What does meaningful public consultation look like?

Nathaniel Erskine-Smith
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith PHOTO: Submitted

Globally, we are in the midst of a democratic recession. We are no doubt lucky to live in Canada, but we should also strive to strengthen our democracy where possible, and to guard against decline.

At the end of March, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by the civic engagement NGO Samara Canada on the future of Canadian democracy. The panel talk coincided with the release of Samara’s Democracy 360 report, in which it surveyed the health of our democracy, and offered five recommendations for renewal.

Among the five recommendations: “Meaningful consultation of the public by MPs.” As Samara’s report notes, such consultation “pays dividends in connecting citizens to politics, and in solving Canada’s most complex problems.”

The question of meaningful consultation is one we are constantly working to tackle here in Beaches-East York. While communication between Canadians and political representatives has increased recently, only 32 per cent of Canadians reported contacting an elected official themselves.

So, how can political representatives more effectively engage with Canadians?

This is not a rhetorical question. I want your feedback, as we look for ways to better engage and consult.

As it stands, we have been active in hosting public meetings on specific issues. For example, we recently hosted a town hall on drug policy with a panel of experts, and a breakfast meeting to answer questions about our 2017 federal budget. In the past, we’ve covered topics from the environment, to electoral reform, to C-51, and more.

Since not everyone is inclined, or has time, to attend a town hall, we also send regular updates and ask for feedback by mail, through our monthly email newsletter, and online at facebook.com/beynatemp and twitter/com/beynate. Over the coming months, you can expect to receive a survey letter in your mailbox, with a postage-paid return envelope.

As the world continues to move online, the majority of the feedback we receive is by email (Nathaniel.Erskine-Smith@parl.gc.ca), and we are aiming to increase our social media engagement, which tends to reach a larger audience and allows for more interactive debate. To this end, we streamed our drug policy town hall on Facebook Live, and I will be hosting an online Facebook Q&A session on May 17 at 7 p.m.

Now, all of the above attempts to consult still require fairly active participation by constituents. They require attending a public meeting, filling out a survey and putting it in the mail, or adding one’s voice by posting a comment online or by sending an email.

To consult more broadly, we also seek out people who otherwise don’t seek out politics themselves.

You can often find me speaking at classrooms across our riding. I tell students that politics, as frustrating as it can be, remains one of the most significant ways of making a real difference in other people’s lives.

This year, I’ve challenged classes to read 150 pieces of Canadian literature by May 31, with an offer of certificates, pins, flags, and the potential to win a free bus trip to Parliament Hill.

Most importantly, I continue to attend events and to knock on doors. These doorstep conversations inform both our advocacy with Ministers and my voting record in the House. As but one example, based on concerns we heard about the Saudi arms sale, I voted to support a motion to create a parliamentary committee to review arms exports. More examples can be found on my “voting record” page online at beynate.ca.

When I first decided to get involved in politics, I committed to grassroots democracy and making our politics about ideas. As your Member of Parliament, I remain committed to those goals.

What else can and should I be doing as your voice in Ottawa? How can we improve our constituency office services? Are there ways we can more effectively engage and consult with the community? What should our democracy look like in 2017?

The more you provide me with your ideas and feedback, the better representative I will be.

 

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3 comments

While our country is among the most democratic in the world, we still fall well short of the ideal – the 5 recommendations in the Samara report at http://www.samaracanada.com/research/2017-democracy-360 are certainly worth persuing.

But note number 4: Empowered representatives: Striking a healthy balance of power between parties, party leaders and MPs is at the heart of meaningful and effective Parliament. MPs require the time and autonomy to study legislation and hold government to account, and cross-partisan committees should be empowered and respected.

At times, our system has been referred to as an “elected dictatorship” – under Chrieten and under Harper this was certainly apt.

The reforms to parliamentary procedure are controversial because they might further erode the power of MPs, and particularly opposition MPs to play a meaningful role and hold the government to account. It used to be that opposition MPs could stop debate and passage of laws and things were far more “gentlemanly” – but this was until the 1950s when a Liberal government used closure over pipelines, and from there things have been downhill and things have become far more partisan.

While the government should keep its promises to disallow omnibus bills, it should not unilaterally change the rules in ways that ALL the opposition parties reject. In addition, government should be increasing the ability of MPs to pass private members bills.

My own current issue is the ability of parties…

My own current issue is the “vetting process” and the ability of parties to “vet” out candidates from the top down because the party leader or elite don’t want someone instead of leaving it up to the local party members/constituents to pick who they want, warts and all. Parties are too top down and few people join political parties because party membership confers so few rights and powers to local members, except maybe when it comes times to elect the party leader, because people now that leaders wield power and often don’t consult (such as Trudeau’s announcement regarding Senators that came out of the blue a few years ago, or his current policies of a trade deal with China or privatising airports, which were not discussed during the election)

We need to find ways to increase involvement in political parties – maybe we need a “bill of rights” to ensure that parties are not as top down as they currently are.

Nate,
Thanks for your summary of your commitment to improved democracy. I recommend your sending via social media AND by email, summaries of the public forums that you are holding, together with your assessment of the value of theses forums based on how you and other MPs are making progress in improving democracy.
Also, pleases inform our riding about the value of the senate vs the cost to maintain it.
As ever, I believe that to mobilize and energize public participation in Canadian politics, citizens, both young and old need weekly communication, both facts and updates, perhaps written by non-biased writers, and many weekend or weekly education sessions, open to all, on current politics, in Canada and in other countries, leadership and vision for the future: Can we have hope for the future when democratic countries are electing right-wing dictations who are catering to the rich? And polluting the planet? And negotiating deals in secret? And creating antagonism between different citizen interest groups? And getting the religious right to support Trump by offering a couple of appealing ‘bones’ like restricting abortion and birth control information?
Imagine, right now many religious Americans are supporting a president who will take away the human rights of many women who hold beliefs and are practicing their human rights.
Nate, are you finding solutions as a political party big enough to address the problems: GLOBAL WARMING, DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS, CRITICAL…

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