Canada's democracy needs a major upgrade.

  • National Newswatch

Our current system for making decisions is hurting our country. We need to create mechanisms for governments and citizens to better communicate.Canada has become obsessed with whether our country is “broken”. The national handwringing dominates everything from parliamentary debates to reviews of the federal budget, with voices from every corner declaring their stance. Beyond the rhetoric, the conversation about how well our institutions are serving Canadians is an important one. Yet there's one element missing from the debate that is crucial to solving the challenges we face: our democracy desperately needs an upgrade.Canada's system of democratic decision-making lacks key communication channels that would better connect citizens to their governments — and save us from playing a never-ending game of “broken telephone” with bureaucrats and politicians.In an ideal democratic system, citizens identify the problems they want governments to tackle, tell policymakers which factors matter most to them when deciding how to solve those problems, and get a final vote on whether a government's proposed solutions reflects their interests. In Canada's democracy, citizens only get a formal chance to weigh in on the final step of this process. We have almost no meaningful say in the first two steps.Think about the ways we formally engage with our governments. We vote in elections, we participate in consultations or town halls, or we speak to our representatives. These first two options allow us to endorse or reject pre-made solutions, but not to substantively contribute to the content or crafting of those solutions. In elections, for example, we don't vote on which problems governments should prioritize — we only vote for political parties. Those parties typically do all the work in-house to identify which community problems matter enough to merit government action. They also apply their partisan or ideological lens to decide which values should be reflected in any proposed solution, before putting forward a fully baked portfolio of policy solutions. The electorate's role in influencing how our tax dollars are spent is limited to picking between a small handful of ready-made party platforms.The same challenge exists for consultations. Stakeholders are engaged only to weigh in on what they want to see in policy solutions, not in earlier phases of the democratic process. That's too far down the line to have any real power in developing a government's agenda. Engaging directly with your representatives does offer a chance to have your voice heard, but that approach is too individualized to allow for mass participation and offers no path for holding governments accountable if they ignore communities' problems.Without more opportunities for dialogue on local problems, values and priorities, citizens feel disconnected from their governments. Polling consistently shows that citizens feel governments aren't prioritizing the issues that matter most to them, leading to frustration and resentment. There are also risks for governments. Without channels to hear directly from citizens, their ability to serve the public is limited. Government policies may have unintended negative consequences, like directing spending for industrial projects towards areas that don't have the infrastructure to sustain them, or by not putting enough policies in place to support the growth of housing supply as we increase our immigration targets. Both limit our economic growth and can make life harder for the communities they aim to help.It's in everyone's best interests to create more opportunities for citizens to tell governments which problems to solve, and what matters in solving them. This is especially important when considering complex, pressing issues like climate change, crypto-currency regulation and A.I., where solutions have costs and benefits with far-reaching implications. Most of us don't know enough about these complicated topics to meaningfully weigh in on whether a proposed NDP, Liberal or Conservative solution would best solve the problem. In the absence of needed debate, we rely on our ideological allegiances to let us know if we should support a solution.This is fuelling politicization and hurting our country. We need a system that lets us give meaningful input earlier in the process, to help governments understand what to prioritize when creating policies. This would allow governments to develop different policies that work best for different communities, tackling our biggest challenges in ways that better reflect our values.The best way to fix our “broken telephone” is by designing a better democratic system that gives citizens more power to set the agenda. We need new, formalized channels for citizens to communicate with governments, to make it clear which problems they should be prioritizing. We need policymakers to become more amenable to developing policies that reflect the values and priorities of people in the communities that are impacted by their choices. And we need to spend more time thinking about whether a given policy idea will actually fix a problem we have, instead of simply whether it aligns with our worldview.Regardless of where you stand on the “Canada is broken” debate, our democracy sorely needs an upgrade. Our current approach gives too much power to political parties, stokes politicization, and makes it near impossible for Canadians to solve our most complex problems. To fix it, we need to build new democratic mechanisms that give citizens more power to set our governments' agendas. If we don't, we may as well add our democracy to the list of things that make Canada broken.John McNally is a policy researcher working on regional economic and climate challenges with communities across Canada. His work has been featured in the Globe and Mail, Macleans, Corporate Knights and the National Observer. John is based in Toronto.