A Parliament for the 21st Century

The Purpose of a Parliamentarian

Rick’s rant touches on an issue that in my mind is frequently problematic and that issue is do we really know what the actual role or purpose of our parliamentarians are? This becomes an issue on election day where voters ignore their local representative options because they are more interested in who might be leader of a potential government. Perhaps they think their MP is only worth a vote (predetermined by the leader and party whip) on any given issue and not much use beyond that. Perhaps they think an MP is good for local and personal issues dealt with through their constituency office like passport renewals, for example.

Essentially, few know what the actual job description is of a parliamentarian including the parliamentarians as laid out in an excellent report by the organization Samara. If there is so little understanding of what the position actually means, it’s unlikely any real expectations will be attached to it or the person holding the nondescript responsibilities of that office.

The Mandate of a Parliamentarian

It is equally unclear who the parliamentarian should represent in office. Should they toe the party line at all times since that is the banner they ran under and more often than not is the reason they were elected? Many voters select candidates based on what party they run for or even who their party leader is in place of supporting the individual themselves because of their individual qualities.

Should they represent the views of their constituents and consult them on an issue by issue basis since they represent the voters who elected them into office? The voters arguably send representatives to parliament who they believe will convey their concerns and interests to government.And even those who didn’t vote for the eventual winner expect that person to represent all the voters of their specified jurisdiction whether those voters voted for her/him or not.

Should they represent their own views, throwing the concerns of the party and the constituents aside in favour of their own beliefs and positions on the issues since the party selected them as their candidate and the voters voted for them as their representative? That both the party and the voters selected them with the understanding that they believe that parliamentarian will make good and appropriate decisions in the House of Commons.

All of these positions are valid and held by electors across the country, individually or in combination. So it remains unclear what a parliamentarian does, is expected to do, or who they are even expected to represent in parliament.

Parliamentarians: A Definition

I am of the opinion that a parliamentarian represents themselves first, their constituents second and their party (if they have one) third. Ultimately parliamentarians are selected by parties to run for office (unless they run as independents) and likely run under a party banner because they agree with the general principles of that party. This is why toeing the party line is not important for policy reasons because parliamentarians often do this by default since it is why they were attracted to their party in the first place.

Parliamentarians are selected by their constituents either because of their own personal views or the positions of their party (a party they ran for because of similar ideological positioning). While it is unlikely to agree with everything your parliamentarian supports, voters will select a parliamentarian who they feel best represents their own views (whether as an individual or because of the banner he/she runs under). The parliamentarian is responsible for surveying their constituents for concerns on various issues and to address those concerns but ultimately the individual has been elected to deal with those issues based on their own knowledge, experience and beliefs. The citizens, if not impressed by the course the parliamentarian takes, can elect someone else during the next election when the mandate they gave to the current parliamentarian is up.

The parliamentarian must act based on what they feel is the right course of action after consulting with their constituents because ultimately they were elected to make those decisions. They can be voted out for the decisions they make and while they must try to be inclusive and respectful of all the voices they represent, they are representatives in a representative democracy and must come to a decision they feel is the right course for their constituents and the country. Their constituents must be heard but ultimately we do not have a system of direct democracy and it is the responsibility of the parliamentarian to weigh the concerns of their constituents and then take the best course of action.

A Parliament for the 21st Century

A few years ago former parliamentarian made the suggestion that video-conferencing during caucus and committee meetings as well as votes cast from outside of parliament would help increase the participation of women in politics as geography was a major issue when considering to run. This is also the case for much of the country’s parliamentarians whose ridings are not a short drive from parliament.

In this time of technological advancement and increased used of such practices of video-conferencing in the corporate world, there is no reason for not adopting such technologies in parliament. It is not unreasonable to think that parliamentarians who are in their ridings more often might have a better relationship with their constituents.

There was a time in Canadian history where parliamentarians never spent more than six months out of the year in parliament. Not because they weren’t hard at work but because their work is not just within the walls of parliament but within the borders of their riding (cost and time were also key factors). Constituency work is largely done by staff with no input or effort from the parliamentarian themselves despite this being a key component of the job.

While our ability to travel great distances in shorter time periods has increased exponentially since parliament first opened, other technologies have gone even farther and there is no real reason to require the physical presence of parliamentarians in the House. Parliamentarians can easily get their parliamentary work done from their ridings, whereas their constituency work is much harder to deliver on from Ottawa while away from their large number of constituents. While some work likely must still be done at Parliament, parliamentarians do not need to be there as often as they are. Sound bites from Question Period are just not that important.

If our parliamentarians can’t hide out in Ottawa behind party messaging and stay in their ridings more often than not, perhaps they might be more accountable to their constituents. Perhaps then with the politicians out of parliament it can once again become a tool to teach children about our democracy, instead of learning inventive ways to insult others and get away with it.

The Value of an Open Democracy

A Call for Open Democracy

There is a push by average citizens of the world to create an internet environment that is open and accessible. This takes the form of creative commons licensing, open data initiatives and other important projects. A question that I return to repeatedly, knowing there is clearly an appetite for it in the general population, is how can we create a greater push for open democracy?

