So what if the Canadian System is Broke?

Essay by cowvalleyUniversity, Ph.D.A, March 2007

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So what if the System is Broke?The title for my remarks today is "So what if the System. is Broke?" The title wasdevised under duress--I was given about three minutes during lunch with RichJohnston and Pat Rowantree and a Member of the Board. My title is perhapstoo alarmist, as a result.

I therefore feel an obligation to start by offering you some reassurance: my subject is not BC's or Canada's economy. My contention is probably just about as alarming, however, for I intend to talk about our political system.

Claims that there is something wrong with our political system are not new, of course. In fact, they have become rather trite. Most of the comments about what's wrong with the system, however, tend to focus on the institutions of democratic society. And most of the "solutions" or corrections therefore have to do with creating new institutions or patching up the old ones.

I am not come here today to talk about "parliamentary reform". Nor am I here to discuss the merits or failings of Initiative, or Referendum, or Recall, .or Proportional Representation. or an improved legislative committee system, or free votes in the House, or any of that esoteric stuff. I want, rather, to talk about politics, and how that system might be broken.

Allow me to avoid a definition of that term for a moment, if you will, and let me start by focusing on the dominant and salient perceptions of what's wrong with our system today:A few months ago I had the pleasure of attending the 40th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association .Conference held in Banff, Alberta. The first plenary session was entitled Parliament and People (making democratic institutions more representative, responsible, and relevant). There's no need for me to state the assumption embedded in that title, I am sure, but in case delegates weren't clear what was happening, the first panel session posed the following question:What steps can be taken to enhance the public perception of parliaments and the legislative process?I want to suggest to you that the ground shifted between the topic for the plenary and the topic for the panel--we moved from talking about the institutions to talking about the people who work in them.

And I want to suggest that the same shift in focus or emphasis occurs in the literature on the subject of something being wrong with our system. One brief example will serve to make the point. I want to quote from the background paper for the plenary session that was prepared for the Canadian delegation by the Library of Parliament.

Many Canadians have come to believe that the institutions through which their society is governed have become unrepresentative, irresponsible, and irrelevant. Indeed, if the fundamental purpose of these institutions isto act as instruments through which citizens of a democratic country govern themselves, the overwhelming conclusion is that these instruments not only fail to achieve this purpose, they actually hinder it. Put bluntly, our democratic institutions are perceived by many to have become, dysfunctional.

Pretty strong stuff, I think you'd agree. The "signs of discontent," the author goes on to say, are "pervasive and unmistakable."Public opinion polls, royal commission studies, the results of a recent national referendum and general election, academic studies and reports in the media all point to a deterioration in the relationship between the Canadian people and the institutions that govern public life."As the article progresses; though, we see the same shift--from the institutions of government to the actors. Let me read a few excerpts to make that point:Canadian are unhappy with the whole array of institutions ... and the men and women active in them.

The people of Canada have lost faith in both the political process and their political leaders.

A strong dose of political cynicism characterizes the Canadian public.