In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Democratic Reform

Posted 3/16/2010 by Senator Grant Mitchell

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Senator James Cowan, Leader of the Official Opposition in the Senate, and Marlene Jennings, an MP in the Liberal Caucus, recently organized a roundtable on democratic reform and citizen engagement in the political process. Clearly, there is much concern with decreasing voter turnout and Senator Cowan and Ms. Jennings responded by gathering a number of experts to discuss it.

The central question for participants in the context of citizen participation was: what is the single most significant problem with our democratic institutions. I think that the answer to that lies in the inability of our institutions to foster reasoned debate on complex, difficult and pressing problems. Raise a difficult issue and you are often shut down by catch phrases or sound bites.

Take a different view of crime legislation and you are slammed with “soft on crime”. Talk about fixing climate change and you are labelled as advocating tax increases. Climate deniers can take a miniscule portion of the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change, discredit it falsely and in doing so taint in peoples’ minds the entire body of evidence. I have said that we do not need more technology to reduce GHG emissions; we need new technologies to convince people of the significance of the problem.

Most likely, the solution to this is a conscious effort on the part of participants in the great public debates to resist the temptation to use these techniques in attacking the other side.

There is a sense in the democratic reform debate that “better” rules will encourage greater citizen participation (voting). I doubt that this is really the case. There has already been a great deal of democratic reform to our institutions, like for instance free votes on private members’ bills, the election of the speaker, etc. There is no evidence of that these reforms enhance the public’s perception of Parliament.

As important as democratic reform is, I believe that part of the real reason that people are “turned-off” politics and voting may is that for so many years we have heard nothing but criticism of government and politicians. Never do we hear that government has a role to play in making our lives better and in building our country. Perhaps if the unrelenting criticism of government, often driven by ideology, was balanced with some talk of the value of government, Canadians would be more positively predisposed to participate and vote.  

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