Political power in Canada is centralized in political parties, their structures, and their leaders. The most powerful are those who not only control their own party apparatus, but also the levers of government itself.

The Prime Minister of Canada is the person who commands the confidence of the House of Commons, or more specifically, the support of a majority of its 308 Members. Usually this person is the leader of the political party with the most sitting members, though there are times that this is not the case. Sometimes a plurality can be out muscled by a divided majority uniting in governance. Sometimes, even with a technical majority, leaders can be turfed because they don’t truly enjoy the support of the party they head. Mackenzie Bowell, our fifth Prime Minister, experienced such a reality. But these are exceptional circumstances.

So the Prime Minister is made so because he/she enjoys the support of the House but mostly because of the support he/she holds within his/her own party. The leader is elected to that position by the party membership.

1-2% of Canadians actually hold membership in political parties in the periods between elections when leaders are typically selected. This number does not climb much during elections. Those that make up that 1-2% are spread out across many different political parties, though most are found within 3-4 major parties of the 19 or so that officially run in elections.

That means at any given time, the Prime Minister has been selected to play that role by a miniscule amount of the overall population. Of course, the voters head to the polls knowing full well that if enough of their country persons agree with them, they may be handing power to a specific individual. In addition, our system makes it impossible to elect the leadership of the country on a mass scale by popular vote.

So what?

Open Nominations and Primaries

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about US-styled primaries to select the leadership of parties in Canada but if adopted here, it need not be carried out in an identical fashion. US presidential primaries still do not elect party leadership by popular vote overall but a system that more or less reflects the poorly constructed  electoral college. But one thing the system does ensure is that there are usually no coronations, candidates are meticulously (and sometimes unfairly) vetted, and every voter is allowed to participate.

The Liberal Party of Canada has been floating the adoption of leadership primaries and open nominations at the riding level that would invite every Canadian voter, member or not, to participate. Sitting candidates would not be protected from nomination challenges simply because they’d been elected before. For a party that many have (I would argue foolishly) written obituaries for, doing something completely different that also has the benefit of being truly democratic is a good direction to go in.

Many parties members are apprehensive about how this will impact the party. There are concerns of riding associations being taken over by those who haven’t shown commitment to the party. There are concerns that the leadership race will be tainted by partisans of other stripes voting for who they believe is the worst candidate in order to handicap their opposition in the next election. There are concerns that party members will lose control over the party, its agenda, and its soul.

Why Do We Participate in Our Democratic System?

To all of these concerns my answer is that there is something that matters more than political parties and that something is democracy. It is my hope that the reason why people get involved in party politics is because they see it as a vehicle to advance democracy for the betterment of society. But the more closed off those party systems are, the less participants they will have. Some prefer that reality. But it is one that is partially responsible for the drop in civic participation in this and other countries. Closed parties offer options which many see as not quite their own and that leave them with no alternatives. Party politics in Canada has become a system where participants go to be reassured of their own correctness, not to discuss whether or not their aims are truly the right way to proceed for society. Instead of joining political parties to advance democracy in this country, my fear is that many participate in our democracy to advance political parties.

We should be, above all, democrats. In politics we should place our highest interest in the health of our democracy and make real effort to engage as many as possible in the discussions whose fruits eventually impact us all. We cannot have an inclusive debate about who we want to be and what we want to stand for as Canadians if those discussions only ever happen behind closed party doors that require the adoption of a label as a fee for entrance.

Political parties by nature are formed and continued by like-minded people. Their purpose is to organize people with similar beliefs so that together they might take measurable action on shared goals based on those beliefs. There is nothing wrong with that. But there is something wrong when only those people have a say in the affairs of the nation.

The minute healthy democracy is at odds with the professed interests of a political party is the minute that party loses all defensible purpose and relevance. Any political party interested in taking that route should tread carefully around the 99% of Canadians who disagree. Parties should above all be organizations with a central purpose of putting the country and its people first. History has already shown what happens to society when it is controlled by those that chose to put their party before the people.

Opinion Cartoon from the Moscow Times

A Period of Reform for the Canadian Political System

Canadians are now governed by their first majority government since 2004. The period of minority governments we just faced as a nation, the fourth such minority age in our federal politics, was also the longest uninterrupted minority period in our history. It has been followed up with what will likely be a period of the governing party acting without restraint on its agenda and two opposition parties free to redefine themselves, both leaderless and facing new political roles and realities in Canada’s political system.

As both the NDP and Liberals redefine what they are about, and the Conservatives reinforce what they are about, there are several things I want to see the parties look seriously into during this period of potential reform to our political environment.

Some Suggested Reforms

Our Voting System and Administration

I have long advocated for the adoption of Approval Voting and think in the coming years this system must be looked at by broader society. Even if it is not adopted, I think it would be wise to form some sort of wing of Elections Canada to keep an open channel with voters about their options when it comes to electoral system design and also provide an education campaign about the subject. This campaign would not be only during referendums but throughout the year, every year. An informed electorate is a strong electorate.

