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Real Democracy

Society should be as participatory as possible. Right now, Canada has what I consider to be the bare bones of democracy and nothing more. Every four or five years, we elect representatives to sit in Parliament and pass laws that supposedly reflect our best interests. But if these representatives mishandle the business of governing the country, we have the opportunity to vote them out of office; so the power is really in the hands of the people, right?

Well, not really.

To start, Canada has one of the worst electoral systems in existence. It’s called “First Past the Post,” and it works like this. The country is divided into small regions called ridings. (Kind of like a county in other countries.) Each riding sends one representative to sit in Parliament, and the people of that riding elect their representative from one of their own.

The system is simple: whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. If that sounds perfectly logical to you, that’s probably because you haven’t seen this video.

I live in a riding with a heavy conservative bias, and as you’ve probably deduced, I’m not conservative at all. For the past fifteen years, the same Conservative Party candidate has won every election in my riding, often with a landslide majority of over sixty percent. Even if the Liberals win the most seats nationwide – and therefore become the ruling party – the seat for my riding is going to a Conservative.

Based on geography alone, I have no real input on the workings of my government. And this is true all across Canada; citizens who did not vote for the winning candidate in their riding are effectively excluded from the democratic process.

In the last election, the Conservative Party of Canada won fifty-three percent of the seats in Parliament with only thirty-nine percent of the popular vote. The vast majority of Canadians wanted representatives that did not support such a hard right-wing agenda. The vast majority of Canadians were made voiceless simply by the logistics of the system. Remove the arbitrary lines that divide the country into ridings and you end up with a Conservative minority government with strong left-leaning opposition. Those lines are arbitrary, and political parties are not above redrawing them to swing an election in their favour.

A small improvement would be switching to a model that allows seats in Parliament to more closely reflect the voting patterns of the population, such as Mixed Member Proportional Voting. A better solution would be to do away with career politicians altogether. One citizen from each riding is “drafted” into public service in much the same way that people were once drafted into the military. She serves one term and only one term. Once her term expires, she can never be drafted again. Under this model, bills would be written by a commission of experts. So if you want a bill on science education, you assemble a commissions of biologists, chemists and physicists along with teachers and school administrators. They propose legislation to a Parliament of common citizens who then vote on it with the option to amend any piece of the bill.

The best option, however, would be to give citizens direct input on the legislative process. The people propose a bill which is then sent to the legislative assembly. One of the best arguments in favour of leaving government in the hands of elected representatives was the simple logistical nightmare of getting feedback from people spread out across a geographic region as large as Canada. Consider what it would have taken to let every citizen vote on a piece of legislation in the days of Sir. John A. McDonald. First, you’d have to mail a copy of the bill to each citizen, which would require hundreds of clerks to write out thousands of copies by hand. Then you’d have to wait for citizens to mail a response in their own good time. Given the technological constraints, that kind of citizen participation simply wasn’t possible.

In the Digital Age, however, crowd-sourcing legislation is quite feasible. Finland is already doing it.

Again, there are levels of improvement. A major improvement would be to allow the public to vote directly on legislation written by Parliament. An even bigger improvement would be to get the public involved in the process of actually writing the legislation. That is what Finland is doing.

There are people who have some very strong views on what they call “direct democracy;” most of them feel that too much citizen participation in the legislative process will result in a situation where the vast majority of people will inflict their agenda on dissenting minorities in a kind of “mob rule” scenario. I think that if you actually look at the political landscape today, you’ll see that the opposite is true. What we have today, in my opinion, is a situation where a small minority of people – we call them the 1% – influences public policy in their favour, promoting their interests at the expense of the interests of the vast majority.

I have only one response to this.

There is a huge, huge difference between crowd-sourcing the legislative process within the boundaries of a constitution – in other words, setting limits on the kinds of laws that people can pass – and deciding every conceivable issue by popular vote. What’s more, it’s not as though representative democracies have never passed laws that persecute minorities.


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