Madam Chair, I thank the Minister responsible for Democratic Reform, since the debate this evening is very important.
Citizens are engaging in record numbers, but they are simply not engaging with politicians. They have written us off. Some are not even voting. Many believe it does not matter.
As an antidote we must ensure that the template or structure for citizen engagement at all levels is intelligent and genuine. Citizens are right to be cynical. Countless exercises in public consultation have been pro forma, a sort of occupational therapy for citizens. Governments have simply treated consultations as a box to check off, having already decided what to do anyway.
Citizens can tell the difference, particularly the savvy young ones who can sniff out manipulation and people wasting their time. We need at all times to keep our cynicism thermometer in full view and ensure that everything we do is driving the red mercury down. The legitimacy of a genuine process should be palpable. The process must utilize all the modern technology that all generations will use.
The case history is clear. Polling conducted by Earnscliffe years ago rated listening to Canadians as the third most important issue facing this country.
The signs and symptoms are clear. There is decreasing voter turnout, particularly among younger voters. Only 11% of Canadians have contacted their elected representatives, written a letter to the editor or anything like that. It is the decline of deference among Canadians as has been described by University of Toronto political scientist Neil Nevitte. The diagnosis has been the democratic deficit, but there is a treatment. The treatment is democratic reform.
Stephen Coleman, a professor of e-democracy at Oxford, talks about a two way accountability between citizens and their elected representatives. I see democratic reform in four ways: one, electoral reform; two, the necessity of party reform if electoral reform is entertained; three, parliamentary reform; and four, citizen engagement.
I will leave numbers one and two alone for now, but numbers three and four together are what Toronto Star columnist Carol Goar calls “democracy between elections”. Stephen Coleman has made it clear that it is this two way accountability and civic efficacy. “People don't want to govern”, he says, “they want to be heard”.
Being heard, however, means that those listening, the elected representatives, are themselves heard when they present their ideas to government. There is no point in citizens wasting their time talking to members of Parliament or parliamentary committees if the centre of government ignores them. If the view of the centre is that MPs are nobodies, the point of the exercise is defeated. When a deputy minister in this country was once called in Parliament “a minor process obstacle”, one has to say that we need some attitudinal change in this place.
Citizen engagement means absolutely nothing without the attitudinal shift that is at the heart of parliamentary reform. As former House of Commons Clerk Robert Marleau observed, “the problem is not the rules, it is the culture”. The culture is determined by attitude.
If Parliament matters, better people will run for office. Parliamentary reform is critical to improving the quality of those who run for public office, in that good people will not waste their time as rubber stamps for decisions predetermined by unelected officials. I thank the minister responsible for democratic reform for all of the changes and all of his proposals in making this a reality so that the new generation of parliamentarians will welcome the role of mediator between citizens and their government and be able to demonstrate their ability to truly make a difference.
Empowering MPs will strengthen democracy using all of the tools available in six ways. I see that we as parliamentarians operate in six ways.
One, we operate in our riding. Two, we operate in our non-geographic constituencies, for example, women, persons with disabilities, business, whoever sees the MP as their person on the Hill. Three, we operate in committees. Four, we operate sometimes in collaboration with government. I very much enjoyed the online consultation that was conducted years ago between MPs and the Department of Canadian Heritage on whether there is a Canadian way and what is the role of government in online chats. Five, we also operate as party members. Party policy development is also very much part of our role as members of Parliament. Six, we operate internationally sharing best practices with colleagues around the globe.
The collaboration between MPs and citizens can ultimately lead to better public policy, as unusual coalitions work together in presenting real solutions with real buy-in of those affected. It results in better legislation and better implementation.
Citizens help parliamentarians keep government accountable. Their input results in better questions, in better analysis of budgetary estimates, priorities and planning exercises. There is no question that the ongoing dialogue will result in better relationships between citizens and their elected representatives. Our ultimate goal is a democracy between elections that will not only persuade citizens that their voice really does matter and that they should vote, but that they may even decide to get involved in the political process and consider running for office or getting behind someone who will.
