Opinion
December 19, 2012

Teetering on a tipping point

2012 has been a very tumultuous year in the world of Canadian governance. For those readers who have short memories or have developed an aversion to documenting the controversies about our government institutions, here is a partial list of the developments over this past year:

  • Accusations of voter suppression and fraud in the May 2, 2011 federal general election;
  • The use of prorogation in the Ontario legislature to allow the government to select a new leader before meeting the legislature;
  • The use of an omnibus budget bill to legislate in a wide range of policy areas that are not related to the measures announced in the federal spring budget;
  • Persistent complaints of explicit efforts by the federal government to discourage the use of research and science in policymaking;
  • Increased use of government communications to obscure the government’s intentions with regard to policy objectives; and
  • Continuing use of time allocation in Parliament  to stifle debate and to make compromise almost impossible.

The accusations being leveled at current governments are not very different than those that were once hurled at earlier governments, although federally the tone has become more strident in recent months. The difference this time is that the voices for reform are getting louder.

Traditionally, most Canadians are disinterested in the workings of government and quite happy to have our legislators do their work in splendid isolation. However, recent publicity around government corruption and mismanagement in Quebec centred on the Charbonneau Commission inquiry into the construction industry, and similarly in Ontario during investigations into the eHealth program and the Ornge air ambulance service, is again grabbing the headlines like it did almost a decade ago with the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities.  

It also appears that a stagnant economy in parts of the industrial heartland of the country and diminished job opportunities are creating an environment of uncertainty, leading to lower trust in government and its institutions. Added to the mix is the changing role of the media that, in the view of Alan Gregg, in a recent speech at Carleton University, are seen to be more sensationalist and trivial than ever. Moreover, easy access to the Internet is encouraging instantaneous reporting from a wide variety of sources, much of which disregards important journalistic traditions.

To round out the landscape is the way in which parliamentarians perceive their own role as representatives of the public interest. Samara, a Toronto-based organization whose mission is to improve civic and political engagement, has recently published a series of studies about the role of Parliament by interviewing former MPs and asking them to reflect back on their time as parliamentarians. While most report having found the work important for their constituents, they also feel the way politics is currently practiced is not viewed as particularly constructive or engaging.  

At the heart of these laments is the claim that one of our most important political institutions, Parliament, has been marginalized to the point that the Westminster model that underpins our whole system no longer works. Over time, the steady and incremental disregard of our parliamentary conventions has diminished Parliament’s ability to hold governments to account and to oversee government expenditures.

As the debate simmers in Canada, the Internet has already redefined the relationship between governments and citizens and has developed many ways for consultation and participation. As a consequence, the answer to the governance challenges might also be found in the various forms of social media that are replacing traditional media as the organizing force around debates for ideas and social change.          

At this point in the evolving discourse, there appear to be two reform routes. The first is to move from operating a system based on conventions to one that has explicit and defined roles and responsibilities for the key institutional players. The second route is to rebuild the Westminster system based on our longstanding conventions and modernize the broken parts around the principles of the supremacy of Parliament, ministerial accountability and the legitimacy of opposing the government’s agenda.

Based on the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo, it will not be long before the public demands quick and substantial change to our governance system. Since dramatic change often results in overcorrection and missed opportunities, it is in everyone’s best interest for parliamentarians to use the new emerging forms of engagement to fashion a revitalized form of governance that will bring honour back to Parliament.  

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management and is the director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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