How should we respond to shifting citizen expectations for how democracy should be practised? Our panel at the 2015 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation conference considered the role of money in politics, innovative models of citizen engagement, the phenomenon of long-term disengagement by some Canadians, and reform of parliamentary governance.

The panel compared differing approaches in the United States and Canada to regulating money in politics. Canada is often said to have an “egalitarian model” for elections. Parties and interest groups face caps on spending in order to level the playing field. Yet there are cracks in the foundation of the Canadian model. Canada’s October 2015 federal election followed the longest campaign in recent history and the most expensive we have ever had. Canada has strict spending limits, but these apply only during the official campaign period. Interest groups and the parties themselves spent millions of dollars on negative advertising before the start of the official campaign, thereby avoiding the spending caps. Money still plays a smaller role in Canadian politics than in the United States, but we are on a less egalitarian trajectory than before.

The chair of the US Federal Election Commission (FEC) for 2015, Ann Ravel, detailed the corrosive impact in the United States of permitting nearly unlimited spending. Power is concentrated in the hands of “a quarter of the 1 percent,” in her view, at the expense of the general public, but also of women and minorities in particular. Whatever the FEC’s formal legal authority over campaign finance at the federal level, it has proven to be ineffective at regulating the disproportionate influence of corporations, super PACs, and wealthy individuals on political debate. The United States serves as a cautionary tale here.

Canada’s parliamentary governance has also been under heavy critique lately. Power has been concentrated in the Prime Minister and in the Prime Minister’s Office, at the expense of cabinet, backbench MPs and parliamentary committees. Canada is often said by political scientists to have one of the most highly centralized governments in the world. The Reform Act focused on shifting this balance back toward parliamentary control over the government. Passed in 2015, it gave party caucuses the right to initiate leadership reviews, vote on caucus chairs through secret ballot, decide on caucus membership, and select the interim leader. Caucuses gain these powers, however, only if they vote to adopt them at their first meeting after an election. The Liberal and NDP caucuses did not make decisions on these powers, and the Conservatives adopted two out of four measures.

The member of Parliament for Wellington Halton Hills, Michael Chong, is the driving force behind the Reform Act. He argued on the panel that the Act has been a qualified success in limiting the power of party leaders and the Prime Minister. He raised other areas for future reform, including eliminating the ability of leaders to prevent candidates from running under a party banner and the restrictive rules making it nearly impossible for independents to win political office.

The interest in and capacity of citizens to engage in the democratic process is also of great relevance to Canada at the moment. The optimistic story is that innovative models for participation such as citizens’ assemblies, citizens’ juries and other deliberative mechanisms have demonstrated clearly that there is an appetite for participation in the decisions made by governments at all levels. Citizens are not content to vote and then sit back and wait for four years. Peter McLeod set out the successes of these innovative approaches over the last decade, especially at the municipal and provincial levels.

The more pessimistic story lies in the data on voter turnout and participation. Luc Turgeon detailed the worrying fact of disengagement from electoral processes by youth and, especially, visible minorities. The 2015 vote alleviated some worries, as turnout was up. Yet we should not be complacent. Turnout was still just above 70 percent. There are long-term challenges for Canadian democracy if significant numbers of young people opt out and if minority groups do not see the value in voting.

The new government has outlined an ambitious agenda on democratic reform. The panel made clear that on citizen engagement, election law and parliamentary reform, there is much work to be done.

Photo: DiegoMariottini /


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Michael Pal
Michael Pal is a 2012 Trudeau Scholar and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa.

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