Parliamentary reform means taking up Dr. Coleman's challenge and asserting the emerging role of Parliament as a mediator between the public and government. It is about redefining representative democracy using the new tools and acknowledging that citizens have a lot more to offer than their voice every four years.
As a family physician it was clear to me that the patient had to be a partner in his or her care. Taking this patient as partner approach to the work in my riding has been one of the most rewarding aspects of being the member of Parliament for St. Paul's. From town hall meetings to neighbourhood checkups, to the grade five classroom, to the interactive website in my blog, to my Sunday night MSN chat with my young voters, I learn a great deal from the engaged citizens of St. Paul's.
We, as parliamentarians, must believe that we will indeed get better policy by consulting Canadians. The Prime Minister raised the bar as finance minister with the prebudget consultations. It was clear he respected that the expertise was in the trenches. The ideas would come from those who worked in those areas, unlike those who would dismiss engaged citizens as special interest groups.
As chair of the subcommittee on persons with disabilities, it was clear to me that the parents of children with disabilities were indeed experts. They could better delineate the gaps and duplication in supports and services than any policy analyst or academic. The Prime Minister demonstrated that respect and his ability to harvest the best ideas and solutions through these consultations.
The OECD wrote a document in 2001 called “Citizens as Partners” which identified three levels of citizen engagement. It is really important that whenever we engage citizens we let citizens know what level we are asking for. One, are the citizens simply being informed, a sort of transparency, the typical dad approach of government, decide, announce, defend? Or, are they being consulted? Do participants understand that the parameters include timing, budget constraints, federal-provincial realities? Or is it indeed a deliberative democracy exercise and is the government prepared to live with the results? Citizens, the OECD argues, must always be clear about the level in which they have been asked to participate.
Many of us realize that the third level of government may be a little bit more relevant, the municipal level. Carolyn Lukensmeyer demonstrated this in the replacement of the twin towers after 9/11. She used a fabulous process in which citizens actually rejected the first three architectural designs and sent them back to the drawing board in order to find a more therapeutic design which was the Libeskind model.
It was clear in the Romanow commission that the input of Canadians was essential. At no time did Canadians in that process feel like a process necessity. It was genuine. The title of the report “Building on Values” represented the might of thousands of Canadians. Canadians note that they are citizens of a community, a province and a country. It is only through putting citizens back at the centre of the debate that we will avoid the ridiculous jurisdictional squabbles that are so tiresome and counterproductive.
The 2003 success of the e-consultation on the future of CPP disability by the subcommittee on persons with disabilities set a benchmark for all parliamentary committees. The subcommittee's report recommended that all committees have an expanded information based website and consider e-consultation in much the same way as they consider travel, videoconferencing and other tools.
As a minister, I find that we are able to engage in this same wonderful process on the public health agency at www.healthycanadians.ca. I am very aware that the resources that I have as a minister of the crown in the government are way too big compared to that available to individual members of Parliament.
After tonight's debate I hope the minister will understand that there is huge support for basic websites and online chats as basic tools for a member of Parliament. The ability to host town hall meetings is imperative. The webcasting of committees is important, as is increased resources to the Library of Parliament so that we can have personnel to do the estimates on an annual basis, to create the content that is necessary in terms of citizen engagement in civic literacy, such that we can always know that the committees will get better and newer information than what is there as a government.
If I may, I just want to tell one tiny story about a constituent of mine, Lembi Buchanan, whose work as a truly engaged citizen was reflected in this year's budget. Lembi arrived in my office to tell me about the disability tax credit and how it was not fair to people with mental illness. We took that problem to the committee on status of persons with disabilities. We ended up with a unanimous report. When the government of the day did not do what the report said, we ended up with a unanimous vote in the House of Commons. We ended up with a technical advisory committee on which Lembi B sat.
All the recommendations of that technical advisory committee are now in the 2005 budget. It is huge to say that from riding to committee to the House to an advisory committee of government that this citizen and everything that she was working on worked.
The change consists not only in admitting the democratic deficit exists and in describing it, but also in showing how Canadians can work together with the members of Parliament to eliminate it by using all the tools available for this purpose.
I thank the minister for the opportunity to bring Parliament and citizen engagement into this century.