Rebalancing and Revitalizing Canadian Governance

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, 07 June 2006
What can be done to make Canada the best governed democratic federation in the world?

This is the question we address in the third volume of our Canada Strong and Free study for the Fraser Institute, released last night in Ottawa under the title of Rebalanced and Revitalized.

Transparency and Accountability

We first of all propose a variety of measures for significantly improving the transparency and accountability of government. The necessity of such measures became particularly apparent after the revelations of the Gomery Inquiry and Auditor General’s reports disclosing scandalous abuses of public trust and gross misuses of public money by the previous federal administration.

We commend the new federal administration for its Accountability Bill presently before parliament and recommend something similar, with even tougher penalties for infractions, under the heading of a “Sarbanes Oxley” law for governments – a law which would demand the same standards of ethical behavior from governments as is currently demanded from public corporations following prominent private sector scandals.

We further recommend: improved internal financial reporting systems modeled after Ontario’s Integrated Financial Information System; strengthening freedom of information through substantive changes to the Access to Information Act; expanding the powers of the Auditor General to compel compliance with the AG’s recommendations; and increasing the Auditor General’s independence from the government by funding the office through a direct parliamentary appropriation.

Perhaps not surprisingly – since the Fraser Institute has pioneered Report Cards for schools and hospitals as a way of increasing the transparency and accountability of those institutions – we recommend the development of an annual Report Card on Government to achieve the same objective.

Menu of Democratic Reforms

Secondly, we challenge Canadians to choose from a carefully researched Menu of Democratic Reforms those measures which they believe will best address the so-called “democracy deficit” in our country – the declining public respect and support for democratic institutions and declining participation in elections.

This Menu includes such reforms as: expanded civic education; greater use of Citizens’ Assemblies as modeled in British Columbia; fixed election dates, now being established by several provinces and the federal government; electoral system reform, now being actively pursued by five provinces; expanded use of direct-democracy measures such as referenda, citizens’ initiatives, and recall; the strengthening of third-party advocacy and financing; reform of the Court Challenges Program; freer voting in Parliament and the legislatures, particularly on reforms to democratic processes and institutions; more responsible government for aboriginals by changing the method whereby funds are provided to aboriginal people and their governments; reform of party financing and procedures; and development of more robust political infrastructure beneath and around the political parties – including stronger capacity for idea generation, communications, and training political participants.

Neither we nor the Fraser Institute necessarily endorse all these potential reforms in their entirety. But we feel that each has sufficient merit to commend it to serious consideration, and provide extensive references to enable readers to investigate each reform thoroughly for themselves.

Rebalancing the Three Levels and Branches of Government

In recent years, the Canadian federation has suffered the strains of Quebec separatism, chronic western alienation, the inability of our cities to adequately discharge their growing responsibilities, constant federal-provincial tensions rooted in the aggressive use of the federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction, and the current concerns over “fiscal imbalances.” A concentrated effort is required to “rebalance” Canadian federalism – to get the right dynamic balance between the roles and resources of our three levels of government.

Based on the principle that social services especially are best delivered and financed by the level of government closest to the people requiring them, we recommend: that the federal government withdraw from such provincial areas of provincial jurisdiction, in particular, health care, education, social assistance, and child care, and that it also cede the equivalent tax room to the provinces to better finance such services.

We further recommend that the provinces make greater use of inter-provincial bridge building agreements to pursue their common interests and to strengthen national unity and that the national government be strengthened in those areas where no one questions its roles and responsibilities – foreign policy, international trade, the criminal code, and defense.

We also observe with concern the ever increasing power of the executive arm of government, and an over-reliance on the courts and judicial activism as a check on that power. This suggests the need for a further rebalancing - namely, that of achieving the right dynamic balance between the Parliament, the executive, and the judiciary.

As a needed check on judicial activism we recommend a more transparent process for judicial appointments and rehabilitation of the notwithstanding clause of our Constitution by making its use subject not only to political prudence but to approval by referendum. As an alternative to an expanded role for the judiciary in constraining the use of executive power, we propose a strengthening of the role and resources of parliamentary committees, and proceeding expeditiously with the creation of a democratically elected Senate.

Beyond Public Policy Prescriptions

The public policy prescriptions we propose can go a long way towards ensuring the transparency and accountability of governments, rebalancing relations between the three levels and branches of government, and addressing Canada’s democratic deficit.

But for these measures to be truly effective, they need to be combined with complementary values and convictions in the hearts and minds of those who govern and aspire to govern – namely, personal integrity, a strong belief in “power sharing” as the central principle of federalism, and what Alexis de Tocqueville called that “democratic passion” which seeks to extend rather than constrain the freedom and authority of the governed.

Unite these values and convictions with the policy proposals put forward in Rebalanced and Reinvigorated: A Canada Strong and Free and we are convinced that our children and yours will live in a Canada which is in fact the best governed democratic federation in the world.

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