Another option I think this country should seriously consider implementing is Compulsory Voting. Australia remains one of the few countries with high voter turnout that is also not in decline but holding steady against a wordwide trend in the opposite direction. As a responsibility of citizenship, I think it is only reasonable to demand this of the electorate because nothing is a better protector of our cherished rights than our cast ballots.

With compulsory voting comes a third issue that I think has long been ignored and that is the creation of an abstaining vote or none of the following ballot option. Voting is a requirement of citizenship but so is exercising that vote without compromising your own beliefs. I do believe that there are voters who cannot stomach any of the options presented to them and while they should still vote, they should be able to abstain from selecting a candidate if they wish. Traditionally, in high school multiple choice tests and elsewhere, the option of ‘none’ tends to be placed at the bottom. However, the phenomenon of  ‘donkey voting’ (where the voter simply selects the first name they see on the ballot) would lead to heightened support for the candidate listed first on the ballot without any sincerity behind that support. If the ‘none’ option is listed first, this problem is avoided.

Much talk has been made of internet voting but the technology is really not quite there yet to make the process as secure as it must be for something as important as a national election. One step we can take towards this reality in the meantime in online voter registration. It is shocking to me that Elections Canada does not already do this, considering how much easier it would make the entire electoral process for voters and administrators alike.

One final consideration is perhaps the most important of all and that is to lower the voting age to 16. We teach our youth very little about the electoral system and expect that on their 18th birthday or whichever one happens nearest to the first election after that they will suddenly be interested in voting and knowledgeable about all its components. This age is around the time most Canadian students take a course on civics, a subject that might be made more interesting if made immediately applicable. But more on this in a later point. The voting age could even reasonably be lowered to 14, the age youth can first become official members of some political parties and also around the time they enter high school and begin making major decisions about their futures. It would make sense to extend that decision-making responsibility beyond themselves to issues that will also effect their future world. In either voting age scenario, voting should not be limited by the age a teen is on the day of the election but instead at the end of the year in which the writ is dropped. Arbitrarily keeping a young voter away from the polls because their birthday came too late is unfair and not in the best interest of the country as a democracy in search of broader participation.

Education

A change in the voting age can be directly linked to what we teach youth in school about politics and their civic environment. I propose that civic education in high school require at least a full term course on the subject with an optional follow up course for those who are more civic-minded. This can and should be tied into greater focus on Canadian history with a full course each for pre- and post-1900’s periods. This period should emphasize not just French and English colonial history but also the history of the indigenous population in Canada as well as those first arriving in the multicultural waves of more recent history.

On top of this increase in curriculum on Canadian civics and the political and social environments it has created, the citizenship test required of newcomers to Canada should be passed by high school students. This should be done by the time of their graduation as a condition of receiving their diploma. This test can be administered in those civics classes as a teaching tool.

Political Communications

More needs to be done about the way political parties communicate with the electorate. Ten-percenters, tools originally intended to allow MPs to communicate with their constituents, have become a partisan advertising tool sent out beyond an MPs’ own riding to the tune of millions of taxpayer dollars a year. These ten-percenters should be scrapped.

In recent years we have seen how nasty political parties can get before an election is even called. Attacks are hurled through the media when parliament is supposed to be getting the work of the people done. It is my belief comparative ads are important to an election campaign but serve little purpose other than to defame outside of it. This is why I feel that pre-writ negative advertisements should be banned. They make it more difficult for parliament to function cooperatively and distract from the work that should be getting done. Instead of a functioning parliament, the public gets a circus and loses so much interest due to this constant barrage of negative politicking that many refuse to come out when the election finally arrives. The parties can survive without making such attacks, the Canadian public’s interest in voting might not if they remain.

Another idea I have long argued for, is the creation of a federal debate commission in order to regulate who may participate in discussions on the national stage. Arbitrary decisions made my broadcasters and backroom political staffers have no place in our democracy and the public deserves a clear answer on the requirements that need to be satisfied in order that they might hear from a specific candidate. This commission can have as large a role as required including scheduling of debates and the rules of participation amongst other things. The commission could even go so far as to require public debates between parliamentary leaders outside of the writ periods so that voters can hear regularly (even quarterly) from those who seek governing power from them about the issues that they are concerned with. The spectacle of Question Period need not be the only time we hear from our politicians.

Finally, there is one last form of political communication that comes from neither the politicians or the administrators and that is polling. It is my view that polling during the writ period is damaging to our system and the publication of results during the writ period should be banned. In the most recent Ontario election, there was a poll publication ban the last few days before Election Day yet none in the 28 or so days prior when voters could cast ballots at their returning offices or in advanced polls. This double standard should not exist and if polling influence is unwanted on election day, it should be kept out on all days voters can cast a ballot. I have never been a big fan of polling or the mob mentality it leads to but if it is to exist, it should not occur during the entire writ period.

Reforms to Political Parties

The political parties themselves could do a lot to make our system more open. First, I am a strong supporter of the open nomination process. While I don’t think we need to model such a system after the American example, it would do our democracy good to have more voices selecting who will be around to choose from during the election. Many parties fear being flooded with supporters from other parties who will then compromise the vote and select a candidate more to their liking. This can certainly happen but it might be better to trust democracy despite such concerns rather than stunting it through continued closed nominations.

