Democracy: The Unfinished Revolution

Democracy in Alberta isn’t so much broken as unrealised. A former provincial cabinet minister fires up our imaginations.

By David King

Alberta has built up a huge debt since 1994. Human services, the environment and support for local communities are not the only public policy areas in which Alberta has a debt. All these debts are a result of an underlying, recurring deficit—a significant democratic deficit.

Yet, the democracy we want might not be found in the better fulfillment of what we have known for the past 200 years. Perhaps it will be found only after we have looked past our complaints about the present deficit. Arguably, the dissatisfaction of citizens reflects our sensing a potential for a democracy that has not yet been imagined creatively, articulated powerfully and nurtured into feasibility.

Why is voter turnout falling, at all levels of politics? Why do so many voters feel as though they are voting “against”—a candidate, or party, or vision—rather than “for”? Why do so many voters feel unhappy or dissatisfied after they have voted?

Why doesn’t our government do what we want it to do? Why won’t my government let me do what I want to do? Why do “they” insist on building “that” in my neighbourhood? How can “we” stop “them” from doing “it”? Why do so many politicians seem arrogant, or cynical, or dispirited—or all three? Why does my “representative” so often seem not to represent me?

What is the significance of the idea of “majority rule,” and what about the “tyranny of the majority” in electoral politics? Why do Albertans feel such a strong need to be part of the majority, and then so often feel bullied by a government that claims to represent the majority? Among diverse interests, how are order and priority established and maintained? Does a pipeline have a higher priority than the land claims of an Indian band? Why?

What do we expect of our governments? What standards will we hold them to? How do we hold governments accountable?

What is the relationship of the individual to the community and to the government, and is there any distinction to be made between the community and the government or the government and the state? How do we think of—what value do we place on—independence and interdependence? What is the difference between public and private, and what is the relationship of one to the other? Is there a difference between being on the one hand a member of an association, a shareholder of a corporation, a consumer, a client, and on the other hand a citizen?

When we talk about overcoming the democratic deficit we need to understand that democracy is an unfinished revolution.

We will only be the province we want to be—can be—if we change our way of thinking about democracy and doing democracy. In my experience our thinking about democracy is too small for Alberta in the 21st century, by every measurement.

The problem starts with the question: “Who’s the boss?” The idea of democracy is that citizens are “the boss,” and such is the idea teachers and others try to persuade us to adopt. In spite of everything we are taught, 40 years of evidence shows me that most of us really believe the government is our boss. We speak gratefully of being “empowered” by our governments, which will let us have some information, participate nominally in some decision-making processes and live with the consequences of decisions made far away. Why do citizens have to be empowered, and why does empowerment depend upon the benevolence of our government? How and when and why were we disempowered? And by whom?

Government does not empower citizens, and the government that suggests it does is arrogant and ignorant. Citizens empower government, and citizens can disempower governments. From time to time citizens should disempower their government.

Some citizens speak with appreciation of a government’s commitment to subsidiarity—the principle that those at the top of the hierarchy should push decision-making as far down the hierarchy as they feel comfortable pushing it. To talk approvingly of subsidiarity or even to accept it in principle is itself anti-democratic. It is, or should be, citizens who decree that some decisions will be made in the local community, some will be made at city hall, some will be made in Edmonton and some will be made in Ottawa.

In other words, the social contract is not between citizens and the government. The social contract is among citizens. Government is not a party to the social contract: it is the result, the product of the social contract.

Citizens are “the boss.” But who should we include in the category “citizen”?

Are there limits to inclusivity? Are the limits fixed or dynamic? For example, 100 years ago women were not included. Do we continue to exclude some who should be included? Are there some barriers to inclusion that we should acknowledge and sweep away?

When we include, do we promote sameness or diversity? Do we welcome immigrants with the expectation that they will make themselves as like us as possible as quickly as possible? Or do we welcome them because they will introduce new elements—elements we will not try to eliminate—which we can absorb to make ourselves stronger, more adaptive, more outward-looking?

Is our city or province or nation a collection of individuals or is it a community? Would we prefer to be on our own, having only commercial exchanges with others and enjoying the opportunity to isolate ourselves at will, or would we prefer relationships and community? Can we have strong communities and strong individuals?

Think of democracy as the framework within which the community talks about and makes decisions about these and other important questions.

