Former finance minister Paul Martin outlined a package of reforms in October designed to tackle the so-called democratic deficit. Much to the chagrin of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the first winds of change began to form only a few weeks later.
At the heart of the issue is an effort to empower the individual parliamentarian – presented as the central actor within our democratic forum. Better decisions will result, it is argued, from more vigorous and open debate and from less concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Martin’s reforms are based on the premise that the MP is the pillar of our Westminster model of democracy. In fact, many of his ideas for improving Parliament are imports from the United Kingdom and recent experiences there. But – what if the fundamental issues are less about how to improve the Westminster system and more about whether it remains the appropriate model for the 21st century?
Notably absent from Martin’s proposals are clear measures for electronic engagement of citizens. There has already been some warranted criticism that his notion of participation is limited to elected politicians. In other words, on the democratic continuum from representation to participation, he is positioned on the edge of the former.
Perhaps this rather timid departure by the former finance minister is explained by his strong support in the Liberal caucus; maybe it is a genuine attachment to the importance of Parliament. Either way there will be pressure in the months ahead for bolder change, and there is now an opportunity for others to broaden the debate.
It may be that Martin has revealed only one dimension of a more ambitious renewal of politics, as he has shown himself to be open to the promise of electronic governance.
Yet Martin faces a quandary. Having served at the centre of power in Ottawa for nearly 10 years, he is no longer the outsider and the new face that he was in the leadership campaign of 1990. Moreover, even though political parties are suffering from an identity crisis themselves, his own prospects are firmly tied to maintaining – and indeed expanding – control of what is presently his Liberal party.
Can someone so rooted in history and current tradition truly be expected to share power once he holds the reins? Will Martin not wish to seize control in order to prepare for the next election, his first as leader?
Such a view is too narrow. First, Martin’s freedom from Cabinet may legitimize his criticism of past approaches to governing – including his own. There is nothing inherently wrong with using this time to reflect; indeed, it can be a rather important source of learning. Secondly, sharing power with MPs is surely not a bad step and for Martin it may well be quite necessary unless he is prepared to triple the size of Cabinet.
But Martin can also benefit, as would the country, from a competitive process of ideas. If others from inside and outside the Liberal Party come forward with bold visions for change, new ideas will begin to stick.
It is a fertile time for technology companies and their associations to expand their traditional lobbying beyond those in power – with an eye on those preparing to govern in new and innovative ways. This same point is true for community activists, such as those concerned about the digital divide, as well as the individual citizen.
Beyond healthcare, the next Royal Commission will perhaps explore broader questions of democratic meaning and civic life in a new century. Arguably, even in current healthcare discussions, technology has not received the same profile as it has elsewhere.
We can only hope that 2003 generates fresh debate in order to press future governments to take seriously the issue of democratic reform. A litmus test for 2004 will be the first Cabinet of the next prime minister, and whether or not a senior minister is appointed CIO of the Government of Canada.
Jeffrey Roy is Managing Director of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa. He may be reached at email@example.com. Please visit the Centre at www.governance.uottawa.ca