Peter MacLeod is the principal of the public engagement firm MASS LBP. Richard Johnson is a MASS associate and writer. They are the authors of the forthcoming book, Democracy’s Second Act: Creating The Publics We Need For The Society We Want.
A federal election is upon us. On Sept. 20, many Canadians will deliver their judgment on the government’s handling of the pandemic, the economy, a global climate crisis and much else besides. And like every election since 1920, Elections Canada will be ready.
For 12 hours on Election Day, a small army of temporary workers will open 20,000 polling centres, verify the eligibility of voters and accept upward of 20 million ballots. It’s a massive, $500-million operation covering six time zones that would awe the most hardened military commander.
Elections Canada is among our country’s most trusted public institutions – and deservedly so. The trouble is, Elections Canada is no longer up to the job – or rather, after 100 years, it’s time for its job to change.
Canadian democracy is being challenged on multiple fronts. As the public-relations giant Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer tells us, changes in our media landscape, especially the advent of social media, have led to an alarming rise in misinformation and distrust, and a corresponding decline in confidence in public institutions, including representative democracy.
Populist sensibilities are spreading, and nativist groups are aggressively making inroads in Canada. Fuelling this discord are state-sponsored campaigns from China and Russia that aim to undermine our democratic commitments and destabilize our social contract. Strikingly, the pandemic has further exposed massive gaps in our capacity to mobilize and communicate with the public to overcome a national crisis.
To meet these crises and overcome the challenge posed to our democracy, we need agencies like Elections Canada to evolve with a mandate suited to today’s environment. As political scientists Roland Paris and Jennifer Welsh recently argued, a significant investment in the promotion of democracy both abroad and at home is itself a growing matter of national security.
Active democratic citizenship should not be a quadrennial exercise. It should be a national imperative with dedicated daily attention, a robust budget, and an official mandate.
This is why the next government should turn Elections Canada into a new independent agency, Democratic Services Canada, with an expanded mandate to engage and inform Canadians in between elections too. By working regularly for Canadians – and not just during elections – Democratic Services Canada would be responsible for promoting engagement with the country’s public institutions and empowering Canadians as never before.
At its most basic level, Democratic Services Canada would be given the task of arresting and reversing trends around voter turnout. But key to its mandate would be tackling one of the most vexing questions facing free societies: namely, how to ensure that residents are informed, engaged and empowered.
In this respect, the opportunities are vast. Democratic Services Canada could establish a “civic challenges” platform to quickly mobilize tens of thousands of Canadians to respond to crises like the pandemic or an influx of refugees.
It could issue “service ballots” to democratize more than 2,000 federal public appointments or support the work of constituency offices as better sites for public learning and engagement on legislation and current affairs. It could overhaul the jury summons system to be more equitable and citizen-centred. It could make cultural, service and exchange programs available to every young Canadian.
By following innovations from abroad, Democratic Services Canada could learn from Taiwan, where that country’s first “digital minister” and former Sunflower movement activist is demonstrating how online technologies can resolve issues seen as intractable by legislators by using open platforms to generate consensus. Or it could copy Belgium, where randomly selected citizens have begun serving on parliamentary committees alongside elected MPs, allowing individuals to contribute non-partisan perspectives and shape legislation.
In France and many other countries, including Canada, citizens’ assemblies, juries and panels have pushed for and secured important reforms, including on climate change and gender equity. Like Denmark, the Canadian government could launch a national secure e-mail system that not only vastly streamlines government communication, but is regularly used to solicit feedback and provide factual information.
Elections Canada has been a remarkable force for a remarkable period of time. What Canadian democracy needs for the next hundred years is not only a trusted steward of the electoral process, but an active agent of democratic services and innovation – one which fundamentally prioritizes the role of citizens in our democracy in a sustained and systematic way.
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