Governance Reform: By David Dougherty:
Different Thinking That
May Get Us Out of the Mess We’ve Created
T. David Dougherty, B.Sc., M.E.Des.
Retired Environmental Scientist
Human societies have evolved greatly in the last few thousand years. We used to live in small tribes—where all were related and everyone had common interests—in which there was usually a leader, but decisions required consensus. A few tribal communities continue to exist, mostly in remote places.
As our populations grew and cities emerged—where people from many tribes mixed and interests were more varied—leaders grew more powerful, usually through rewarding people who would offer them goods and services, and punishing opponents. Sometimes even innocent people were punished as examples just to keep most of the population in line. Eventually kings and emperors emerged in this feudal world. There continue to be many such societies.
In some places, such as early Greece in the Hellenic Period, democratic government emerged in city-states in response to people recognizing that citizens have equal rights and no-one has necessarily better solutions to societal problems. Each citizen had the right to vote in an assembly. Of course, there were problems with the early definitions of citizenship: women and slaves, in particular, suffered from lack of rights. Even in the modern Western democracies, the recognition of rights remains problematic, with women and many ethnic sub-populations being subject to discrimination and differential treatment.
As the modern Western democracies emerged, those who had gained power and wealth in the feudal system continued to exert great influence over the governance of nations, provinces and states, and cities and towns. They created a system of representative government in which citizens did not vote directly on government policy. Rather, citizens had the option (sometimes the requirement) to join political parties that elected candidates (via a nomination process) to run in general elections. Each sub-division of a geographic unit (nations, provinces and states, and cities and towns) then had a slate of candidates, usually from different political parties with published proposals. Candidates then campaigned to garner support for themselves and generate dislike for their opponents. When the campaign was over, all citizens had the option (again, sometimes the requirement) to vote in the general elections. The winner in each sub-division attended an assembly as the elected representative of all citizens (and non-voting person) in that electoral unit.
Proportional representation—there are many variants—emerged in the latter part of the 20th century in recognition of the fact that elected representatives in the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system often were not representing all their constituents. This version of democracy allows political parties to place representatives in an assembly based on the proportion of the popular vote given to each. The idea is that minorities are better represented and less likely to be abused in such a system.
Whether FPTP or proportional, we know there are many serious problems with modern democracy. As Winston Churchill famously put it when Prime Minister of Great Britain, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Elected representative often complete their work out of the public eye—indeed, Cabinet secrecy is usually a requirement. Secrecy often leads to self-interest and favouritism, where select people are informed of coming changes, allowing them to profit from those changes. Of course, self-interest and favouritism do not just happen when secrecy is involved—representatives are free to pass laws and put in place regulations or policies that favour themselves and their friends or disadvantage particular sub-populations. This can include blatant nepotism, where family members are given highly paid civil service positions—when the appointees to departments, boards, agencies, and Crown corporations are friends and long-time party supporters, we call it patronage. It can also include blatant theft, where goods and services are obtained by representatives that are refused to citizens and others in the populace. A variant on theft is graft, where representatives obtain money or favours—often in secret (think of brown bags full of small bills)—in return for laws, regulations, or policies that favour donors. Examples of all these problems (and more) abound in virtually every administration—the only recourse for dissatisfied citizens in the ‘kick the bums out’ in the next election.
In effect, rent-seeking elites can and do capture a jurisdiction and put it to their own selfish uses. Here, I mean rent-seeking in the classical economics sense: the use of the resources of a company, an organization (even a country, state or province, city or town), or an individual for economic gain from others without reciprocating benefits to society. For example, a company may manipulate a government for loan subsidies, grants, or tariff protection, with profits taken to offshore tax havens.
Unfortunately, the problems have only worsened in the modern world that has emerged in the 21st century. The influence of money has become profound, in part because of lax campaign finance rules. The politico-economic system created by past governments has concentrated wealth, allowing those who hold it to use modern forms of communication to publish propaganda. Elected politicians often promise one set of things (to get votes) and deliver something quite different (to reward friends, family, donors, and the like). Vested interests hold firm sway. Politicians and their supporters often fail to see the public interest and concentrate on what interests and benefits them while disadvantaging others. Again, examples are legion.
As Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” I like to paraphrase this as ‘the thinking that got us into this mess won’t get us out of it.’
What we need is not delving into alternative policies. It is a fundamental alternative solution. I believe it exists before our collective eyes: a modification of the jury system that is central to Western jurisprudence. Our jury system that works quite well. It involves a list of local citizens (usually the eligible voters list, the vehicle registration database, health insurance records, or similar public records) from which potential jury members are selected. Representatives of the two opposing sides in a legal case can question each potential jury member and reject those they feel may not judge the case fairly, though eventually a full set of 12 jurists must be selected, sometimes with alternates in case jurists must be dropped during the case. Citizens called for possible jury duty have the option to decline for various reasons, including knowledge of the case, economic hardship, and infirmity.
There is no reason that people could not be appointed to assemblies—departments, boards, agencies, and Crown corporations, too, for that matter—at random from a pool of citizens through a similar process. That pool must not to be subject to manipulation or to exclude people because of age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability. Appointment process should be overseen by senior judges, themselves chosen at random from a list of judges pre-qualified based on education and experience. Each candidate should be required to pass the citizenship text and show—in public before a judge—sufficient education, competence (literacy, numeracy, politics, history, and science), availability, and willingness to serve for a limited term, probably four years.