What an open nomination process ultimately requires is that the party leader no longer have control over nominations. Our democracy is held back when a handful of political leaders are able to select  their personal preference in candidates or overrule locally and democratically selected candidates. Candidates for election should be chosen by the district itself. This is the only way to ensure constituents have a real say in who represents them.

Another reform that comes from the federal NDP is the process of freezing nominations until a sincere search for minority candidates is conducted. The biggest struggle women and other minorities face in getting elected is not the election itself but surviving the party nomination process. When women run for election in Canada, 17% of them win. When men run for election in Canada, 19% of them win. Yet the number of women elected to parliament has hovered around 20-25% for decades while the 75-80% remaining seats in parliament are filled by men. It is not rocket science to realize that it is easier to get elected if you’ve actually won the nomination. Studies have shown that women are less likely to see themselves as potential candidates for office than men do but that one of the reasons women do end up running is because someone else has suggested they are the right person for the job. If the search for candidates is spread wider and frozen until a real effort is made to find minority candidates, it is far more likely those candidates will appear and run. This in turn makes it more likely that they will win nominations and elections because they will have increased their numerical odds.

Going Forward

This is not a complete list, just some ideas I have long supported  or that have been circling around in my head recently. But each of them, at least in my opinion, would make a positive impact on the health of our democracy and should be seriously considered during this potential period of democratic and societal renewal.

New Zealand and the Electoral Options Discussion

Later this month New Zealand will go to the polls not just to decide on a government but also to determine whether or not an electoral system adopted 15 years ago should continue to be used in that nation’s elections. The government has done an amazing job on the referendum, putting out videos, fact sheets and a host of other materials to help explain the options the people of New Zealand are being presented with.

To find out more you can visit the website, Referendum NZ, or check out their very helpful YouTube channel here. The following are the videos on the five electoral system options being presented to the people of New Zealand this month.





Turnout Decline – Compulsory versus Proportional Representation

In nerdy corridors where people discuss things like electoral system design, it is almost accepted as fact that proportional representation would solve the problem of the decline in voter turnout faced by many countries in recent years. Immediately after yesterday’s provincial election where a historic number of Ontarians did not cast a ballot, I heard rumblings about how PR would change how things unfolded for the better. To me, this assumption feels much like ones made before Copernicus formulated heliocentric cosmology. There is no concrete evidence that proportional representation actually improves or even maintains turnout levels at the polls. I would argue that there is such evidence for making that claim about compulsory voting.

Disproportionate Assumptions

One assumption that must be addressed when discussing changing a country’s electoral system is that you cannot graft results in one country onto another. There is no way to know how a system will play out with a different electorate. Supporting evidence for a change in system design must come from within.

The second assumption that must be addressed is the idea that voters are a static entity both within their own country and around the world. Voters all over the world cannot be assumed to have the same level of interest in voting. Some countries have always had higher turnout levels than in other countries. Evaluating the attractiveness of an electoral system by comparing its voters to those in other countries under other systems is like comparing apples and oranges. For example, New Zealand’s turnout at its height in the 1940s topped out at 98% under First Past the Post (under PR they have not returned to that level).  Canada, using the same system, has never reached 80% or better turnout. It is a far better evaluation if done along historical lines within a specific jurisdiction to see the change in opinion (or not) of the worth of a system over time.

One additional separate issue is that real apathy that demands a change in the electoral system is not measured in voters who never showed up to the polls in their life but in those who once voted but now don’t care to. A system is more accurately said to be broken when those who once participated no longer see the value in continuing to do so. But that is an issue for another discussion.

A Case-Study Comparing Turnout Decline in Different Countries and Electoral Systems

Germany and to a lesser extent New Zealand have long been touted for high turnout levels because of their use of PR. Canada has been criticized by many within its own borders for voting down variants of PR and retaining First Past the Post (FPTP).  Australia does have some PR in its electoral system but has also has had compulsory voting for nearly a century. A comparison of turnout decline in these countries sheds light on which is more effective in getting voters to the polls.

In the last 15 years from 1996-2011, voter turnout has declined in each country by the following amount:

  • Australia 2.61% (PR, Compulsory)
  • Canada 5.59% (FPTP, Non-compulsory)
  • New Zealand 8.82% (PR, Non-Compulsory)
  • Germany 12.02% (PR, Non-Compulsory)

In the last 60 years from 1951-2011, voter turnout has declined in each country by the following amount:

  • Australia 0.57%
  • Canada 6.46%
  • Germany 15.21%
  • New Zealand 16.75%

Conclusions

What does this tell us? I think first and foremost it tells us that turnout decline is something most countries are facing in an increasingly globalized and distracted world. It also tells us that despite using FPTP, Canada’s decline in turnout is less sharp than Germany and New Zealand who both use PR which supposedly spikes interest in voting amongst the electorate. more interestingly, half of New Zealand’s decline in the last 60 years has come in the 15 year period since they adopted PR in 1996. It is hardly a ringing endorsement of PR that New Zealand’s turnout rate has declined by nearly 9% and at a faster rate than the FPTP sporting Canada.

