In early 2013, The Globe and Mail, with thanks to Samara, ran a week-long series into how to make Parliament relevant again to Canadians.
We don't need politicians in charge. With technology, it's time to put citizens first
by John Ibbitson
Canadians feel disconnected from Parliament, according to an upcoming study from the democratic advocacy group Samara, and no wonder. The first week of the new sitting depressingly revealed that, despite promises of better behaviour, Question Period remains theatre so bad that it should have closed in Poughkeepsie.
Debates are scripted and sterile. MPs appear to be puppets who exist only to bob up and down during votes, with the party whip pulling the strings.
So what is to be done? Maybe nothing.
Rather than fret over how to make the House more relevant and the Senate relevant at all, it may be better to explore how new technologies can put citizens, rather than politicians, in charge.
Michael Ignatieff: Too much executive power is harming democracy
by John Ibbitson
When Parliament resumed, this week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent the first day tweeting about his cat.
But others were more concerned about the state of the Commons.
One of them is Michael Ignatieff. Since leaving public office after his defeat in the 2011 election, the former Liberal leader has been speaking and writing about parliamentary decline and its impact on democracy.
His thoughts coincide with a forthcoming study from the Toronto think tank Samara that reveals the deep gulf between what Canadians want from the House of Commons and what it is delivering.
Is it time to reinvent our main chamber of government? To kick off a week-long series exploring that question, The Globe’s John Ibbitson talked to Mr. Ignatieff about what is wrong with Parliament – and how we can fix it.
Liberal interim leader Bob Rae in the House of Commons on Jan. 30, 2013. Sean Kilpatrick
What MPs say
Do MPs talk about your priorities in Parliament? Turns out, they do
by Chris Hannay
Canadians don’t think Parliament represents them. In polls, a large portion of Canadians say they feel disconnected from what goes on in Ottawa.
But new research says that’s not true. With a few notable exceptions, Members of Parliament on the floor of the House of Commons do talk about the issues Canadians say they care about.
The results come from an analysis by Samara, a non-profit organization focused on civic engagement. In a report to be released Monday, Samara analyzed half a year’s worth of parliamentary transcripts and compared the topics discussed to a poll of issues Canadians said they cared about.
It follows on a survey by Samara last year that found only 55 per cent of Canadians said they were satisfied with the state of democracy in the country, a drop of about 20 points from the last decade.
A view of the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Jan. 13, 2011. Sean Kilpatrick
Wildrose or PQ Senators? Welcome to an elected red chamber
by Éric Grenier
Bill C-7 establishes a framework for an elected Senate, limiting the number of years a senator can serve to nine. But by having senators chosen from a list of nominees elected at the provincial level and representing more than a dozen parties with opposing regional interests, the workings of the Senate could be substantially transformed – and chaotic.
Bill C-7 does not change any of that. Instead, the bill stipulates that the Prime Minister “must consider” a list of nominees selected in provincial and territorial elections. These senators would then serve for nine years, at which point they would be replaced from a new list of nominees.
Most attention has been paid to the idea of term limits, but the stipulation that the nominees be elected at the provincial level has the potential to make the Senate a very different place.
Comedy Video: Help me, I can't stop voting!
The Globe and Mail asked Canadian comedians how to fix politics, as part of our Reinventing Parliament series. Rob Baker, Dale Boyer and Adam Cawley say we need to vote. Like, a lot.
Conservative MP James Bezan gestures during an interview in his Parliament Hill office Jan. 31, 2013 in Ottawa. Dave Chan
Conservative MPs break ranks more often than opposition
by Bill Curry and Stuart A. Thompson
After seven years in power, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has cemented a reputation as a one-man government, focused on control and stifling dissent.
Yet a review of MP voting records during the first Harper majority government tells another story: Conservative MPs are far more likely than opposition MPs to break ranks with their own party. And both the dissenting Conservative MPs and the government’s chief disciplinarian – Government Whip Gordon O’Connor – insist a free vote is a free vote and there are no consequences for breaking ranks.
“I guess in principle, we’re more democratic than the other parties, basically,” Mr. O’Connor said in an interview with the Globe and Mail. “I’m not going to get out there and toot our horn, but if you actually check in Parliament, we have the most freedom as backbenchers.”
For a full breakdown of MP voting records, see this interactive.
NDP MPs John Rafferty and Bruce Hyer vote in favour of Bill C-19, a bill to scrap the long-gun registry, on Feb. 15, 2012. Both men lost their positions as NDP critics and were barred from making members’ statements in the House. Sean Kilpatrick
'Behave and obey:' How party discipline hurts politics
by Kim Mackrael
When Bruce Hyer voted in favour of abolishing the long-gun registry last year, the Thunder Bay-Superior North MP knew there would be consequences.
Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel – now the party’s whip – had warned that he would be “punished” if he voted in favour of the contentious legislation, Mr. Hyer said. But he felt he had no other choice. “I repeatedly promised my constituents that I would vote to end [the registry], and I was going to do that, come hell or high water,” he said.
Voting records analyzed by The Globe and Mail show that a minority of MPs broke ranks with their parties since the last election. Many of the dissenters were Conservative MPs, while not a single member of the NDP caucus has voted against the party since February of last year. While open sanctions are relatively rare, MPs face a range of other pressures to side with their parties, raising questions about federal politicians’ ability to represent the constituents who sent them to Ottawa in the first place.
Comedy Video: Restaurants should not act like Parliament
The Globe and Mail asked Canadian comedians how to fix politics, as part of our Reinventing Parliament series. Edmonton's RapidFire Theatre says it's a good thing ordinary people don't act like Parliamentarians.
