In a six-week series of interviews, Canadians with a variety of experiences discuss the major challenges our country is facing and how best to address them. This instalment deals with renewing our democratic institutions.
Michael Chong, member of Parliament for Wellington-Halton Hills, was interviewed on Sept. 26 by Adam Kahane, chairman, North America, of Reos Partners.
Kahane: What keeps you up at night?
Chong: Canada is now an outlier amongst Westminster parliamentary democracies because of several changes in the way we do things. First, caucuses no longer have a direct say in the election or removal of party leaders. Second, party leaders now have unbelievable power to decide on party candidates. Third, caucuses are no longer decision-making bodies and their decisions don't bind the caucus leadership. As a result, party leaders, in particular the party leader in power, the Prime Minister, have almost unchecked power. This is a serious, serious challenge to the strength of our democracy.
In the short run, command-and-control models of governance can produce huge gains, but in the long run, they fall flat. Without checks and balances, at some point a bad leader comes along and undoes all of the gains made, and then some. Democracies are frustrating in the short run, because the lack of concentrated power makes for less efficient decision making, but in the long run they get it right. If you look at the past 180 years, all evidence points to the fact that people in an educated, civilized and enlightened society will make the right decisions.
Kahane: If things turn out badly over the next 20 years, what would have happened?
Chong: Polling data shows that Canadians are losing faith in their democratic institutions. Voter turnout has declined precipitously in the past 20 years. In the last federal election, four out of 10 Canadians chose not to vote. That's one of the lowest rates amongst Western democracies. If, in the next 20 years, we fail to renew our democratic institutions, engage Canadians in a meaningful way and make these institutions more relevant to them, it's not inconceivable that voter turnout could decline to 50 per cent or even 40 per cent. If that happens, these institutions will lack the legitimacy to act in a decisive way. We'd be looking at a system with even greater executive power and a legislative branch that is no longer central in our public life.
If parliamentary reform fails, that increases the risk that we won't be able to deal successfully with a range of issues. For example, as our economy has become more urban and more service-based, we face significant challenges in our large city regions, including Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Halifax. Look what has happened with Pittsburgh and Detroit. Both were manufacturing and industrial powerhouses throughout the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Both became Rust Belt cities with the decline of manufacturing and certain industrial sectors in North America. Today, Pittsburgh is a symbol of success; Detroit is not. Pittsburgh had good democratic governance that was able to respond to the decline of the steel industry and reinvent the city. The problem with Detroit wasn't that the auto industry declined; it was that its democratic leaders and institutions failed to respond to that challenge.
Possible Canadas is a project created by Reos Partners, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation and a diverse coalition of philanthropic and community organizations. For longer versions of these interviews, or to join the conversation, visit possiblecanadas.ca