Each candidate should also be able to demonstrate competence and responsibility by never having been a principal in a personal or corporate bankruptcy or convicted of a felony.
Each candidate should be of legal age (presumably the age of eligibility for military service) and be a citizen resident in the particular jurisdiction assigning members to its assembly.
There would be a role for political parties in vetting candidates just as potential jurors are now vetted by the lawyers of each side. Party representatives could weed out people (with written justification) they felt incapable of discharging their responsibilities in the pubic interest. If 300 candidates were drawn from which 100 were to be appointed in a particular year, if the party representatives were to reject the first 200, the remaining 100 would all be appointed without further review.
While there would be no pension, those serving would be sufficiently paid (though not overly so), provided they actually attend to their duties, being present when the assembly in sitting. The salary should be set at three times the minimum wage in the relevant jurisdiction. Say each representative were to work an average of 2,000 hours a year—socializing time would not count. With a minimum wage of $15 per hour, the average worker would receive $30,000 per year and each representative would receive $90,000 per year, with four weeks of vacation. To give themselves a raise, the representatives would need to raise the minimum wage. There would be plenty of people would be willing to serve who are at least as qualified, if not more so, than the party faithful who are there now.
For Canada, in the first year of the federal House of Commons, the number of seats should be increased to 400 and fixed there. At random, 100 sitting Members of Parliament would be forced to resign. They would be replaced by the 100 newly chosen citizen representatives. The following year, another 100 would be chosen to resign and replaced. Eventually, all elected representatives would be gone and fresh blood would be getting constantly injected into the assembly.
Every year, the representatives would have the option to put themselves forward for Parliamentary and Cabinet positions. They would vote amongst themselves for a Speaker to oversee proceedings, a Prime Minister, and Cabinet members. All votes would be open, with no parties and no whips. Any member not present to vote would not receive pay for that day. To help members be more able to understand situations and possible solutions, and to deal with facing many fellow citizens in chamber, the civil service would provide training and advice in open fora. At present, that function is often done by political parties, though there are some government and not-for-profit agencies that give training (e.g., World Bank Institute, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Canadian Parliamentary Centre).
Members would only be eligible for one term at a particular jurisdictional level. They would have a guarantee of return to work or a non-management civil service or military position. Instead of the current system of accountability—which is weak in that elected persons can simply be voted out at the next election (while remaining eligible for other positions, even elected, and partisan patronage appointments)–members would be subject to public scrutiny of their deliberations and decisions, and would have no immunity from prosecution. No lobbying behind closed doors would be permitted and all meetings between members and parties outside the civil service would be subject to prior notice and attendance by any interested party (to a maximum of 12), with secret meetings becoming unlawful under the Criminal Code. So too would receipt by any member of any payments or gift in excess of two times the federal minimum wage within a one-year period.
The same system could be used for the Senate, which—despite some recent improvements—remains a faint shadow of the chamber of sober second thought it was meant to be.
At once, some observers might raise objections and insist the current system is preferable, but it is time we all admit that the current system does not give us the responsive government we seek. Members of assemblies in the new system would be at least as motivated to reach consensus on the best policies for the nation as those who currently sit in the House. Indeed, they could well be more so as they could make names for themselves by wise decisions and become infamous by indecision or stupidity.
Those observers might cry about creating chaos in the assembly and that few people introduced to the assembly in an unfamiliar situation, with hundreds of observers in the chamber, would be willing to say anything or cast votes on proposed policies. Assembly members might feel a lack of experience and confidence that they can make a difference and that their opinions matter. They might not want to be made to look foolish and it might be difficult to build consensus when everyone is insecure. It could even be difficult for leaders to emerge from amongst the members. All of that might lead to the civil service or outside influences taking control. I don’t see that: I think we’re pretty well-educated people with the skills and knowledge to generate reasonable policies and to respond to the changing world around us. We drive cars, run households, raise children, and stand ready to defend our country, surely we can participate in running it!
Importantly, the current undue influence of people and corporations with plenty of cash would be eliminated and members would be much less vulnerable to manipulation and even bribery. No member would require funds to run an election campaign and each would be under constant scrutiny. They would not be overpaid or receive perquisites of which other citizens can only dream.
Critically, people who get economic power—by whatever means—would be much less able dictate policy and law. The current system’s tendency to generate politicians who know how to manipulate people would be severely curtailed.
I fear that, unless we can bring about the sort of peaceful revolution this proposal involves, we will eventually face the sort of violent revolution so many previous societies have faced. In that context, democracy as we know it is a red herring. It’s a distraction; a panacea for the people. Those in power are hidden. This new system would give real power to the people and truly be government by the people and for the people.
People are fed up with the current system and often don’t bother to vote, let alone belong to political parties. That means we are not actually getting representative government, let alone the “good government” outlined in our Constitution.
To any who might say it is better to deal with The Devil we know, I say that is still the devil and is hurting us badly. It’s time to move on. How we might do so remains to be seen. Perhaps we, as citizens, can press for current political parties to introduce the proposal for this new system into their platforms; perhaps it will take us forming a new political movement to run candidates that will, upon election in the current system, introduce the change.