A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
Contact us at democracyunderfire@gmail.com

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Is anybody Listening

Recently Jennifer over at Runesmith asked the question If a democracy falls in the summer, does anybody hear it? Which got me to thinking how many days exactly have we been without the opposition having the opportunity to challenge the government? How many days have the MSM also taken the opportunity to exit the Ottawa halls and not report on the daily shenanigans by our government? How many day have our parliamentarians actually been on the job in parliament over the last few years? Not just the current one but previous ones also.

Fortunately the Parliament of Canada web site has all the answers and of late they are not encouraging, even given that our MPs are, at least in part, “working in the riding” it is a pretty sad reflection upon our democratic system when in some cases only 30% of the time (on average!) is actually spent “on the business of government”. Be assured that nothing comes to a stop when out MPs are not in the House, the executive branch of government carries on as usual, our bureaucrats and civil servants carry on as usual, it is just that no one is checking up on them. No one other that the executive branch of government that is!

So anyway here are the numbers, make what you like of them, but this is NOT spin but FACT right from the Parliament of Canada web site which is a very good resource of factual information on anything to do with our governance.

The 39th and 40th sessions of parliament under the Conservative Party of Canada started on 03/04/06 (elected 23/01/06) and if we assume they will be in power until parliament is recalled in the fall will have been in power for (about) 1240 days, actual days the House of commons has sat is given as 384 days or about 30% of the time!

For comparison and fairness the two preceding sessions, the 37th and 38th parliament under the Liberal Party of Canada started on 29/01/01 (elected 27/11/2000) and lasted approximately 1760 days and sat for 1277 days or about 73% of the time!

NOTE – See update below!

The difference between the time the government was in power and the number of days sitting includes one election period for the Cons and two for the Libs (they are still in power during the election period), summer recess and other “holidays” and periods when parliament was prorogued. Even although I try hard to be non partisan as much as possible on these pages I am struck by the remarkable difference between these two governments. As a defender of democracy I have to ask the question “is our democracy well served by a parliament that is only in session 30% of the time” (actually considerably less in 2008)? Who is defending our democracy when the executive branch of government is running the country for extended periods of time without any restraints?

The raw figures may be seen here, do your own calculations, perhaps I have made a mistake, I truly hope so, but this is not encouraging!!

UPDATE – Impolitical has pointed out that I am indeed in error on these numbers sitting days for the 37th & 38th sessions is 568 days NOT 1277 (was that wishful thinking?) days thus giving the Liberal Government a similar dismal showing as to the number of days actually accountable and available to our representatives of other partys. The point still stands we are being run by the executive branch of government with little or no oversight for nearly 70% of the time. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Parliamentary committees.

Recently our PM and the opposition leader have “agreed” to form a committee to study changes to the EI system in Canada in order to save us from a vote of confidence and an election. So as I understand it they have simply agreed to (at least on this issue) operate under normal parliamentary procedures, would that they go back to such established methods for other issues also! For the record there is already a private member’s bill, C-280 containing at least some proposed changes to EI at the committee stage having recently passed 2nd reading in the House.

This committee stage is quite normal for a bill, as is the forming of committees for the investigation of special issues both within the HoC and the Senate. The question then becomes why it is such a big deal with both sides trumpeting on about how they are “consulting” and will make “recommendations” in the fall. This is simply a normal parliamentary process, or at least was until recent times.

There are a couple of things we should be aware of about parliamentary committees both
Standing committees and Other committees, they can only recommend to the government upon changes to the bill before them or possible new legislation on any particular issue. They have no power to effect change but must try and come to consensus between the Partys represented and hope that the majority of parliamentarians agree with them when the issue is put before the House. Unfortunately it has become the norm for various Partys to instruct their committee members to obstruct the process of finding consensus when they disagree with the direction the discussions are taking. This is clearly unproductive, an abuse of the committee system and in my view bordering on undemocratic. One wonders how the EI committee will fair in that regard and also how democratic it can be considered if it does not have representatives of all Partys in the House participate.