But the best performer of all is Australia employing compulsory voting that has seen a decline in turnout of just half a percent over the last 60 years. In 2010, 93% of voters cast a ballot, the same number as 60 years before. this is the highest turnout level of each of the countries discussed above and the country with the lowest decline.

Obviously compulsory voting by definition results in high turnout however in Australia, clearly not all voters comply with this legislation or the turnout rate would be 100%. Most do comply and the penalty for not doing so is a measly $20 which is hardly enough of a financial setback for bringing disinterested voters to the polls. Yet the voters come.

A Lesson for Canada

The lesson for Canadians in all of this is instead of dogmatically pursuing the implementation of proportional representation based on assumptions without empirical evidence, it might be better to look at other systems that are available or do as Australia has done and force citizens to exercise their civic responsibilities that provide them with the rights they enjoy. Citizenship comes with rights but also responsibilities. In Canada we have entrenched the former into our legal system. Perhaps it’s time to legislate the second.

The Liberal Party Extraordinary Convention and the Future of Technology in Canadian Politics

With a continual decline in voter turnout in recent years (the last federal election notwithstanding but also not great cause for hope), reformers are turning increasingly to technology as a means to encourage civic participation.

By technology I do not mean using the internet to campaign through Facebook or Twitter. I mean using computerized voting machines instead of paper ballots in recent municipal elections and floating the idea of allowing online voting in elections.

Before such advances meet the public in large-scale national elections, they tend to first find their way through political parties who try to increase their own membership and membership retention by providing innovative ways for those members to give feedback and affect decisions within the party.

The Liberal Party proposed looking into an online option for voting in federal elections in their last election platform. They also unveiled that platform live on the internet, allowing Canadians to chat online as the process unfolded. Today, the party held a convention that allowed for phone-in voting, using a central location to coordinate the technology that allowed party members to vote within the comfort of their own homes (or wherever they decided to take the call from).

Liberal Extraordinary Convention

The convention, held over the phone, lasted just under 3 hours, had a complete agenda and several rounds of voting and debate on two measures to be adopted (along with sub-amendments provided by Liberal Party members).

While some experienced glitches in the beginning the event ran fairly smoothly. For a blow by blow account of it, you can view a live blog at New Liberal. After experiencing this different way of voting and participating within the party, I think it is a model that should continue to be adopted to lower costs for the average party member ($20 cost to participate in this case) and to include a wider variety of voices from the party all across the nation instead of hearing from only those whose presence is geographically possible.

The Future of Technology in Canadian Politics

I do think new methods are needed to bring out civic interest in current and future generations but I also believe that if and when internet voting, for example, is introduced it must have been rigorously tested so that it may be optimally implemented. The Liberal Party of Canada is taking a step in the right direction by modernizing itself. I have previously argued against the use of internet voting and feel that the reasons for my opposition are still valid. However, some time ago I changed my mind and my experience today as further supported that change of heart.

I still believe that the biggest barrier people face when it comes to voting is not getting to the polling station but their own disinterest in taking a few minutes to seriously weigh their options to make an informed decision. Voting online would not change this. Additionally, I still maintain that the security of the ballot is not protected in online voting because anyone can take a person’s pin (no personal identification beyond this is required) and use it themselves or even coerce someone while they are voting because there is no one to monitor the process. I also still believe that when it comes down to it, no matter what protective systems are put in place, nothing you do online is safe. Any information you submit online can be hacked and that is simply reality. And finally, I still believe that the lack of a paper trail after one has voted leaves the entire process open to fraud.

On the first issue, perhaps if the process itself is made easier by putting it online voters will feel that actually researching their options is less arduous because voting afterwards is so easy. The security of the ballot is also questionable in mail-in votes as well as in situations of newly-registered voters voting in their riding. ID is not required in the first case, one must only intercept the ballot. And in the second case, one must only produce identification and mail with an address within the riding with the corresponding name on it to register to vote in that riding. Mail with false addresses is easy enough to produce. As for coercion, some voters already allow this themselves by blindly adopting the position of a spouse or parent and it is not unheard of for politicians and parties to engage in negative campaigning that ultimately keeps those who don’t support them home out of sheer disgust.

Online voting certainly has its drawbacks but our system as it stands is not flawless. In the end I feel the increased use of technology in elections while not necessarily inherently a good idea is at least worth considering.

 

Public Funding of Political Parties in Canada

In 2003, the federal government amended the Canada Elections Act and the Income Tax Act in order to make sweeping changes to how political parties are financed in Canada. A full background of the changes made through Bill C-24 can be found here:

http://dsp-psd.tpsgc.gc.ca/Collection-R/LoPBdP/LS/372/372c24-e.htm

The main components of the Bill were as follows:

  • a ban (with minor exceptions) on political donations by corporations and unions;
  • a limitation on individual contributions;
  • the registration of constituency associations, with reporting requirements;
  • the extension of regulation to nomination and leadership campaigns; and
  • enhanced public financing of the political system, particularly at the level of political parties.