It follows that elected representatives and deliberative assemblies should understand and practise “servant leadership.” They are not masters of the citizenry and the community. They are, and ought to be, stewards who serve for the good of
the citizens.

When we truly adopt this understanding, the rules we set for politicians and governments—and the standards by which we will judge them—will change, in many cases dramatically. The challenge is that the rules and standards we set for ourselves as citizens will also change, in many cases dramatically.

Assuming a democratic spirit, we want to develop our processes so that they encourage community and co-operation rather than isolated individuals and conflict; they encourage a long-term view and a commitment to future generations, rather than a short-term view that disregards the future condition of our children and grandchildren; they encourage a spirited community and spirited citizens, rather than a dispirited community and dispirited citizens; they encourage inclusion that celebrates diversity; they encourage servant leadership; and they are transparent to all citizens.

We need to reimagine democracy as a representation of our deepest convictions about individual and community, independence and interdependence, public and private, and as the process by which we create “the good life.”

We need to make changes in many different parts of our political system, not the least of which is our electoral process.

The Electoral System

The disadvantages of our single-member constituencies and our “first past the post” system of elections are numerous—and corrosive of democracy. Albertans should be considering alternatives. A mixed-member proportional representation system, as has been promoted in BC and Ontario, would serve us well. We could learn from the debate in those two provinces. Alberta could become a leader in electoral system reform, as it was in the 1920s and 1930s.

In constituency elections we should also consider the use of a preferential ballot so that every successful candidate would be higher than all other candidates in the estimation of the majority of voters. Alternatively, or in addition, perhaps we should allow people to cast their ballot for “none of the above.” Surely all of us, citizens and politicians, would read the handwriting on the wall if significant numbers of citizens voted and indicated they approved of none of the candidates.

Alberta should adopt fixed election dates, with an allowance for special elections if the government loses a confidence vote in the Legislative Assembly. (Confidence votes that could bring down a government should be few and far between.)

Albertans should consider instituting some form of recall—the process by which voters can remove an elected representative between elections. I cannot think of anything that would focus a member’s mind more on their constituency than the prospect of being removed from office between elections. I cannot think of anything that would focus a party more on the need for multi-constituency consensus than the prospect of having its members removed one at a time. The Social Credit government brought in one such process in the mid-1930s. It lasted only until citizens tried using it against the incumbent premier. It is time to reinvent the recall process.

We should also consider instituting a legal obligation to vote, with penalties for failing to vote. The arguments against such an obligation might be diminished if citizens could vote for a local (constituency) representative and for a (different) provincial party, if they could disavow all candidates when they vote and if every vote counted because of the use of the preferential ballot.

We should ask ourselves about some other possibilities. What about restricted constituencies or restricted offices (for women only, or for aboriginals only, or for Christians only)? Most Albertans would be surprised to learn that we have such constituencies at the present time, in school board elections. What about instituting advisory votes, through which the general electorate could indicate to the government some policy preferences? What about lowering the voting age to 16?

Artificial Persons

Corporations, unions, faith-based organizations and societies (such as industry associations) should not be allowed to participate in the political process or to fund it, and they should not have any of the civil rights associated with carrying out political activity. All of these organizations are described in the law as “artificial persons,” and it is not conducive to democracy to allow people with resources to clone artificial persons. The exclusion of all artificial persons would have no negative impact on all the rights of real people; in fact the status of individuals (citizens) would be enhanced if artificial persons were completely excluded from the political process. We are no better off giving large corporations or churches leverage in our political process today than we were 250 years ago when landowners enjoyed the same advantage.

Legislation could easily be drafted to exclude corporations, unions and faith-based organizations from participating in the political process or funding it. The affected organizations would not be allowed to make any financial contribution to any political party, candidate or person seeking a party’s nomination. They would not be allowed to speak on behalf of, or against, any matter that is or could be the subject of a political decision. They would not be allowed to provide financial support for any public expression. At the same time, corporate presidents, union leaders, church bishops, association spokesmen and others would be free to campaign, speak and petition: they would do it as individuals—in their own right—rather than as agents of an artificial person.

Party Financing

Provincial political parties are less subject to law than any other organizations in our community. For example, they are not subject to the Societies Act. Political parties are the centrepiece of our political system and there is no legal requirement that they operate democratically or transparently. Often, they do not.

Alberta should enact a Political Parties Act to provide a comprehensive framework for the organization and activity of political parties.  The election of the party leader, candidates and all other officers of the party should be subject to such a framework. The law should require political parties to ensure transparency and timely disclosure in all their information systems.