The committee process in the HoC (and the Senate) should be where bills and proposed legislation is fine tuned, unintended consequences examined and poorly or incorrectly worded bills corrected. In many cases this is exactly what happens, however there seems to be an increasing effort by SOME parliamentarians to force their view through the process without true consultation or compromise, this makes a mockery of the democratic process. We elect a variety of representatives from across the country to govern us, unfortunately there are far to many who think that we elect a PM and his Party to run the Country as they see fit until the next election. That is not Democracy that is an Oligarchy!

It is important to also note that “Much of Canada’s parliamentary system, however, is also governed by unwritten constitutional conventions and customs. These are rules and practices regarding the operation of the Parliament, which have been developed incrementally over time, and have never been formally codified in writing. This does not mean they are any less binding – only that they are based upon historical practice instead of explicitly written principles.” Therein lays the problem for much of our recent problems, the “debate” as to who is right and who is wrong when it comes to procedures and traditions. A good overview, from which the above was extracted can be found here.

For more about Parliamentary committees see the Index to the practical Guide to committees on the Parliament of Canada web site. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Electoral Reform, only part of the answer?

Much has been written on the several failed efforts to change the electoral system in Canada, or more correctly in some of its Provinces, it is unclear whether the failure for it to “take” was due to lack of information, lack of desire for change, or simply apathy amongst the voters involved. I will not rehash here what has been said elsewhere about these issues but suggest that we examine why some citizens feel the need to pursue this issue despite the many setbacks and roadblocks.

Perhaps the main incentive is, at least in the view of many citizens myself included, is that the present system is not working on several levels. Under the present winner takes all regime it would seem that on average 60% or more of those that voted are dissatisfied with the result and anywhere from 40% to 50% of those who could vote are so pissed of or uninterested in the result that they don’t even bother. That alone sends up a red flag for democracy for as long time MP David Kilgore said “Democracy demands vigilance, and a willingness to pose difficult questions and to take risks. I do not mean by that only taking to the streets to complain about what is wrong, but also advocating constructive alternatives.” It also demands that we participate!
For me personally, whilst the results might not go my way, I am much more concerned with the accountability of those we elect to those that elect them, the ever decreasing lack of personal integrity when it comes to the taxpayer verses the Party, the ever increasing power of the Party to dictate the “candidates” every move and utterance both before and after election and the seeming inability of the common citizen to do anything about it. It is this feeling of helplessness to affect change that I am convinced is responsible for much of the “why bother to vote” syndrome that we are seeing. I understand that feeling but cannot subscribe to that particular solution, it simply gives those “Political Partys” who’s main focus (in my view) is power for themselves, a free ride. The alternatives are hard choices, none of them particularly good, but better I would submit to you than anarchy!

I suggest to you that the only way to get change “democratically” is to use the voting box to elect INDIVIDUALS who are NOT beholden to a party machine, who are NOT prepared to do and say whatever their leader dictates but who whist they may subscribe to the general party platform of their supporters is in fact a person with his own views and not afraid to voice them. A rare individual indeed in these days of cut throat politics but one that we must both find and encourage if we are to wrest power away from the “Political Party” and put it back in the hands of the citizen. They are out there, there are (or were) a few actually elected, however such strong minded individuals do not do well in the party system that pervades everything that happens in our legislative assembly’s across the country. Do give them you support when you have one representing you, and seek out such candidates for next time if you do not. It matters not which party they represent, they are all power hungry to the determent of our country (some in my view worse than others, but none are innocent.), get some honest individuals who think for themselves not follow like sheep, representing us and perhaps, just perhaps, we have a chance of remaining a democracy to be admired across the world.

Having said all that it should be clear that electoral reform may help us with that a little, perhaps by making more folks feel included and their vote “meaningful”. Perhaps by making the individual a little more important in the election and the party he is associated with a little less. Perhaps by having a more representative mix of MPs or MPPs elected. Perhaps by seeing smaller party’s represented in the legislature and perhaps by this new mix FORCING our representatives to adopt a cooperative stance rater than the current combative one.