NDP MP Laurin Liu in Ottawa on Feb. 3, 2012. Dave Chan
How MPs can fix Parliament
by Laurin Liu, MP for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, Que.
The biggest challenge facing Parliament is restoring the confidence that Canadians have in their democratic system.
Canadians want a Parliament that is representative. I’ve been hearing at the doorstep and on university campuses that Canadians want a Parliament that better reflects the choices that voters make at the ballot box. Progressive Canadians also want to see a diversity of individuals in the House of Commons, including women, aboriginal Canadians, visible minorities and LGBTQ. In order to be representative, decision-makers also need to consult. Legislation needs to be based on more democratic engagement and consultations with Canadians from coast to coast to coast, rather than on the ideology of a single party.
There is no doubt that parliamentarians will also have to reflect on ways to counter the cynicism that is caused by, among other things, the current government’s lack of respect for ethical standards, which undermines the confidence of Canadians towards their elected representatives.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013. Sean Kilpatrick
How many groups does it take to craft a tweet in this government body? Eight
by Chris Hannay
If you or I send out a tweet – say, “this is a great article” or “what a sandwich!” – chances are we only give it a few seconds’ thought before hitting send.
For a typical tweet in one particular government department, a communications team will be involved. Plus a program director. Also linguistic services (it will probably need to be translated).
Oh, and the minister’s office. And a few others.
All in all, according to Oxford researcher Amanda Clarke, eight groups have a hand in crafting a tweet before it’s sent. (Ms. Clarke, in her research, looked at Human Resources and Skills Development Canada's strategy.)
The promise of social media was to usher in a new era of participatory democracy, with crowdsourced laws and more accessible politicians. Activists have embraced the tool to great effect, but the communications tool is less suited to top-down messaging, and in government it has run into an ingrained culture of bureaucracy.
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae talk with The Globe and Mail editorial board April 12, 2013. Moe Doiron
Reader Q&A with interim Liberal leader Bob Rae: How has social media changed politics?
"[Social media] gives me the chance to react quickly and personally to events, I handle the [BlackBerry] myself and this surprises and annoys some people but slowly I'm learning to go with the flow of the weirdness of the twittersphere."
Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, centre, with Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, left, and Prime Minister David Cameron after delivering his autumn budget in parliament on Dec. 5, 2012.
Is Canada's party discipline the strictest in the world? Experts say yes
by Gloria Galloway
It’s not just a partisan rant from those who are dissatisfied with the current state of politics. Experts say Canada’s government really is more controlling and less tolerant of dissent than most other democracies in the free world.
Almost all discourse in the Canadian Parliament is scripted by party staffers. Questions posed of the government rarely meet straight answers. Politicians vote as their party leaders dictate nearly 100 per cent of the time. Few private members’ initiatives get past first reading.
Do other countries do democracy better? The answer seems to be yes – if you subscribe to the belief that MPs should be free to speak their minds and to act as the voice of their constituents.
“There may be some exceptions in those African dictatorships that are part of the Commonwealth and so on,” says Leslie Seidle, a research director with the Institute for Research on Public Policy, “but in the advanced parliamentary democracies, there is nowhere that has heavier, tighter party discipline than the Canadian House of Commons. People are kicked out of their party temporarily for what are really very minor matters.”
Comedy Video: Meet the Peace Tower. He's making politics un-boring!
The Globe and Mail asked Canadian comedians how to fix politics, as part of our Reinventing Parliament series. Aaron Hagey-MacKay, as the Peace Tower mascot, says you just need to get out there. Learning is fun!
Redesigning Parliament? How about redesigning parliamentarians?
by Preston Manning, former Opposition Leader
For many years I have advocated “redesigning Parliament” in a variety of ways – elect the Senate, do away with the “confidence convention,” permit freer voting, strengthen the role of back benchers and committees, do away with ineffectual “take note” debates, restructure question period, and so on.
Since leaving Parliament, however, I’ve changed my approach somewhat to focus more on “redesigning parliamentarians.” By this I mean strengthening the values, knowledge, skills, ethical foundations, and inspirational and leadership capacities of those who want to sit in our elected assemblies. Doing so would not only improve the performance of those institutions but should also make them more amenable to structural and process changes.
For the last eight years I’ve pursued this objective through the Manning Centre for Building Democracy and the creation of our School of Practical Politics headquartered in Calgary. Because of my background and political persuasion, this effort is primarily directed toward aspiring politicians who subscribe to conservative values and principles.
Read his Q&A with readers
It's a very simple answer, and long overdue. No one is well represented unless the particular flavour of politics in power happens to be yours. Even progressive conservatives aren't represented; only far-right reformers are under Harper. If we need to merge parties for a hope of "winning," something is wrong. We need to catch up to much of the rest of the world and get proportional representation.
Amanda Bolton, Fredericton
We asked readers for their ideas on how to improve Parliament. From breaking up omnibus bills to an elected Senate to attitude, they told us what they wanted to fix.
MPs, want to be relevant again? Be courageous?
by John Ibbitson
For the past week, The Globe has been examining how Canadians could reinvent Parliament to make it more respectful and more responsive. One message has come through above all: MPs must have courage.
In story after story, politicians past and present, progressives and conservatives, academics and layfolk said the same thing in many different ways: Prime Ministers and party leaders have stripped so much autonomy from MPs that they have become irrelevant, and Parliament with them.
Voting records analyzed by The Globe show that only a few Members of Parliament have broken ranks with their parties since the last election, on a handful of issues. Fear of reprisals – they will never make cabinet; they will lose their critic’s portfolio; the leader will not sign their nomination papers in the next election – keeps them in line. Whatever these MPs promised their constituents as candidates, the only promise they keep is to obey the party whip.