The logic behind the amendments

The reasoning behind making these changes was to “introduce strengthened legislation governing the financing of political parties and candidates, in order to enhance the fairness and transparency of the electoral system.” While it is often argued in moral discussions about political systems that money does not equal speech, the argument behind the amendments in Bill c-24 was that a lack of money can certainly inhibit the reach of political voices such as parties and candidates and by extension the voters who support them. Without evening the playing field in some way between the parties of Confederation and newer organizations, it is often argued less established parties will not have the same ability to interact with the voter and voters in turn will not be aware of all the choices they are actually being presented with.

Another argument in the concocting of this legislation was that the support granted to parties and therefore their political voice as parties should stem from voters and voters alone. And since financing allows political voices to spread far enough to be heard, it follows that political financing should come from voters and not organizations they may belong to (unions, companies, etc). Groups of voters should not be able to silence individuals with their pooled resources.

And while all voters deserve to be heard and have their arguments spread through the entities they choose to support financially, this spreading of ideas should not be determined by economic status. No voter should be able to buy themselves, through the political voice of the party which they support, more influence than any other voter. Therefore there should be individual limitations to political donations that ensure relative equality between support given by individual voters.

Finally, it was argued that if a per-vote subsidy was introduced, voting for smaller parties who do not win seats does not mean you are ‘throwing away your vote’ as funding is allocated to the party on a per-vote basis that will help the party compete more strongly in the next campaign. This argument of course is based on the idea that not voting for the winning candidate means a wasted vote but that is a discussion for elsewhere.

How it works in actuality

The Bill was introduced nearly a decade ago and in that time there has been three election campaigns with a fourth largely argued to be arriving this year. This has allowed some time for analysis and reflection on the measures that were introduced.

The per-vote subsidy, adjusted with inflation, awards approximately $2 per vote to each party provided they receive at least 2% of the total popular vote in a federal election.This means that in 2009, the federal parties received as follows:

  • Conservatives: $10.4 million
  • Liberals: $7.2 million
  • NDP: $5 million
  • Bloc Quebecois: $2.7 million
  • Green Party: $1.9 million

This funding is based on support levels achieved in the most recent election and is awarded annually based on those numbers. The funding is drawn from overall government coffers and without any direction from taxpayers as to where they wish their share of the funding to be directed. It cost the taxpayers around $27 million.

While the per-vote subsidy is the most talked about of the package, there are several other ways parties receive pay-outs from taxpayers. In addition to the subsidy, parties that receive the 2% threshold of voter support are also able to receive 50% of the funds they spent during the campaign back. After the last election, this generated $29 million for all the major parties combined in addition to the almost $27 million they received collectively from the per-vote subsidy. There is a spending cap for the parties, around $20 million per campaign, but if a party pushes to that ceiling, they are reimbursed handsomely with tax dollars. Broken down by party, the reimbursements for campaign expenditures looks like this:

  • Conservatives: $9.7 million
  • NDP:$8.4 million
  • Liberals: $7.3 million
  • Bloc Quebecois: $2.4 million
  • Green Party: $1.1 million

Parties also receive reimbursements for their constituency offices, getting back 60% of expenditures from an election campaign so long as they receive 10% of the vote in that riding. This money goes to the local candidate and office, not the party at large, and represents around another $27 million for all parties together.

The registration of constituency offices allows parties to receive funding from voters at that level and at a party-wide level. This means the individual donation limit of $1,100 applies to each level individually, allowing a voter to make a maximum donation of $2,200 to a political party when supporting to the maximum at each level. This can become an issue when financing between the local and national party organizations is murky as seen in the so-called ‘In and Out Scandal’.

Individuals who help fund political parties receive 3/4 of the funds they spent back from the government which Éric Grenier of threehundredeight.com notes is more than citizens receive back for donations to charity organizations. It works somewhat like Canadian Tire money where you’re reimbursed enough for your money through returned cash that you’re more likely to spend more of it in the first place. But though you receive most back, you ultimately pay through your taxes that help finance that hefty return. The price tag for donations to the major political parties by individuals in 2009 was around $20 million. At Canadian Tire it’s often called ‘funny money’ by customers and the nickname is easily applied to this arrangement.

Grenier estimates with all these taxpayer subsidies combined, Canadians provide funding to the major parties to the following amounts (I’ve added vote totals):

  • Conservatives: $42.2 million/5,209,069 total votes
  • Liberals: $28.1 million/3,633,185 total votes
  • NDP: $19.8 million/2,515,288 total votes
  • Bloc Quebecois: $8.2 million/1,379,991 total votes
  • Green Party: $4.3 million/937,613 total votes

So what?

The system is not completely flawed, but it is incredibly expensive. Parties are given 50% of the money they spend during an election right back so long as 2%  or 278 582 voters vote for them. More voters vote for the mayor of Toronto than is required to award federal political parties $10 million should they feel the need to spend to the cap, whether they can afford it or not on their own.

While I have more sympathy for the constituency level payout, because of the higher 10% requirement, because the hard work of elections are done at the local level, and because ultimately our local politicians are the ones accountable to us as voters, they are also given a lot of cash for simply existing. In so called riding fiefdoms where the outcome is known before the writ is dropped, this is basically free money.

