model chamber would be designed to hold between 100 and 150 “representatives,” periodically selected mainly via social media, who would debate and propose enlightened legislative responses to current issues.
What might some of the distinguishing features of this Democracy House be?
First, the chamber would be circular rather than rectangular, with members of different persuasions seated beside each other rather than across from each other – as they are in the current, confrontationally structured chamber.
The seating arrangements would be determined by the Speaker, regardless of the majority or minority status of the groups involved, so as to discourage polarization and encourage the cross-pollination of positions and ideas.
The desks occupied by members in the current House of Commons would be replaced by benches, as in the British House of Commons, so that the focus of members in attendance must be primarily paid to listening, thinking and speaking – not on doing “desk work,” as is the case now in Canada’s House of Commons.
A ceiling-mounted, multi-screen media set-up would permit virtual presentations to be made and received by the entire House.
Controversial but relevant questions – which the current government-controlled House of Commons scrupulously avoids, on everything from the COVID-19 crisis to balancing environmental protection and economic growth and addressing ethical issues – would be freely introduced and debated in televised proceedings.
Free votes would be the rule, not the exception, as is currently the case in the House of Commons.
The Mace, which was originally designed to beat opponents over the head but is currently used to symbolize the authority of the Speaker and the right of the Commons to make laws, would be replaced by something more symbolic of the peaceful reconciliation of conflicting interests by democratic means.
Committee rooms adjoining the chamber would be governed by rules and procedures designed to facilitate open and honest deliberations and thorough cross-examination of witnesses, rather than to protect governments from scrutiny or as stages for opposition grandstanding.
For 10 years, a proposal to construct and operate such a Democracy House has been under consideration by the University of British Columbia, but no action has been forthcoming.
Surely, there must be enough small-d democrats in this country who are sufficiently disillusioned with the performance of our democratic assemblies that they might set aside partisan differences and champion the creation of a Democracy House as described. If ever there was a need and a time for such a project, it is now.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.