Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform

Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform

September 10, 2007 20:56 ET

Canada's New Government Releases Independent Report on Public Consultations on Democratic Reform

OTTAWA, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - Sept. 10, 2007) - Today, the Honourable Peter Van Loan, Leader of the Government in the House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform, released a report titled, "Public Consultations on Canada's Democratic Institutions and Practices."

The report is the outcome of independent public consultations on democratic reform and it fulfills a commitment made in the Speech from the Throne.

"Canada's New Government committed to consult Canadians on the state of our democracy," Minister Van Loan said. "With the release of the report, we have fulfilled that commitment."

The public consultations process consisted of 12 citizens' forums held across the country from March to May 2007. One forum was held in each province, one forum was held in the territories, and there was one national youth forum. For each of the forums, the participants were roughly representative of the general population. A large telephone survey was conducted as well.

Participants were asked to provide their views on a wide range of issues, including:

- The role of the House of Commons

- The role of the Senate

- The role of political parties

- Electoral reform

- The role of the citizen in a democracy

"We approached the consultations process with a clear goal: to move beyond the vested interests, entrenched institutions and powerful lobbyists in Ottawa to determine the views of average Canadians, whose voices in this day and age often aren't heard," said Minister Van Loan. "I am pleased to say we have achieved that goal."

"Canada's New Government will now carefully study the report and take the views expressed by the participants into consideration as we move forward on our plan to strengthen accountability through democratic reform."

"However, according to the report, it is clear that the Canadian people strongly support our efforts to modernize the Senate with 79% of Canadians supporting Senate elections and 65% supporting term limits for Senators."

The report can be viewed at www.democraticreform.gc.ca (a summary is attached)



Role of the Citizen in Democracy

Two broad themes were explored in the forums and survey interviews-(a) how citizens involve themselves in the democratic process (e.g. by voting) and in society (e.g. through voluntary organizations) and (b) how the federal government does and should consult with citizens.

In a tradition attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, many scholars and commentators link participation in voluntary organizations to participation in the democratic process. Forum participants perceived both types of participation as regrettably in decline, but saw little intrinsic link between the two.

Most forum participants believed that governments do not consult people regularly and felt that consultation was often not genuine. As remedies for encouraging public engagement in the democratic process, forum participants tended to recommend better, more respectful consultation and stronger civics education to give young people a greater appreciation of our system. A desire for stronger civics education emerged spontaneously in discussions of all topics.

The survey data revealed exceptionally high levels of interest in more government consultation. Survey data also revealed moderate levels of knowledge of how our democratic system works. Self-reported knowledge of how the government consults is especially low. Self-reported knowledge of how the system works tends to be uniform across Canada except among First Nations/ Metis/Inuit respondents. Causal modeling reveals that all of the lower knowledge among First Nations/ Metis/Inuit is a byproduct of generally lower levels of education.

House of Commons

Forum discussions leave an impression that Canadians know more about the House of Commons than the Senate and other institutions and practices, and yet feel that they ought to know more. According to the survey data, Canadians appear to know more about Question Period, which they value less than other facets of Commons work, than about committee work and how MPs undertake consultations, which the public values highly and of which it would like to see a lot more.

MPs figure prominently in how Canadians assess the House of Commons and how they perceive our democratic process. Mistrust of MPs and frustration with the operation of the House of Commons figure emerged repeatedly in forum discussions. Recurrent themes are that what MPs say and do are little understood. The public is skeptical of Members' ability to follow through on promises. When MPs consult, they are often seen as having limited influence because of the importance of party discipline. Crossing the floor emerged as one of a number of factors intensifying mistrust in some of the forums in Western Canada.

Though not unanimous on the issue, Canadians have some serious reservations about tone and demeanor in Question Period. A majority (64%) believe that "Debates in Question Period are often disrespectful, reducing public respect for the House of Commons." They would like to see the Speaker exercise stronger control.

A need for more public knowledge emerges from the survey data. Respondents as a whole would like to know more about how the Commons and how MPs consult Canadians. They would also like information to be readily accessible when they want or need it. Forum participants believe that the public would benefit most of all from greater knowledge of how Committees and Members' constituency offices work.


Evidence that Canadians know little about the Senate emerges from both the forums and the survey. Lack of knowledge may be a factor in misgivings about the Upper House voiced by forum participants and survey respondents. Self-reported knowledge of the Senate seems especially low among Quebecers, the young, and First Nations/Metis/Inuit.

Some of the misgivings heard in forum discussions have their roots in concern about the patronage basis of appointments. Some qualms are also rooted in concern about Western Canada's perceived under-representation, felt across the country and especially in the West. Participants were nonetheless averse to major constitutional changes requiring provincial consent, such as seat redistribution, for fear of opening up a Pandora's box.

The survey data show that Canadians favour Senate elections by large margins (79%) and believe in parity of representation by region. Forum participants seemed as favourable to parity of representation by region as survey respondents while somewhat ambiguous in their view of Senate elections and appreciative of the traditional and varied roles of the Senate.

Political Parties

The general image emerging from the forums is one of political parties losing attention and respect from citizens. Parties were generally perceived as not interested in recruiting members or hearing from ordinary citizens, not good at communicating, not accountable, somewhat secretive, and not sufficiently honest in their communications, promises, and platforms.

In the spirit of their skeptical views of political parties, forum participants were generally unenthusiastic about public funding for party-affiliated foundations that would engage in policy development and undertake outreach programs to youth or other low participation voters. Participants nonetheless felt these functions were valuable and needed encouragement.

According to the survey data, Canadians feel that they understand parties at least as well as other aspects of the democratic process. They have clear ideas about what they want parties to emphasize-reaching out to Canadians and developing fresh policy ideas, not explaining how they differ from each other or organizing for elections.

Electoral System

The discussion of the federal electoral system focused on the criteria for choosing the rules that should govern how ballots are cast to chose MPs. For ease of analysis and discussion, participants were asked to consider three main options: (a) today's plurality or first-past-the-post system; (b) a mixed system (part plurality, part proportional representation; and (c) a preferential or Single Transferable Vote (STV) ballot in multi-member ridings.

Given the broad scope of the consultations, forum participants were not asked to choose one electoral system over another though they were free to convey system preferences. They were asked to identify the broad principles, values, or criteria that should guide the rules that govern how ballots are cast and counted, for example, fairness vs. stable or effective government. As previously noted, forum participants were not entirely pleased with political parties and other components of the democratic system, but they did not express much frustration or disappointment with the rules governing how ballots are cast to choose MPs.

Survey respondents were asked to score the value of six electoral system criteria. In their opinion, the ideal electoral system should above all produce clear winners so that voters can make politicians understand how they feel. In a similar spirit, survey respondents tended to agree that a system with local constituencies represented by a single MP is a good idea because it makes it easier for people to know their MP and get their MP's help in solving problems.

We also undertook multivariate statistical analysis (factor analysis) to reveal the structure of Canadians' thinking on these electoral system outcome issues. The factor analysis of their evaluation scores yields two factors or two ways of thinking: a pro-reform factor representing a desire to make it easier for small parties to get elected, favourable feelings towards coalition governments, and other pro-reform ideas vs. a pro-status quo factor representing the idea that majority governments, producing clear winners, and other status quo ideas are desirable. The emergence of these two factors lends support to the idea that Canadians have a good understanding of the arguments pro and con even if they lack the detailed knowledge available to experts.

Contact Information

  • Office of the Leader of the Government in the House
    of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform
    Michael White
    Communications Assistant