Reclaiming ownership of public policy

By Walter Robinson
web posted August 7, 2000

In the midst of summer recess when Parliament is technically "closed for business", it's encouraging to witness a new public debate about Parliament the state of democracy in Canada.

Stockwell Day is calling for more free votes in the House. Tory Leader Joe Clark is also pushing for greater empowerment of MPs. Even backbench Liberal MPs are writing op-eds decrying the heavy-handed tactics of the Prime Minister's office and demanding more freedom. However, more free votes, etc., are solutions that have been on the menu for more than 30 years.

Yet each change in government seduces once rebellious and reform driven MPs to sacrifice their appetite for parliamentary change with a few nibbles of Parliament's forbidden fruits: a junket here, a committee chairmanship there or a House officer position. And once again the "system" co-opts those who once so feverishly argued for change.

Returning public policy to citizens will require far more substantive changes than the tired old phrases of "free votes." They are but symptoms of the larger problem in determining how our democratic institutions should be structured and operate to better serve Canadians. The following four reforms are needed.

Reform 1: Passage of taxpayer protection legislation. Setting legislative limits on the ability of governments to tax, borrow and spend our money is paramount. Further, mandating balanced budgets and giving voters final approval over any proposed tax increase by way of endorsement or veto at the ballot box is necessary.

A glimmer of hope exists for this reform initiative as Ontario and Manitoba have already implemented such laws. Allowing citizens to ultimately set limits on what government can do in the sphere of public finances is essential.

Reform 2: Citizen initiatives and referendums. Allowing citizens to place questions on the ballot when politicians will not address key financial or moral issues and subsequently holding legislatures to respect binding referenda on these questions would also stimulate democratic participation. Moreover, referenda, as divisive as they sometimes can be, ensure the broadest public debate participation.

Reform 3: Voting reform. By now, we've all heard the Canadian Alliance mantra that the Liberal Party only received 38 per cent of the popular vote in 1997 yet rule with 100 per cent majority power. But let's not stop there. The Harris Tories in Ontario rule with 100 per cent absolute majority power even though 56 per cent of Ontario voters did not vote for round two of the Common Sense Revolution. And both the B.C. and Quebec Liberal parties received more votes than the current governing party in their respective provinces, yet they languish in opposition. This is due to the absurdity of our first-past-the-post electoral system. Abandoning this system of another model (run-off elections, transferable ballots, or proportional representation, etc.) is long overdue.

Reform 4: Recall. Recall is a mechanism that allows citizens to gather signature to remove their MP – at a point of their choosing – and for reasons determined solely by them. Of course the parliamentary purists always complain that the existence of recall forces MPs to reflect the wishes of their constituents and always be mindful of the perception of their actions ‘back home.'

Apart from casting a ballot once every four years, the ownership of Canadian public policy has largely been expropriated from taxpayers. Repatriating public policy to its rightful owners is necessary if Parliament is to once again serve us. It's time to reengineer our institutions, throw away Parliament's ‘closed for business' sign and place our democracy "Under New Management."

Walter Robinson is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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