In addition, the party leader in the Assembly should be excluded from any significant involvement in the organization of the party other than with its nominated and elected candidates. The party leader should not have the opportunity—and certainly not the right—to tell the party organization how to spend its money, to refuse nominated candidates or to overturn party positions on matters of public policy. (The party caucus in the Legislative Assembly should have the right to reject the party’s position—and to explain why they do so.) Rules and practices necessary to maintain a separation of powers need to be developed, implemented and nurtured.

A Political Parties Act should also ensure that party constituency organizations have a reasonable degree of independence from the provincial party and leader. Currently, in all the leading provincial parties, the locally nominated candidate cannot be the party’s standard-bearer unless the provincial party leader provides a written ratification. The intention is to ensure that objectionable candidates are not representing the party; the unintended outcome is that constituency organizations are weakened.

Election funding needs to be reformed. The law that regulates it should be extended to cover nomination contests, party leadership contests and local elections. There should be more effective and timely disclosure.

The Legislative Assembly

The leader of the Official Opposition should be known as Leader of the Government in Waiting. The term Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is an anachronism. More significantly, it exacerbates the sense that the Legislative Assembly is a place of conflict and negativity. We should be trying to reduce that sense, not feed it. Finally, the current name consigns other parties to a negative self-image and a negative position in the mind of the public.

In the same vein, the seating plan in the Assembly should be changed so that members of different parties are intermingled. Among other advantages, this would reduce the visible solidarity of each party and reduce the impression that each party operates in isolation from each of the others.

The role of committees in the Legislative Assembly should be strengthened, especially by giving them a role that cannot easily be controlled by the premier, the cabinet or individual ministers. The committees and individual members should be given more resources to gather information, conduct research and develop proposals, and these resources should be independent of the government.

Should there be a term limit for elected representatives? Should we have a law that prevents any representative from serving for more than two or three terms? Why do we elect representatives rather than choose them by lot?

Cabinet Ministers

The premier—the “First Minister”—has gone from being first among equals to being unique and unequalled. This is not a good thing, and the power of the premier needs to be curbed in relationship to other ministers, the cabinet, the caucus and the Legislative Assembly.

One way to do this would be to adopt the practice of having the government caucus elect one quarter of the cabinet by secret ballot. This has been done in Australia. The intention is to ensure that the government caucus as a whole is represented around the cabinet table, that cabinet is not made up entirely of sycophants of the premier, and that MLAs have a road open to them that is not completely dependent upon the premier.

Should there be a term limit for First Ministers?

The Public Service

In many different ways, the provincial public service has been politicized and deprofessionalized over the past 15 years. Albertans find government employees making statements that are political, not administrative. We find communications officers speaking instead of politicians.

The Office of the Public Service Commissioner should be made an office of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, and the Public Service Commissioner should be given the tools necessary to assure the independence of the public service.

All political appointments within the public service should be clearly identified as such. All such appointments—and the terms and conditions of employment—should be a matter of public record.

Practically speaking, the public has less access to information today than they had 15 years ago. Access to information is more expensive, too. The province needs a Chief Information Officer, and the CIO should be an officer of the Legislative Assembly, not an employee of the cabinet. The mandate of the CIO should be to ensure that all the information held by the government is available online to all the people of Alberta, without cost and as a matter of course. Basically, government-held information should be available to the public in an information warehouse.

Democracy is not about identifying a transient plurality of compliant spectators; it is about creating a stable public of thoughtful participants. Democracy is not an end; it is the means to the many goals we set for ourselves as individuals and as a community. Democracy is partly a process, but it is largely a spirit, a revolutionary spirit.

It is time for Albertans to recover the spirit of democracy for which we were famous—35 years ago, 90 years ago, 125 years ago. How did our forefathers feel when they were among the first citizens anywhere in the British Empire to elect women to the Legislature?

How did they feel when their government instituted recall provisions by which citizens could remove MLAs? How did Albertans feel when the province became the first jurisdiction in the British Commonwealth to establish the office of ombudsman?

How did Albertans feel when the province amended the Constitution of Alberta to provide a land base for Métis people?

Albertans have pushed the boundaries, stepped into the unknown, turned our backs on the status quo. It is time to take a deep breath and do it again, and again.

David King was a four-term MLA and education minister in the Lougheed governments. He is now the executive director of the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta.




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