Is democracy in crisis? For those at the centre of power in Victoria, Ottawa or elsewhere, strong majority governments reflect clear mandates and provide a capacity to act. Insofar as governing political parties return to their electorates every four to five years, democracy works well enough.
Such simplicity is now challenged, however. Studies point to declining voter turnout, rising cynicism and a growing cleavage between the public and elected officials. Is the Internet the main driver of this democratic malaise? Surely not. People matter more – and we are collectively more educated and more informed than at any time in our history, particularly at the time of Parliament’s invention when representatives of the (often select) people came together to debate and decide.
At the heart of the unease are questions of legitimacy and shifting patterns of authority. Traditionally, we elect officials who then represent us in legislatures; they, in turn, decide on the executive team (cabinet). In theory, the executive branch is always kept in check by the legislative branch and accountability is ensured within the inherently confrontational chambers of Parliament.
But theory no longer holds. According to many, the executive is out of control and at its centre is a tremendous concentration of power in the hands of a single leader and his or her trusted advisors. With nearly all the seats in the B.C. legislature, Gordon Campbell has both the mandate and the means to shake things up – including his backbench.
Yet, something else is happening – and it is equally important. We are witnessing a reformation of the public’s relationship with the executive – and with public servants. In a world of client-centric service delivery, departments must be adaptive and responsive – but responsive to whom? In the Parliamentary model, the only client for non-elected officials is the Minister. In the new world of 24/7, however, multiple accountabilities are emerging that reveal the need for change.
On the federal government’s much famed portal www.gc.ca, Parliament is a prominent choice – though what is less apparent is why one would choose it in the first place. From within, MPs quite rightly question the legitimacy of e-mail as a tool, given the hundreds of messages hurled at their offices each week. Rather telling of the misfit between Parliament and the Internet are pleas from MPs to constituents to provide home addresses with e-mail.
What is equally apparent is the decline of political parties as a vehicle for democratic engagement. It is significant that the decline of parties – highly representational and hierarchical entities – is inversely related to the growth of the Internet, which can serve as a proxy for empowerment. An online world allows people to inform, communicate with and engage others in more fluid and direct ways than political parties can provide. Much like labour unions, political parties are struggling to adapt in a world of global networks and dispersed power.
What can be done? First, politicians carry both an interest and a duty to improve the system in which they serve. Politics must be redefined and the legislature once again empowered to play a meaningful role, albeit in a new manner. Citizens want to be engaged in ways more meaningful than the passive act of voting. Parties seeking power must first redefine it themselves, and there are some signs of a tentative path ahead.
The Reform – now Canadian Alliance – movement once placed democratic renewal at the heart of its founding mission (and one hopes it will do so again). Some New Democrats rightly seek a new association with alternative movements, often using the Internet to mobilize. In Ontario, Opposition Liberals have crafted something akin to a democratic charter for the information age – promising citizen involvement, a referendum on electoral reform (proportional representation), real-time disclosure of campaign and special interest financing on the Internet and online voting.
Many traditionalists dismiss such schemes, particularly online voting, as unworkable and fraught with risk. But the movement is already under way, and it will only grow. In Switzerland, the land of direct democracy, several regions are aggressively pursuing Internet voting: public authorities in Geneva are collaborating with Hewlett-Packard and Wisekey SA to make e-voting a reality, and polls report that two-thirds of citizens there express support. The Swiss federal government has publicly endorsed online experimentation, underscoring its potential for engaging disenfranchised groups, particularly youth.
Although online voting is no panacea for democracy’s shortcomings, it serves as a useful indicator of our openness to change. The Swiss experiments also underscore an irony of the Internet age: change begins at home where proximity still matters.
As urban mayors rightly seek a greater voice in our over-concentrated federation, they could serve us well by going far beyond finance reform and embracing political innovation in a bold manner. The future of our public space depends on it. n
Jeffrey Roy is Director of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the centre at www.governance.uottawa.ca.