It is this last point that I want to dwell upon a little, for it is, in my opinion probably the most important one. All the electoral reform in the world, everybody getting out and voting, more partys represented in the mix, even a better quality of representative will not make one iota of difference if the current “if he said it, it must be wrong, If I say it, it must be right” confrontational, non co-operational, my job is to prove the other guys wrong attitude, remains unchanged. We need a quantum change in attitude from both our representatives and the partys that they purport to represent (damit, they are supposed to be representing us!) before we can wrest what is left of our democratic processes out of the hand of the politicians and their corporate lobbyists and back into the hands of our citizens where it belongs

A note here, our politicians of all partys CAN cooperate when they wish, they recently agreed unanimously upon a change to the way funds transferred from political partys to MPs was reported / handled. It might have even been democratic(if questionable) had they not decided to hold such meetings in secret, pressure the ethics commissioner to not talk about it, and not to bring it before the House to be voted upon. Naturally it was to their advantage to do so, it wouldn’t do for the public to actually know what was going on would it. Not only must changes be made democratically but they must be SEEN to have been made democratically. Our democracy in action, sometimes I too despair! Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Whither Democracy in Canada?

I found this piece by former long time MP David Kilgour some time ago and have previously posted it elsewhere but it is well worth repeating. It echoes my views as to the “party” system as it exists today. Despite being several years old it is perhaps even more relevant today. That Mr Kilgour served in both the Conservative and Liberal partys as well as an independent give even more weight to his contention that “Canadian democracy itself would benefit if we put our present mind-numbing party discipline where it belongs - in the history books.”

The following are but a few excerpts in which I have shamelessly picked out the bits which cut to the chase. I will have a little more to say about the Electorial reform and Party influence in my next post. Meanwhile this man has lived it and his views should be required reading for democracy supporters.

From Notes for Talk by Hon. David Kilgour, MP
16 March 2005
A representative democracy is supposed to function as a means for the nationals of a country to voice their opinions and concerns. MP’s, MLA’s etc are elected by constituents to represent their interests. They can only maintain legitimacy by acting in accordance with the wishes of their electorate most, if not all of the time.

In our current electoral system, the ability of an elected official in government to represent constituents is seriously impaired by the high degree of party discipline prevalent in the Canadian system since about 1900. Some degree of party discipline is necessary in order to maintain the coherence of political parties as viable institutions; this should not preclude an elected person’s ability to represent their constituents.

Currently, the role of the member as a representative is seriously compromised by the fact that the real political power lies with the Prime Minister of the day. The Prime Minister has the power to dismiss a member of his caucus at any time; to make all cabinet appointments, all appointments to the senate, to the Supreme Court; all ambassadors to name but a few. The combination of the Prime Minister’s explicit power to discipline through censure or expulsion; and the implicit power to discipline through denial of cabinet appointments, or other appointments creates an environment in which it is severely disadvantageous for caucus members to deviate from any agenda set by the Prime Minister……………………………….

The threat of being expelled creates a major dilemma for the MP or MLA whose greatest desire is to be faithful in their service to their electorate.

An expelled MP is forced to sit as an independent and is virtually excommunicated from the political process. He/she must try and conduct their work with severely diminished resources and an extremely limited procedural ability to ask a question or raise an issue in the House of Commons, which diminishes their ability to serve their constituents. Such members have little means of influencing government policy to the benefit of their constituents in any way because they can no longer count of the support of their former party. While true that any non-cabinet member has the right to put forward a private member’s bill, this ability is of little practical value………………………

It is very difficult for an MP to vote against any piece of government legislation that the governing party has designated as a matter of confidence even though one’s constituents are not in favour of it. One is faced with a choice in which their ability to serve as representative is undermined regardless of what choices they made. If one toes the party line on a piece of legislation their constituents have deemed undesirable, you lose the faith and trust of their electors and are seen as a political figure that lacks legitimacy. If one obeys the wishes of their constituents, one’s ability to serve them becomes severely constrained as a result of being dismissed from their political party………………………….

