Part of Reinventing Parliament, a series examining how to make Parliament relevant again. With thanks to www.samaracanada.com
A year spent on Parliament Hill brings with it two conflicting realizations. One is that our Parliament is a fine political institution with a rich history and a solid logic. But the other is that the democratic machinery at a citizen’s disposal is profoundly inadequate, falling short of the democratic ideal in crucial respects.
Although politicians endeavour to generate the impression that they are capable of effectively representing the thoughts and opinions of roughly 105,000 constituents, this appearance is often cultivated at the expense of other aspects of their parliamentary work. Instead of debating with their fellow Parliamentarians in the House, well-intentioned MPs become preoccupied with toeing the party line in front of cameras. Meanwhile, partisan parliamentary staff spend their days repackaging talking points into newsletters and emails to make their MP appear ‘in touch’ with the constituency, instead of helping their Member understand and analyze legislation before the House.
There is a high-tech resolution to this parliamentary contradiction: Instead of radically reforming the Parliament that we do have, we could add a fourth institution to Parliament — what one might call a “Digital House.”
Complementing the House, Senate and Crown that currently compose our Parliament, this fourth institution would essentially be a website where citizens could access educational and participatory tools. Primary amongst these tools would be an online environment that allows users to post and vote on ideas for legislation.
Just as private members in Ottawa bring forward legislative ideas that are then drafted by House of Commons staff, this website would allow Canadians to put forward proposals for laws in plain language. These proposals could then be voted upon by all who have access to the site—that is, almost all Canadians. The site would use a modified “Digg” model, where users would curate their own content, giving proposals a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
The proposals that reached a certain threshold of support would move forward and the originator of the idea would work with a legislative clerk to draft it into a bill. And here’s the crucial bit: when thresholds are met and drafting is complete, that bill would be introduced into the House of Commons, facing a
modified legislative process. It would be debated and modified in the House, in committees and, if it survived, in the Senate.Unlike the ubiquitous petitions that so rarely receive fair consideration, bills from the Digital House would be procedurally integrated into the business of Parliament. Because the Digital House would be a non-geographical space, it would allow for legitimacy in a proposal that could not be generated locally. An idea from one region could spread across the country and attract the attention it deserves.
Political scientist David Barney has pointed out that “signalling individual preferences through voting for particular candidates or parties is a minimalist form of democratic expression. The hope for new technologies is precisely that they might facilitate progress beyond this minimum by mediating more deliberative, dialogic forms of participation on an ongoing basis”. What I am suggesting with the idea of Digital House is precisely that we move past the minimalist form of democratic expression while also maintaining the strengths of the representative system we have. Participatory democracy is crucially not a replacement for our professional politicians and legislature but an augmentation and extension of them that could also help our representatives refocus on the business of the House of Commons.
Our Parliament is a system that can indeed develop and does so each day. If it appears to be static or ossified, this might be on account of our nearsightedness, our inability to detect historical development on a larger scale. We too quickly forget that each component of Parliament arose independently in a British context, with the ancestor of our own Senate appearing as a check on the power of the King, and the House of Commons subsequently arising as a democratic elaboration of the other two.
Parliament and its constitutional conventions are being formed right now, whether we see it happening or not. Perhaps though, by catching a glimpse of the bigger picture, we will be able to follow the great parliamentary trend towards democratization. And perhaps a Digital House is the next step in that trend.
Mark Dance took part in the federal Parliamentary Internship Programme in 2010-2011, working for Liberal MP Justin Trudeau and Conservative MP James Bezan. He is currently completing an MSc at the University of Edinburgh.