Our country is living through unprecedented changes. As we steady ourselves to confront a variety of challenges – the climate emergency, global pandemics, workplace automation, artificial intelligence, inequality, and racism – we need to make sure that we are equipped with the best tools. This requires ensuring that the foundations of our democracy are as healthy as possible.
If we imagine our democracy as a house, we need to recognise that it is in need of serious renovation. The foundation of our democracy dates from the 19th century and, as such, requires updating. The building blocks of our Canadian democracy are no longer fit for purpose in terms of the ways we should be governed, how we should elect our leaders, and how crucial policy decisions should be made.
Signs of Democratic Deficit
The signs of the problem are everywhere: outdated and outmoded election systems, weak campaign finance rules, chronic distrust, “paper” candidates, overly partisan political parties, lack of government accountability and transparency, a basic lack of civic education, decreased public engagement, overreliance on political action committees, and more. Together, these produce a democratic deficit in which institutional practices are no longer aligned with the founding principles.
These are some of the most frequently observed concerns:
Disengagement - During the 2019 federal election, one-third of eligible voters failed to vote: a clear a sign that a great many Canadians regard Parliament as irrelevant to their lives. They feel that their voices are not being heard; that their efforts to influence government policy are ignored or inconsequential; and that the decisions of their elected representatives reflect neither their values nor their concerns.
Low Youth Engagement - Young Canadians are especially uninspired to vote. Despite recent improvements, turnout among youth aged 18-24 is about 10% lower than general voter turnout. Among other things, researchers point out that young Canadians do not have enough information to incentivise them to vote and face structural barriers, such as moving jurisdictions, lacking a fixed address, and limited outreach from political parties.
Lack of Representation - Our representative democracy is anything but. In the last 50 years, of the thousands of people that have been elected to City Halls, Provincial or Territorial Legislatures and the House of Commons, only about two handfuls of elected officials have had the support of a majority of eligible voters.
Lack of Diversity - There are still significant disparities in political participation among visible minority and immigrant groups. While the proportion of Members of Parliament emanating from racialised groups increased in the 2019 federal election, it remains well below the proportion in the general population. Parties often field diverse slates of candidates without fielding those candidates in winnable ridings.
So what can we do to overcome our democratic deficit? Well, since the problem is structural, so must be the solution.
An Action Plan for Democratic Renewal
STEP 1: Convene a National Citizens’ Assembly
We believe that a National Citizens’ Assembly should be convened by Parliament and tasked with recommending how to reduce our democratic deficit. The Assembly would be a diverse and randomly selected body of citizens brought together with a mandate to deliberate on matters of democratic renewal in Canada and provide a set of recommendations to our Parliament.
The Assembly would consider four inter-related issues:
- Proportional Representation
- Lowering the Voting Age to 16
- Online Voting
- Mandatory Voting
Each issue would be considered separately and in an order set out by Parliament.
The process would be facilitated by an independent and non-partisan organisation. In order to enhance the Assembly’s deliberations, the organisation would bring in experts from a wide range of disciplines, as well as individuals and groups directly affected by the issue in question. A public service secretariat would also be created.
STEP 2: Parliament Considers the Recommendations of the Citizen’s Assembly
Upon receipt of the Assembly’s recommendations and report on each of the four issues, the House of Commons would refer them for consideration to a Committee composed of members of the House and the Senate. The Committee would in turn bring its own conclusions and recommendations to the Houses for debate.
STEP 3: Adoption or Referendum
When the debates conclude in the House of Commons and the Senate, the government would provide Parliament with a response to the recommendations of the National Citizens’ Assembly on the issue under consideration. If the government proposes to accept the recommendations of the Assembly, it would be required to set out the timeline for introducing the necessary legislation with minimal delay. If instead, the government proposes to reject the recommendations, it would need to set out a short timeline for the holding of a referendum on the recommendations.
Democratic Renewal is in reach
In proposing the idea of National Citizens’ Assembly on Democratic Renewal, we act on the evidence. Properly constituted, Citizens’ Assemblies are broadly viewed as equitable, free from political interference, and acting in the public interest. Their composition can be more reflective of Canada’s diversity than Parliament; their procedures can be more deliberative and consensus-driven; and they can make recommendations on sensitive foundational questions that elected officials seldom take on and that can bring value to Parliament as a whole. Acting in this way, Citizens’ Assemblies can help renew the trust and confidence of Canadians in government.
There is strong evidence that our democratic house needs structural renovation. The National Citizens’ Assembly we are proposing offers a viable, positive and practical step in that direction.