My basic objection is not that all ministers should be committed to public engagement, which of course they should be. Even this is insufficient for this reason. At the political level, ministers as directed by Cabinet constantly exercise discretion in the application of their duties. How to handle big issues is a major political calculation. Within that context, there is a serious risk that a public engagement commitment left in the hands of the government will not be consistently and objectively exercised if there is a risk of embarrassing the government or losing control of an issue. In short, if the public engagement mandate is solely the purview of the party in power, it will be exploited or ignored depending on the issue and the government agenda.
Our parliamentary system was designed with this problem in mind. It recognizes that there must be checks and balances on the power of the ruling party. It institutionalizes the role of opposition parties as legitimate representatives of citizens and provides systems through which differing opinions and alternative policy approaches can be engaged and considered by all elected members and the public, not just the governing party.
Unfortunately, these systems have atrophied of late, the victim of under-use and abuse. The role of the Legislature and its committees in considering new policy initiatives has been by-passed in favour of government fiat backed by public relations campaigns, manipulated consultations, or no consultation at all.
As the people’s House, the business of the Legislature must cease to be a sideshow to the main stage of government-controlled information, messaging and ‘engagement’ processes. The first order of democratic engagement must be to restore the Legislature to its proper role as the arbiter of good governance.
The established process is clear. The government presents to the Legislature a “white paper” which outlines in detail a new policy initiative, the reasons for it and the evidence on which it is based. This goes to a committee of the Legislature which conducts hearings, deliberates and prepares a report to the Legislature. The government prepares legislation based on the report. The legislation is introduced to the Legislature and goes through the process of first, second and third readings with opportunity for further committee work and lots of debate.
Nobody would argue that this system in its narrow form is an adequate public engagement process. Its strength is that it makes the government accountable to the Legislature and ensures transparency in the business of government. Its weakness is that as an ancient institution it is male-dominated and out of step with public expectations of accessible particicpation. Rather than further diminish the role of the Legislature, we need to innovate to make it truly the people’s House.
Besides electoral reform (a subject for another day), we need to make the government more accountable to the Legislature and the Legislature more accountable to the electorate through expanded public engagement.
Over the years, several accountability offices have been set up which report directly to the Legislature; the auditor-general and ombudsman are examples. This is where a new office for public engagement should be established, not in the bureaucracy with a political minister.
A Legislature Office for Public Engagement would be governed by legislation that would protect the right of citizens to participate in policy development, oblige the Legislature to implement effective participation processes, systematize public engagement through the Legislative committee process and design participation processes appropriate to the issue at hand. Finally, it would oversee the Legislature’s performance vis-à-vis its obligation.
One overarching principle is upheld in this approach. The Government is accountable to the Legislature, and the Legislature is the representative body of the people. Thus the Legislature must be vested with the power and responsibility to ensure the effective working of our democracy. The current drift of the Legislature towards irrelevancy must be halted. It can be if citizens insist on reclaiming it as their House.
Janice Harvey is a freelance columnist, university lecturer and president of the New Brunswick Green Party. She can be reached by email at waweig at xplornet.ca.