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Canadian democracy is broken, but you can help fix it (in 140 characters or less)

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Canadian democracy is in trouble. Governments won’t give straight answers to questions in houses of governance, they limit media access, they routinely impose time allocation on debates, they pass bills to limit the rights of independent MPs, they delay and censor access to information requests, they conduct business in secret, they refuse to provide budget information to civil servants.

I think the root problem with Canadian democracy is our federal and provincial voting systems. Most people’s votes elect no one and therefore have no other effect (now that the federal per-vote subsidy is gone). Only votes for the winning candidate matter, and whether it’s by 11 votes or 11,000, the winner still gets the entire riding. Votes for all other candidates are wasted. (More at Fair Vote Canada.)

As a result, a party needs only 35% to 40% or of the popular vote to win the majority of the seats. They can and do narrowcast their appeal, so they don’t really care if most citizens don’t like what they’re doing. It disincentivizes parties from working together, as everyone is chasing the 35% dream of absolute power. And it encourage abuses of the electoral system, in overspending (as with Dean Del Mastro and other MPs), expense schemes (“in and out”), and outright fraud (robocalls), because such illegalities can give that small percentage extra needed to win it all.

Realistically, though, I don’t think the voting system is going to change any time soon. I think it’s worth trying, but it’s natural for parties to love the current system. Having nearly a one in three chance of winning it all is pretty hard to resist.

But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done.

Great Britain, for example, uses the exact same voting system as Canada, with the exact same distorted results in seat numbers. But nevertheless, many have observed that government works better than ours. British MPs quite often vote against party lines, something Canadian MPs almost never do. British ministers, unlike ours, actually answer the question during Question Period. MPs seriously debate issues using their own words, not party talking points.

British MPs are much more empowered than Canadian ones. And it makes all the difference.

Somehow, gradually over the last 30 or so years, Canadian MPs have lost more and more of their ability to make much of a difference in Parliament. Here are a couple of accountings of their sad lot, by Andrew Coyne’s in The Walrus, “Repairing the House” and in this blog post from On Procedure and Politics: The real problem is MP irrelevancy.

But right now, this week, Tuesday, a private member’s Bill is being presented that could change this. Michael Chong, of the Conservative party (yes!) has been working on a it for a couple of years. Andrew Coyne (him again), endorses it  as A bill that would change Canada’s Parliament forever.

It proposes that MPs get to decide who sits caucus and who gets to be leader, and removes the provision for party leaders to sign off on all electoral candidates. Doesn’t sound like much, and by itself, certainly would not fix everything. But it does lay the groundwork for reform, by once again empowering MPs to actually represent us, the citizens, and not just their parties, in Parliament.

So if you’re in favor democracy and would like to see it working again in Canada, tell your MP to support Michael Chong’s Reform Act.

If you’re on Twitter, you need only 140 characters and this list of Canadian MPs on Twitter. You can also follow the discussion via #ReformAct.

If you’re on Facebook, you can Like this page (or whatever the heck it is you Facebook people do): https://www.facebook.com/TheReformAct

If you’re on email, you can email your MP — here’s the list: http://www.parl.gc.ca/MembersOfParliament/MainMPsCompleteList.aspx

Parliament in Ottawa

Let’s make this place work again

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