A couple of weeks ago, the good folks at
Samara Canada posted a three-part blog series that examined the concept of a
“Digital House of Commons” that would allow ordinary Canadians the opportunity
to participate in the creation of legislation.
contests in their ridings for schoolchildren to design private member's bills on
their behalf, with the winning piece introduced in the House (where
it would never see the light of day on the order paper, but that’s another
story). Part two was about expanding that notion to create a fourth institution
of Parliament – a “Digital House” where people could use online tools to post
and vote on ideas for legislation, which would then make its way into the
actual Parliament by special process. Part three was about justifying this
notion as somehow enhancing our democracy.
The problem with proposals like such a
“Digital House” – and even with the contests run by those NDP MPs – is that
they’re gimmicks that don't do anything to enhance the democratic
process, fundamentally because they don’t understand the process, and because
they don’t understand the process, they seek to circumvent it.
Part of the problem with the base
assumption – that running contests to design private member's bills enhances
engagement – is that it conflates the role of an MP. The role of backbench MPs is to hold
the government to account by means of the public purse. They are not American
congressmen whose role it is to make laws. Governments govern, and legislatures
keep them in check in a Westminster system. The ability to draft and debate
private members’ business is designed to enhance the role of accountability –
not to govern.
Trying to open this process of drafting
bills to the general public further conflates the roles and further diminishes
the role of accountability. It also gives way to populist sentiment with zero
conception of the role of responsible government. No matter that you’d have to
be limiting these “special process” bills to those that don’t cost the treasury
(lest you need a royal recommendation), it remains problematic within the
context of existing Parliamentary establishments. Not only does it further take
away part of an MP’s job, but it also takes away from an already crowded
parliamentary calendar. There are so many sitting hours in so many sitting days,
and one hour of every day is already devoted to private members’ business.
Adding in a new “special process” takes away more time from debate.
The bigger problem, however, is that it
ignores the existing process for policy development – political parties at the
riding level. If you have a policy area that you’re passionate about, you join
the party that is most responsive to it. You propose your policy, you build
support and help it move to policy conventions, where you again build support
and get it made into party policy. It’s a system that does work. An old
roommate of mine, who works on aboriginal issues, went from proposing policy at
the riding level to seeing it become government policy within two years. Our system
does work if you use it properly.
Established process is important. “It is
what makes our electoral democracy work, our parliamentary democracy work, our
system of governance work,” said retired senator Lowell Murray in his recent interview with CBC’s The Current. “You
must respect due process, and you must start at the constituency level by
political parties reclaiming the prerogatives and powers that are theirs if
they want to exercise them.”
Does a participatory structure sound
appealing? Sure. But is it realistic? Not unless you woke up in the utopian Star Trek future. Perhaps instead of
finding new gimmicky ways to use the magic of the internet to circumvent the
process, people could spend that time they’d spend debating it online and join
a party to discuss it in person? And maybe get their party to develop online
tools to help the policy discussion there as they build support across the
country for their ideas? You’d get the digital “connection” that people seem to
think politics needs, while still respecting process.