RM Issue #030704
New Book “Fixing Canadian Democracy” Proposes Democratic Reforms to Revive our Public Institutions
Gordon Gibson, Senior Fellow
The Fraser Institute, Tel (604) 737-7878
Release Date: June 18, 2003
Vancouver, BC - A new book, Fixing Canadian Democracy, released today by The Fraser Institute, argues that multiple significant reforms are available to restore voter confidence in our public institutions.
Fixing Canadian Democracy points to a variety of ways to improve our governance system. The book is the result of a major Fraser Institute conference on democratic reform during which some of the finest practitioners and thinkers from British Columbia and Ottawa were brought together for presentations on selecting and empowering representatives, the place and limits of direct democracy, constitutional constraints, and how to make any of the above a reality.
Some versions of democracy work better than others. Gordon Gibson, the book’s editor and a contributing author, points out that Canada’s democratic system is one of the most primitive in the western world and that Canadians are -- for all practical purposes -- governed by four-year elected dictators as things stand now.
“We ought to be the most prosperous and harmonious country on the face of the earth, yet clearly we are not,” says Gibson, senior fellow in Canadian Studies at the Institute. “Our living standard is much lower than in the US or many other smaller countries and the public is broadly cynical and apathetic with respect to our political process – and rightly so.”
To counter this, the book begins by focusing on three of the most basic principles that are seldom mentioned at all by democratic reformers: the optimal size of government, subsidiarity, and constitutional constraints.
Gibson argues that the search for the optimal size of government should be the first consideration for any democratic reformer. Given the far superior characteristics of the free market in terms of efficiency, transparency, competition, and liberty, any error in finding the optimum should be on the lower side. This is the most basic, and often most painful lesson for would-be reformers.
The second fundamental is subsidiarity -- or, in common parlance, a bias toward “government closer to home.” The division of powers among governments enhances the liberties of the citizen, and smaller governments are easier to understand and control.
The third fundamental is constitutional constraints, the rules that bind government. The rule of law is the oldest of these ideas, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms one of the newest (in Canada). Fixing Canadian Democracy argues that a truly muscular Freedom of Information regime and required “supermajorities” to do certain things (such as overrule balanced budget legislation, or invoke the “notwithstanding” clause), as well as a constitutionalized right to private property should be added to this list.
“Since each of these considerations essentially seek to constrain government power, it may be that reformers enthusiastic for ways to expedite and give legitimacy to government action choose to overlook them, but the prudent citizen must not,” says Gibson.
As well, the book contains a thorough treatment of the more traditional themes of democratic reform, namely, electoral reform, parliamentary reform, and direct democracy.
Electoral reform is the current favourite democratic reform initiative, with significant progress being made in several provinces. The leading province in this regard is British Columbia with its Citizens’ Assembly. The book includes a major presentation by BC Attorney-General Geoff Plant on the democratic reform philosophy of the current government, which has already legislated fixed term elections, and a seminal presentation by Nick Loenen of Fair Voting BC.
Peter Dobell, founder of the Parliamentary Centre, canvasses parliamentary reform. Professor Barry Cooper of the University of Calgary, and Director of the Alberta office of the Fraser Institute, leads the discussion of direct democracy in a scholarly presentation that will enlighten even the experts.
Freedom of Information Commissioner John Reid and Professor Herb Grubel consider constitutional constraints, and Canada West Vice-Chair David Elton gives an outline of the new technique of “deliberative democracy.” These and other excellent contributions, including many by politicians who have “been there” make this book essential reading for those who care about the current problems with our democracy, and want to know how to go about solving them.
“The most fundamental check on government springs from citizen knowledge. We must know what governments are doing, and why. We must know this in a timely way. Then, as soon as possible after the deeds are done, we need measurement of the results. And our representatives need to be able to genuinely call the government to account. No board of directors of even a medium-sized corporation would settle for anything less. Why should we not demand the same -- and more -- of our government?” concludes Gibson.
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Established in 1974, The Fraser Institute is an independent public policy
organization based in Vancouver, with offices in Calgary and Toronto.