In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Representative Democracy

Posted 3/10/2010 by Senator Grant Mitchell


During the prorogation, I had the opportunity to spend some time with junior high and high school students in schools in and around Edmonton.

At one school, a very successful Christian high school, the subject of constituency representation came up. The young man who raised it is clearly intelligent and very interested in politics. In response to something I said, he reacted with absolute surprise and said something like “You mean that a MP should not have to always do what constituents tell him (or her) to do?” Well, in fact, that is what I meant.

His reaction directly raised the dilemma inherent in representative democracy. Representative democracy means that we elect people and then let them govern on our behalf.  Accountability becomes an important feature of this process since no one wants to elect someone and then let them proceed completely without some kind of restraint and guidance. So, various oversight boards can be established, like the Auditor General, to check up on what elected officials are doing. And, of course, in the Canadian case, Parliament provides checks and balances that manage what the government can do. And, frequent elections are the ultimate accountability mechanism.

The other end of the spectrum is governing by referendum where each person would get to vote on every decision. Another variation on this is expecting that elected representatives will do exactly what their constituents tell them to do.

I believe in representative democracy for these reasons:

a. One of the classic problems with direct democracy is figuring out exactly what every constituent wants is logistically very challenging.  Ridings have around 100,000 constituents; representatives simply cannot communicate with everyone. And, they will receive many different thoughts and priorities from those they do hear from. Would representatives be required to poll on each issue? What would constitute a majority? These are the logistical challenges that make this type of direct democracy unworkable.

b. Moreover, there is little room in direct democracy for a representative to take positions that they believe to be right because of detailed study. These positions may not be consistent with the perspectives of constituents, in part, because constituents have not had the time or resources to study the issue with the same depth.

c. Decisions could also be skewed to regions with the biggest populations. I remember driving with a farmer while touring his farm. He made the point that representatives should only vote for the interests of their constituents. I responded with a question about him not ever wanting another paved rural road. How could urban representatives vote for rural roads? Or, what would this approach mean for the influence of central Canada which has the preponderance of representatives in the House of Commons? How could they ever vote for Western interests? The consequence would likely be what happens in the US Congress where there is continual, ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,’ politics of negotiation.

d. Direct democracy can also erode accountability. In a referendum where each of us votes in a secret ballot on some initiative or other, no can be held accountable for their decision. So, if that decision proves to be a disaster, there is no one to fire for it in the next election. People demand accountability all the time and in fact one of the great drivers in institutional reform debate is the need for greater accountability. You don’t get that with direct democracy.      

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