The per-vote subsidy and the reimbursement of individual donors is at least directed by the wishes of voters and I support that. These funds have to be worked for by striving to be appealing to the electorate. And while I clearly support greater involvement by citizens in the political process and higher reimbursement levels are a great push in this direction, I also feel like if parties really deserve the financial support of a voter, the voter should feel passionately enough to donate regardless of reimbursement.

What to fix and how?

In a lot of ways I think that subsidized donations to political parties at the national level should be killed entirely. If the party as a whole wants to run a campaign, let them find voters willing to support them. Let them find individuals who support the costs involved with the attack ads they make and the flashy campaign stops that detract from actual issues and speaking with actual constituents. Let organization wide initiatives be funded by the organizations and their supporters themselves without the help of tax payers. This would save around $10 million.

I would retain reimbursement of donations at the constituency level and maybe increase the donation amount with the room created by removing the federal level reimbursement. Perhaps the reimbursement level should be lowered here but ultimately what is important is that people should know who they are voting for and this is made easier when all the focus is not on the federal level and on leaders who we don’t elect.

The reimbursement of funds spent by political parties as a whole makes zero sense. They are granted a cap knowing full well they will receive half of what they spend back, which leads to non-stop advertising and senseless spending. If parties had to pay for their spending themselves, costs would come down, taxes used for such spending could be diverted to more useful places and attack ads would likely appear far less often since the money parties actually had would be more likely to go to getting out their own message instead of slandering their competitors. This would save taxpayers $29 million dollars.

I would support retaining reimbursements at the local level so long as the spending cap was based in reality on what a reasonable campaign should cost and not what parties are willing to spend. This could probably be done through consultation with business and the creation of regional committees on the cost of campaigning in specific areas (as it would not be uniform between the ridings of Trinity-Spadina and Nunavut for example). Bringing the cost of campaigning back to reality would lower the price tag of $27 million to something more reasonable.

As for the per vote subsidy, I think this is the most reasonable way to help smaller parties support and expand their brand nationally which is humorous since it is the only measure ever floated for being cut. We could retain this one measure at the national level and have parties rely on this and their own fundraising to fund materials and messaging for national distribution. We do not have to do this over and over through several different avenues. This subsidy also takes into account actual voter preference by being based on actual vote tallies and not distributed on some other meaningless criteria.

With the $40 million or so saved by not directly funding political parties as they spend irresponsibly, we could make important changes like creating a Federal Debate Commission tasked with drawing up regulations for involvement at the federal and local levels (instead of a media consortium and party leaders deciding who’s in and who’s out) as well as the running of such debates. Regular and regulated debates are much more likely to stir up interest in democracy than funneling tax dollars to federal parties, at least in my mind.

There are many better ways to spend the money and to encourage democracy (of which I’ve only named a few) but ultimately what is important to remember is that the voter (and taxpayer) must always come first, not the party. Electoral financing regulations must therefore reflect this reality and ensure politicians and the parties they belong to are accountable for the way in which they conduct themselves on the public stage, particularly during elections when they are most visible. The easiest way to do this is by no longer allowing them to run off with blank cheques.

Education as Engagement

There are two places that individuals learn to live a life of civic engagement: at home and in the classroom. Studies have shown that those who vote usually associate with others who do whether they are friends or family members.

Those most likely to vote are people who grew up in families where civil issues were discussed around the dinner table and as a result the engagement that began within the relationship of parent and child created a future for that child where civic awareness and voting were part of one’s identity.

While discussion at home is the best place to generate civic interest in a growing individual, it is in the classroom that people learn about their nation’s history and the civic environment within it.

Lacking discussion at home or solid curriculum at school does not necessarily mean a child will not grow up to be a voter. They can, out of their own curiosity, seek out information in places like libraries or through avenues such as the internet. But a child is much more likely to seek out this knowledge if they are encouraged to by what they hear at home and prodded by the new information they receive at school.

Yet in a time of increasingly visible politics where government decisions seem to affect the average Canadian more and more, each new generation of Canadian voters are tuning out to the civic discussion of the day, never showing up at the polling station. This is despite living in a time with the most access to political actors than ever before and in a time with greater access to information and ease in retrieving that information than ever before.

Who is to blame? Politicians? Educators? Previous generations of voters? New generations of voters? Society at large?

Civic Education

The children passing through the education system today will receive more lessons in Canadian history and in Canadian civics than any before them. Substantial efforts have been made in recent years to teach new generations of future voters about their political system and the history it is drawn from.

In Ontario, the educational system I grew up in, fundamental concepts about politics and history are slowly integrated in the early years of one’s education and then brought into sharper focus in intermediate grades. In grades 1 through 6, the focus is on Canadian heritage and citizenship as well as the connections between Canada and the rest of the world. In grades 7 and 8, students are to tackle the settlement of Canada and Confederation.

By secondary school, students are supposed to have a basic grasp of general early Canadian history and the political system that sprung from that period. From here they enter a mandatory Canadian history course and a half-term course on civics to finally have a concrete lesson in the machinery of government. Once these materials are covered by the end of grade 10, students can elect to study Canadian Law, Canadian Politics, Canadian History (post 1945) and other world history courses.

