That the committee take note of citizen engagement.
Mr. Chair, I am pleased to participate in this take note debate on citizen engagement in the democratic process.
Take note debates provide an important opportunity for the government to listen and, of course, to take note of the views of members of Parliament.
As Minister responsible for Democratic Reform, I and my officials have been working to better comprehend the root causes of the democratic deficit in Canada. The government believes that, rather than jump to solutions, it is critical first to gain a better understanding of the nature of the problem.
And my view is that it is essential to involve parliamentarians in this process of renewal. Indeed, it would be foolish to fail to engage them in an examination of Canadian democratic institutions and practices. This take-note debate is an important part of that process.
Why citizen engagement? With the support of opposition House leaders and opposition critics, I have chosen citizen engagement as the theme of this take-note debate because I believe it is at the very heart of democratic renewal. I would like to thank the critics of the other parties, the members for Lanark—Frontenac—Lennox and Addington, Roberval—Lac-Saint-Jean and Ottawa Centre for their contribution and their suggestions.
In recent years, it has become clear that Canadians wish to play a greater role in public policy-making. Gone are the days when citizens were content to participate politically only at election time. Studies have shown that Canadians wish to have more opportunities to involve themselves in policy-making processes. They want their elected representatives to make decisions. But they do want their voices to be heard before those decisions are made.
Citizen engagement is important not only because it improves the quality of government policies, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, because it encourages active citizenship.
A healthy and vibrant democracy requires citizens who are informed and who participate actively in promoting their own conception of the public interest.
Beyond taking an interest in their communities and their country between elections, active citizens also exercise their right to vote—and do so in a more informed manner.
The question arises, then, as to how we can improve citizen engagement by the government and also by members of Parliament.
The first area I would like to deal with is how to improve citizen engagement by ministers and their officials.
In the development of public policy it is important for departments to involve citizens. Canadians expect to be involved by the government of the day and in some instances the Government of Canada is legally obliged to consult the public.
The executive branch of government in the country currently does a significant amount of public consultation. However, while it may often seem from our perspective that departments have vast resources at their disposal to consult and engage citizens, often there are time and financial pressures against involving citizens. Moreover, in many instances there is still a lack of expertise in many departments concerning public involvement techniques.
The New Brunswick commission on legislative democracy has recently recommended the creation of a public dialogue office. This government agency would have permanent staff and resources to put on public engagement exercises for departments as required.
The advantage of having a single office responsible for public engagement is that it would be a repository of knowledge and experience for engaging citizens on a wide range of issues. It may be worthwhile to consider a similar structure federally.
However, citizen engagement by the executive raises serious questions about the role of members of Parliament in representing Canadians. Specifically, can investments by the executive branch of government in consultation and engagement processes undermine the role of parliamentarians? Are parliamentarians not expected to be the primary conduit for the views of citizens into the policy-making process?
My view is that we must be careful not to undermine the representative roles of members of Parliament. This is not to say that the executive branch should not be involving citizens in policy development. It should and we should improve its capacity to do so. It is just that we have to be very careful not to sideline parliamentarians.
Ultimately the question is one of legitimacy. If ministers and their departments have significant resources to be able to engage citizens and members of Parliament only have the means to be able to reach out to Canadians in a fairly limited manner, then their legitimacy with citizens will decline over time.
Therefore, the next issue I would like to raise is how well members of Parliament perform in connecting with the citizens we represent. I suspect that most of us are quite proud of the work we do in helping our constituents to navigate their way through what can be a maze of government services. What about actively engaging citizens on policy issues?
If we are speaking on behalf of our constituents, how well do we really understand their views in a variety of areas? Today all members of Parliament have constituency offices. These offices play an important role in assisting our constituents with immigration processes, helping with passports and dealing with the difficulties of employment insurance claims, for instance. These services are important for the citizens and we reach them this way.
However, what about the majority of citizens who do not use constituency offices? Are we effective enough at reaching out to talk about the concerns of Canadians? Should constituency offices have additional staff with a knowledge of citizen engagement techniques to be able to reach out on policy issues? Are constituency offices set up in the right places so they can be our hubs of community oriented activity? Are they meeting places for people looking to solve local challenges? Finally, should constituency offices have greater resources in order to be more effective?
The expertise on this matter lies first and foremost among members of Parliament. I would be interested in the views of the members of Parliament on this important question. It seems to me that we can do a great deal more with constituency offices to connect with the citizens we serve.
Another key area where I would like to seek the views of other members is in citizen involvement in the work of parliamentary committees. Here I have a number of questions about the nature of the committee hearing processes.
First, while committees sometimes hold hearings in various parts of Canada, my question is should they be doing more to reach out to citizens to provide Canadians with more opportunities to engage with the policy-making process?
Second, are committee hearings as welcoming to citizens as they should be or could be? Many citizens see committee hearings as overly formal, distant, uninviting forums where they would feel reluctant to put forward their views. How do young people feel about committee hearings, for example?
Third, do we need a parliamentary public dialogue centre which would be a repository of resources and expertise to be used by parliamentarians when engaging citizens? This centre could be used both by parliamentary committees as well as by individual members of Parliament wishing to engage citizens.
Overall I put the question to the members. How can we improve and open up the committee process to better serve Canadians?
The last issue related to public engagement that I would like to discuss today is civic literacy. All forms of political participation—from voting to advocacy work—require a certain level of civic literacy.
Civic literacy, at a basic level, involves an understanding of political structures and processes, along with knowledge concerning the issues facing one’s community, one’s country and the world.
Beyond this, civic literacy is also the knowledge and experience concerning how to make a difference, whether that is through creating a group of citizens to address a local issue, writing to the media, meeting with one’s member of Parliament, or lobbying a minister.
The data that we have on civic literacy is limited. However, what we do know about the issue is not especially comforting. In 2000, for example, 46 % of Canadians could identify no more than one of the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance and the Leader of the Official Opposition
I would be interested in the views of my fellow parliamentarians on a number of questions:
First, do we all agree that rates of civic literacy are low? Second, if we do agree on this, what steps should the Government of Canada be taking to address this issue?
Moreover, given that education is a provincial responsibility, what is the role for the federal government in this area? Finally, what programs are needed, if any, to provide young people with the knowledge and experience necessary to be active citizens?
Mr. Chair, in conclusion I would like to quote from Judith Maxwell, President of the Canadian Policy Research Networks, who has noted that:
Dialogue is an essential ingredient for representative government in 21st century Canada … It is about governments listening to a sustained conversation among citizens themselves on the issues that matter most to them as citizens.
Of course, representative democracy is also about the dialogue that takes place in this House. This is why I look forward to hearing from other members on this important matter.