Another important consequence of the current system is that it often effectively closes the door to any sort of cooperative efforts in the policy-making realm among parties. Where parties dominate the process as they do now, there is no real forum for substantive policy dialogue to take place among members of different parties when one has a majority……………………………
(Or it would seem when one has a minority! Rural)

If we are to continue to have a vibrant democracy in Canada it is clear that the relaxation of party discipline and the facilitation of greater opportunities for free votes will go a long way toward increasing the degree of engagement that Canadian citizens now have with the political process.

Canadians will feel that our elected representatives have a greater degree of accountability toward them as opposed to their party if a member is empowered by having the ability to vote in ways that accord with the wishes of their constituents on a regular basis. This will be an important step in reversing voter apathy. Increased accountability of MP’s to constituents will increase the degree of engagement Canadians have with the political process; it will encourage them to get more involved not only at election times but in between as well…………………….

If party discipline is relaxed, representation for all areas of Canada would be improved. It would be easier for, say, Western MPs to defy their party establishments, if need be, in support of Western issues. Coalitions composed of members of all parties could exist for the purpose of working together on issues of common regional or other concern. The present adversarial attitudes and structures of Parliament or legislatures in which opposition parties oppose virtually anything a government proposes might change in the direction of all parties working together for the national good.

At present, few government and opposition MPs have any real opportunity to put constituents first in votes in the House of Commons. Real power is concentrated in the hands of the three party leaderships. Canadian democracy itself would benefit if we put our present mind-numbing party discipline where it belongs - in the history books.

David Kilgour was one of the two longest-serving MPs in the House of Commons for the 38th Parliament. First elected in 1979 in the riding of Edmonton Strathcona, he was re-elected seven times. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Access to Information

I have previously posted an article by Mark, here once again he has hit upon an important part of our democratic process and so I am pleased to repeat his post in its entirety below…..

Access to Information is our right. So why is so much shrounded in secrecy and inaccessible?

Sshhh. It’s secret.

But maybe, just maybe, it shouldn’t be.

Having been a observer of international and Canadian politics, working for the Green Party of Canada on it’s highest-level strategic arm, campaigning in elections, and as a student and writer, the most important tool in my life has been information. While you may come from a different background, you will likely be able say information has played a significant role in your life. Indeed, many say we live in the Age of Information.

So why, when it is so critical to our professional lives and public lives, is it that so much information is kept from us? How is it that a society that prides itself on transparency and democracy has based some of its most important decisions on secrecy? Worse yet, how is it possible that individuals and organizations – from political leaders, to the parties they lead, to the government institutions that spend our tax money - champion transparency and democracy then act with such smug levels of hypocrisy when they don’t apply those same standards to themselves?

We face a massive problem with both secrecy and access to information. These may not be catchy topics, certainly not one that alone will get front pages of our media (which is sort of part of the problem), but I now believe it is one of the most fundamental challenges we face.
So now here’s the beef. In 1983, Canada enshrined the Access to Information Act. We were a moral beacon sitting on a high moral perch just where we like to be, believing that if a citizen wanted information on an issue in Canada, they had to right to receive it.

Yet twenty years later, the results aren’t as rosy as we might like to suspect. Earlier this year Information Commissioner Robert Marleau released a report on the access to information act, noting that “twenty-five years along we are no longer as relevant. It’s not entirely by design, it’s more by neglect.” One problem is that unless you are a Canadian citizen there are various additional requirements (read barriers) you must meet before making an application for access to information. Yet at the same time, Canada has signed international statutes and protocols guaranteeing all people rights and freedoms, not only citizens. As Marleau noted “The freedom to seek information of all kinds, regardless of frontier, should be available to all citizens of the planet.”The process by which people can receive information is also costly, bureaucratic and drawn out, or even worse, can lead to systematic denial. Take the recent example of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Relations. In February, David Akin reported that despite lawyers confirming that the department was in violation the Access to Information Act by applying special “preparation fees”, it has prevented the release of upwards of 160,000 pages of documents on “everything from the mission in Afghanistan to the NATO briefing materials Maxime Bernier left at his girlfriend’s, to new free trade deals.” And that’s just one department.