This means the education of Canadian students on the history of Canada and the political system of this country requires one intermediate history class from settlement to Confederation, one secondary school history course from the First World War to the Second World War, and a half-term course in civic education. Students are only required to have an elementary level understanding of pre-1900 Canadian history, a secondary level understanding of pre-1945 Canadian history and 55-hours of civic education.

If children are not engaged by their parents in civic discourse and do not seek out information themselves, they will have only a vague grasp on early Canadian history, a slight grasp on middle-period history, no introduction whatsoever to the history of the last 65 years, and a very brief introduction to how the country works. And this is an improvement from previous times.

Sparks

Despite all of this some individuals still come through the educational system wanting to know more.

The current curriculum is an improvement but still has a long way to go. My experiences in this system were improved by teachers who saw the importance of students learning these things and went the extra mile to make the topics interesting and engaging. But for those students who have teachers who simply follow instructions or have zero passion for the topic because they are not teaching what they specialized in, the material will not spark interest in most. If this is coupled with no discussion at home on matters of the national past or future, the result is another student who will finish high school and never cast a ballot in their life.

There are signs of life in the educational system. There are teachers who energize their students to care about civic discourse and there are ways to spread this spark across the country by utilizing the methods that enthusiastic instructors employ all on their own. There are also organizations such as Student Vote that bring the actual election process to the classroom for students to see first hand. It is certainly not a lost cause yet but changes need to be made and if adults will not engage their children, it is up to the education system to fill in the gaps.

Suggested Reforms

Creation of the Department of Education

There should be a Department of Education at the federal level. I had never much thought of this idea until reading it in a recent posting in Joseph Uranowski’s blog, The Equivocator, but it is in line with the views I have always held about civic education.

While much of federal education dollars are sent straight to the provinces or post-secondary institutions themselves, there should be an actual body governing the where and why of these transfers. Additionally, while provinces have rights to education under the Constitution there should still be some national agreement on standards and content in a united federation such as Canada. The Department of Education would work with provincial and territorial education ministries to establish a relatively coherent curriculum for elementary and secondary schools. The department would have additional responsibilities for post-secondary education that do not apply much to this discussion.

Earlier introduction of classes in history and civics

The general themes aimed at in the teaching of these subjects are established before these courses are ever taken as other subjects such as math, English and science take precedence. I would argue that history and civics are just as important but understand certain levels of comprehension must be attained before delving into these topics. I do recall writing a speech in grade 4 about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki while others tackled topics such as black holes. It seems clear to me that at age 10 children have an enormous capacity to learn and understand complex ideas and perhaps we should start integrating history and civics at that age.

Expansion of the number of classes required in history and civics

Civics should not be a half-term course shared with careers studies which is largely viewed as a joke by students. Careers should be integrated with all of the courses being taken and should not be a standalone course. Afterall, the careers students want to enter are found in the other courses they are taking. It might make more sense to allow students to see career potential in science, art, history, math, English and other languages while actually in those classes. It is likely that some time in English classes could be freed up to learn how to write a resume.

Removing careers would open up the second half of term for civics to continue. Civics, in my mind, is at the bare minimum a half-term course. I believe it should be a required full term course but would settle for it getting the status it deserves as a full, separate class. Canadian politics is to technically act as a continuation of this course but it does not cover much machinery, a topic that Canadians know sadly very little about despite the fact that they should.

I believe the entirety of Canadian history should be taught before the day a student walks into their high school for the first time. High school history should be a time to focus on linking concepts and getting more specific about our past and what it means for our futures. Perhaps a national course could be required of all students, covering the most major events of our collective history in greater detail as students would already have been given a general overview. Perhaps each province could then require a provincial history course covering their area. This would mean Canadian children would get a complete overview of the entire system without anything being left out, then an overview of the most influential events of our history and a more local understanding of our history provincially.

Elective courses could be offered in the years beyond grade 10 on subjects such as the prime ministers, intergovernmental affairs between provinces, or other topics. The goal would not be regurgitation but the linking of concepts that repeat over our history and still influence or national direction today.

Civic aptitude test as a diploma requirement

In Ontario students have specific courses they are required to take and certain types of electives they must take in order to receive their high school diplomas. They must also fulfill a certain number of community service hours in order to get their diploma. Why not institute a test about their civic knowledge as part of their diploma requirement to be taken by the time they graduate? I’ve heard this idea floated elsewhere (as a requirement for voting rights) with the notion that the test would resemble the Canadian citizenship test. Why shouldn’t students educated in Canada be able to pass the test that newcomers must in order to become a part of Canadian society?

If we implement all of these measures students will be faced with the discussion of Canadian civics and history throughout their learning development and be assured of the importance of such knowledge by the existence of a test on these matters at the end of their (required) education. Perhaps if we provide students with the material and send them out into the world knowing they have retained it then we might see an increase in the number of voters in the future. Perhaps we might even see young Canadians in increasing numbers adopt their national history and civic environment as part of their own identity.