A major international research project reveals how citizens here view the effectiveness of our democratic institutions. The results aren’t all that rosy.

With the debate around our electoral system still in full swing, the time is ripe to explore how Canadians perceive the performance of our democratic institutions. In a major international research project focused in Canada on citizens in Quebec and Ontario, we found that the public is anxious for democratic reform at the national and provincial levels.

But how can we measure the quality of democracy in Canada? One way is to assess how well fundamental democratic principles work in practice. In a democracy, voters should be able to sanction politicians for their performance in office, and politicians should care about what voters think and care about. When running for office, politicians should propose distinct policy alternatives and, once elected, they should keep their campaign promises. Hence, it should make a difference which party is in power. More generally, elected officials should be responsive to voter preferences and should not use their office for private gains.

What performance is good enough? As a real-world democracy may never be able to attain abstract democratic ideals, we look instead at citizens’ perceptions in other countries in order to set benchmarks. Through the international research project Making Electoral Democracy Work (MEDW), we conducted 27 original surveys between 2011 and 2015. We asked essentially the same questions in 10 regions: Quebec and Ontario in Canada, Ile de France and Provence in France, Bavaria and Lower Saxony in Germany, Catalonia and Madrid in Spain, and Lucerne and Zurich in Switzerland.

The MEDW project project brings together a team of 20 political scientists and economists from Canada, Europe and the United States. It started in 2009 and will come to an end in 2017. It is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The main goal of the study is to examine how electoral rules affect the relationship between voters and parties. But a major component of the project is the 27  surveys that were conducted during national, supranational and subnational elections in the 10 regions. Since many of the questions were asked in all 27 surveys, we can compare citizens’ views across the five countries and the 10 regions.

One of the exceptional features of this project is that citizens are asked to evaluate the democratic performance of several levels of government. Therefore, we can distinguish between the perceived performance of Canada’s federal and provincial democratic institutions respectively.

We selected six questions (see below) that correspond to the democratic principles. We asked three questions about both the national (i.e., federal) and the regional (i.e., provincial) levels. There are thus nine indicators in total. We are interested in how citizens themselves rate the performance of democracy in their country and region.

National-level or general questions

  • “Politicians make campaign promises they have no intention of keeping” (agree/disagree)
  • “Does it make a difference which party is in power at the national-level?” (0-10 scale)
  • “How much do you think the national government cares about what people like you think” (some or a lot/a little or none)

Questions asked about both the national and the regional levels

  • “How well do you think your views are reflected in the [election-level] legislature?” (0-10 scale)
  • “How satisfied are you with the way democracy works in [election-level]?” (0-10 scale)
  •  “Would you say that there is hardly any corruption, a little corruption, some corruption, or a lot of corruption in [election-level]?” (hardly any or a little/some or a lot)

So, how do the two Canadian provinces perform, relatively speaking, in voters’ eyes? Not as well as we might have hoped. On all questions, Quebec falls into the lower part of the ranking. Only 8  percent of Quebecers disagree with the statement that politicians make false campaign promises (6th position out of 10), 27 percent believe that the federal government cares about what people like them think (8th), 24  percent think that there is little or hardly any corruption at the federal level (8th) and 15 percent see little or hardly any corruption at the provincial level (10th).

On the questions in which respondents were asked to give a grade on a 0-10 scale, Quebec comes 6th (“satisfaction with democracy at the federal level”), 7th (satisfaction with democracy and reflection of citizens’ view in the provincial legislature), 8th (“reflection of citizens’ view in the federal legislature”) and 10th (“parties in power at the federal level make a difference”).

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Ontario performs better than Quebec. On one question (“parties in power at the federal level make a difference”) it is even ranked 1st and, on a number of others, it comes 3rd or 4th. That being said, the figures considerably lag behind those from Lucerne and Zürich (Switzerland). Few Canadian politicians will rejoice in the finding that about 90 percent of Ontarians do not believe their promises and that 64 percent do not consider corruption at the provincial level to be marginal. Ontario also ranks 6th with respect to reflection of citizens’ view in the provincial legislature and 9th on perceived corruption at the federal level.

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In the overall ranking, which aggregates the scores from all the questions by means of normalization (all the scores are standardized so that the mean equals 0 and the standard deviation is 1), Ontario wins the bronze, but its score is much closer to Bavaria (4th) than to the Swiss cantons. As for Quebec, it earns the unflattering 8th position. The ranking changes little when we consider only the national-level and general questions (Quebec is then, by a short margin, 9th instead of 8th). When only the provincial-level questions are included, Quebec moves to the 7th place, but Ontario falls to the 6th.

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All in all, then, Quebecers’ overall judgment of the performance of democracy at both the federal and provincial levels is negative, while Ontarians’ evaluations are slightly positive, though not without reservations (especially at the provincial level). It would thus seem appropriate to ask ourselves what can and should be done to improve these perceptions. To say the least, we need to take a critical look at our democratic institutions. We look forward to the recommendations of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform. Meanwhile, everyone is invited to attend (in person or stream live on CPAC’s website) the public forum on electoral reform on October 20, organized jointly be the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship and the Making Electoral Democracy Work project.

Photo: Paul McKinnon / Shutterstock.com

This article is part of the Electoral Reform special feature.

 


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