It’s Time to Restore Canadian Democracy and Trust in Government (Politudes Commentary)

The massive election upset by Justin Trudeau with a message of hope and optimism shows that Canadians really want to trust and have pride in their national government. They voted for change and they want a working democracy. They voted bravely, to support investment in infrastructure and economic stimulus, redistributing tax revenues from the wealthy to the middle class and supporting children, and to achieve social and economic advancement of aboriginal peoples. Especially brave with a geographically dispersed and aging population and a working age population diversifying so fast that in the larger cities it is now a majority of minorities.

Confidence in government is woefully low. Canada, like the USA, has been in a downward spiral of mistrust in government, mistrust of politicians, mistrust of public institutions. In recent years almost every major Canadian polling company reported the slide. International value surveys and UN surveys confirm the trend not only for Canada, but other countries as well.

A Survey of Public Opinion on Public Governance in Canada by the Environics Institute and the Institute on Governance found that 64% of respondents felt that government was, at best, “working but with major problems”. Many felt it was completely broken. One in ten had no opinion, leaving little better than a quarter saying that it was “generally working”. The overwhelming majority felt that public servants should interact with the public and provide advice, and that tensions between the public service and the political level are counterproductive. They consistently ranked local government best and the federal government worst in effectiveness and responsiveness.

Democracy 360, Samara Canada’s report card on the state of Canadian politics, also shows strong levels of distrust and disengagement. Among the highlights:

Only 40 per cent of Canadians say they trust their MPs to do what is right, and only 42 per cent place some trust in political parties.
Sixty-two per cent feel politicians only want their vote.
When asked to rate MPs across six areas of responsibility, Canadians gave failing grades in five categories, including helping people in their riding and explaining decisions made in Parliament. The only passing grade was for “representing their parties’ views.”

Samara says in its report that Canadians are withdrawing from the democratic system, because they see politics as irrelevant.

A major research project which followed 20 countries between 2001 and 2005, conducted by Globescan for the World Economic Forum, also confirmed falling levels of trust in both government and global businesses. Again, Canada and the USA were prominent among countries with downward trends in trust, both for government and especially for global corporations.

And when we add in recent scandals of senators, political candidates, and ministers in the previous government, the complaints of centralization in the office of the Prime Minister, the pitched attack by the previous ruling party against the public service, and the falling profile of Canada’s reputation and effectiveness internationally, achieving public trust is no minor hurdle.

So if Mr Trudeau wishes to restore Canada’s confidence, strengthen social bonds and build collective momentum, where could he start?

The Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy has some suggestions:

A Commission on Democratic Reform

A recent contribution by Andrew Cardozo to the Progressive Policy Platform suggests that a Committee of Parliament or a Royal Commission be established to engage Canadians in a comprehensive review of Canadian democracy and recommend reforms. On his list are several high-profile issues including:

  • the electoral system and voter participation – He supports proportional representation or preferential balloting, both of which would strengthen the relationship of voter preferences to the selection of governing parties. This will require courage since the Liberals just achieved their majority with only about forty percent of the votes. Cardozo also supports the enhancement of Election Canada’s mandate to encourage voter participation, including exploration of mandatory voting legislation.
  • improving the working of Parliament with more oversight responsibility, more independent House Committees, public watchdogs reporting directly to them, a more civilized and informative question period, and a stronger role for individual members.
  • Senate Reform; In particular, reforming the selection process of senators to strengthen non-partisan sober second thought by thoughtful and respected Canadians, while eliminating political crony appointments. In this matter, two other articles published by the Pearson Centre provide some further guidance. Ian Green and Garrett MacSweeney (Renewing the Senate) provide a strong rationale for the process for reaching a new and open procedure, to be itself open, consultative and involving all political parties and implicated parties such as provincial governments. David and Alexander Newman (Towards a New Senate) suggest a way to have senate appointments adopt a system of proportional representation stemming from the votes in Parliamentary elections – still maintaining party affiliation, but permitting an evolution without constitutional change.

Other Ideas

Other weaknesses in Canadian governance also cry out for attention, especially concerns for access to justice, access to government, access to information, transparency and accountability. Thirty years after Access to Information legislation, a global study ranked Canada 59th in its access to information policies according to the Centre for Law and Democracy. Time delays, bureaucratic process and an over-riding concern to protect departments, ministers, and officials from embarrassment or any form of liability have effectively closed the flow of information to all but well-resourced and unhurried organizations. During the campaign a coalition of 22 NGO’s called upon parties to commit to reform of our access to information system, especially providing the Information Commissioner order-making power, expanding the scope of the act to all agencies and limiting exceptions, with a public interest over-ride, and creating a duty of public officials to document decisions.

An international Open Government Partnership, with support of world leaders like Barack Obama, has recruited more than 60 countries to join and commit themselves to transparency, and implement much higher standards of professional integrity in public administration.
This would be a welcome change in Canada, where letters to ministers go unheeded, with electronic form acknowledgements which ignore the content. Where idealistic young public servants quickly turn into discouraged and unhappy cynics. Recent reports on the problems of mental health and absenteeism in the public service point to the undermining of meaningfulness in public service work.

Backlogs and under-resourcing of administrative tribunals, lack of funding for court access, and long wait times for legal process, undermine the ability of people to exercise their rights of citizenship. Unlimited legal resources at the beck and call of government departments deliberately delay and obstruct access to court, often simply outlasting the resources, or even the life, of the plaintiff. A House Committee on improving access to justice, fairness, transparency and rights of assisted appeal, could make government much more accountable. Adequate funding of the justice system to process cases expeditiously, and alternate conflict resolution processes, would make the overall system more efficient and effective.

So what else could be considered for strengthening democracy? Not only unmuzzling scientists, but making the results of publicly-funded science and research freely open to the public. Replacing “hack and slash – then wildly recruit” cycles in management of public services with incentives for workplace groups to create cost- efficiencies in accomplishing clearly defined workloads.

And what about democratic nations and global corporations? A recent book by Robert Reich (Saving Capitalism) suggests that large corporations and super-wealthy individuals have so shifted politics and government in the USA that democracy no longer has a role
in decision-making. Recent revelations in the press about global leaders like Apple and most of the Fortune 500 companies hiding trillions of dollars in tax havens are clearly undermining trust in democracy, fairness in government, and even the capacity of nation-states to implement policies to support the public interest. Mr. Trudeau could appoint a royal commission on taxation, with a mandate to link with other national and cross-national inquiries into issues of tax fairness and effectiveness. The OECD has commenced work on this issue and has warned member countries that current models of income taxation may not be viable for much longer. An international collaborative effort called ICRICT (Independent Commission for the Reform of Corporate Taxation) has commenced work with high profile participants. ( The International Social Policy Monitor ( published an article on this recently by Allison Christians of McGill University Law School, entitled Challenging Fiscal Havens and Tax Avoidance by Global Corporations).

A heroic agenda, but the times and democracy are begging for a hero.

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