There’s more too. In NAFTA, despite the fact that the direct interests of citizens are at stake its tribunals deliberate privately, behind closed doors, with no public participation, and sometimes without public knowledge of the proceedings. The reason I was inspired to write this blog actually came from a conversation in which someone informed me that the ongoing negotiations between the government and the companies involved in the Sponsorship Scandal are all happening behind closed doors, despite this being all about the money and interests of Canadians.

So who is to defend our right to information and guarantee that information we ought to have the right to have is accessible, available and not shrouded in secrecy?

While they’d love to be the ones to champion it, it is not be political parties. I mean any of them, except maybe the Libertarians, but that’s just not going to happen. Why? Because the same shroud of secrecy and lack of transparency is only exacerbated on the partisan scale. Whether it is a means to survive in the brutal battlefield of partisan politics or it’s just a tradition of top-down control and ensuring subordination, from all of my experience and from reading the Canadian Democratic Audit series, Canadian political parties are far from being democratic themselves.

The selection of Ignatieff as Liberal Leader and Party Conventions in general are poor examples of democracy in action.
Consider the example of how Michael Ignatieff became leader of the Liberal Party – without so much as breaking a sweat trying to convince party members he was the one to lead. Or how about policy conventions of political parties which are so tightly controlled by the leadership as to appear fraudulent. It’s that, or the policies approved by members become “suggestions” or “proposals”. If you’ve worked with or in a political party, just think about a time when you asked “why is this they way it is” or “I’m not sure this is right” or “how is this the way it is”. It’s why whistle blowers are so few and far between.

Lack of transparency is also part of the rules of engagement in party politics. When someone wants to become a candidate for a political party and is selected to represent that party in a riding, they can be systematically denied. The reason is that the leader of the party must sign their nomination form – a rule stipulated by Elections Canada in order for the candidate to run. This frustrates candidates to no end and rightly so. For example, if the leader alone wants only a woman to represent a certain riding, there is no recourse, despite the fact that the individual was selected by his riding’s membership democratically. Want to know why you were rejected? Sorry, that’s confidential.

There is less real democracy in our system that we may believe and there hardly can be more when we are denied so much of information that would help us making informed decisions.

Parties, which are supposed to be the centrepiece of our democratic system, are rarely held to account for their own lack of transparency
Parties, which are supposed to be the centrepiece of our democratic system, are rarely held to account for their own lack of transparency and refusal to apply to themselves the standards they demand of everyone else. It’s something I will be writing about in greater detail because I think it is a fundamental flaw with our party system and a structural weakness in our democracy that isn’t scrutinized nearly enough.

So who are the leaders of information? Out of necessity, it’s you and me. Only we can come together to demand transparency and access. It’s a large part of why I write this blog and bring forth ideas, and why a common vein in what I publish is what I believe is underreported. It’s hopefully a large part of why you read this blog too.
For ourselves we must thus reject the apathy that the keepers of information expect of us. It’s not easy, and it may not be catchy, but it is our right and it is our responsibility.

Mark Kersten has a passion for Canadian politics and is interested in Canada’s place in the world and it’s foreign policy, constitutional law, and intergovernmental affairs. He is a former Compliance and Information Coordinator for the GPC where his job allowed him to see and play in the world of political strategy, messaging and campaigning.
Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Assets & Liabilities – March 09

A monthly look at actions that add or subtract from our Democracy.

Asset – The “green” bloggers at the new aggregator Canadian Green Bloggers who realize that democracy requires open discussion seeking consensus and compromise.

Liabilities – Those Conservative attack ads taking personal aim at the opposition leader and avoiding saying ANYTHING of any importance.

Asset – The increasing number of folk getting involved with workshops and seminars promoting change in government, more open communications, easier access to information and other desperately needed improvements.

Liabilities – All those union members who are using their “right” to strike to obtain wage and benefit increases far in excess of what is warranted in the current circumstances where so many are without employment. That so many are “public service” employees of one level or another, paid out of the public purse, is a sad reflection of this “right”.

A little short this month, too nice outside to be at the computer so feel free to add your own thoughts to the list. Support Democracy - Recommend this Post at Progressive Bloggers