Monday, 14 May 2007

On accountability & Swiss democracy

With the sponsorship scandal & Gomery inquiry helping bring down the Martin-lead Liberal government, and with Harper’s crew successfully bringing government accountability reform into their previous campaign – it might be said that Afghanistan (& Green issues lately) aside, the past couple of years in Canadian politics has been largely influenced by accountability issues. But with the passing of the Conservative Accountability Act and the recent NDP uncovering of a corporate contribution loophole in said Act - it’s as if the debate is dominated by ethical conduct, transparency, lobbying and how political campaigns are financed.

These are all worthy issues for reform and I am very glad efforts these things are all part of the debate - my concern with all of this, however, is what happens when the public is genuinely pissed off with their government; when they have been elected fairly and have not broken any ethical or transparency rules but are passing legislation that the public at large is in heavy disagreement with? It’s impossible to predict from a campaign the full spectrum of activities any government will proceed with in the course of their term in power – and though highly unlikely in Canada (since seriously negative public opinion usually leads to a modification of policies on their own), if a government were to actually proceed with passing legislation that genuinely angered a decent majority of citizens - as a representative of the people, are there any options that can be developed for the angered public to take beyond simply waiting for the next election to remove them from power?

While I would never advocate imposing much of Swiss law onto Canada, after spending a couple of years in Geneva I did come to admire some aspects of how they practice democracy. Though it can be an excruciatingly slow process at times, their system of referendums is quite interesting …If government has passed something drastic that is not well received, concerned citizens can form a petition which if verified to contain ‘x’ number of names – an automatic referendum is scheduled on the issue where the public can vote to uphold or strike down whichever aspect of the legislation is under criticism (it can only be stricken if a certain quota of voters is met). When I asked Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett about this in her weekly web chat, her response was rightfully that although it is democracy practiced at a high level, the world of Swiss referendums is inefficient and can take a very long time (up to 4 years!!) to complete. While I completely agree with her here, I’ll also be the first to acknowledge that there must be ways in which we could adopt a modified version of legally-binding referendums that respects the basic tenets of the Swiss style into a more timely and practically relevant process.

One would hope that the combination of drastic majority-government action & negative public opinion would never get this far in Canada (poor PR often leads to policy modifications on its own). If it did however, in giving the public the possibility of veto power, it would likely force governments to better educate the general public so that they can at least better understand the reasons behind a seemingly controversial and complicated piece of legislation.



Ps – FYI, the Swiss voting populace is fairly conservative on referendum voting, only approving about 1/10th of the referendums placed before them; much more common is an acceptance of a modified version of the criticized initiative that has been rewritten by government - a happy medium if you must.


Bryan Heal said...

This comment came from somebody responding to this on Facebook:

All I can imagine is a mosaic of special interest groups striking down bills that don't benefit them because they understand it and can explain it in a manner that makes people empathetic to their cause.

Accountability- I don't even consider it an issue. Harper's government learned from the Americans that the best form of political warfare is called "investigation". You don't really have to be responsible for what happened, and nothing even need have happened. So long as there is some form of investigation the effect is the same as being guilty.

The only thing that the liberals did that ever had a HUGE effect on us, from a "scandal" perspective, was the Income Trust debacle. Too bad that isn't still making headlines becuase contrary to Adscam, it will have long lasting effects that arent immediately visible to the public. Hence, under the rug.

Unfortunately, I think that a lot of decisions that are made by politicians in general are completely misunderstood by the public eye.

Bryan Heal said...

My response to previous comment:

It's your last point that's really the big one for me - the fact that so many political decisions are so misunderstood by the general public is frustrating. Though I put just as much blame on most individuals for not being more aware of issues that affect them - it's still unfortunate that decent knowledge transfer isn't really part of the government package these days.

Yes the potential for opening up a scary pandora's box for special interest is completely there, and that's probably the biggest reason I can't see something like legally binding referendums actually being practical here at home. While there maybe better ways of going about doing this - at the end of the day I guess I'm most interested in finding more ways to step up the pressure on politicians to better educate the public on major policy initiatives beyond the quick sound bites & largely uninformative shots at their oppoents we're constantly flooded with.