Tuesday, January 13, 2004


With the opening of the British Columbia Citizen's Assembly on electoral reform, the Toronto Budget consultations and planned Ontario budget consultations, John Ibbitson says we have entered a 'new era of liberal democracy'. That my be a little grand and pre-mature but I think these initiative do signal something new. Whether they signal the beginning of real reform in our political system remains to be seen.

All of these projects I think have good potential and stem from a motivation to have greater citizen involvement in operations of our democracy. With the continuing decline in one of the most basic exercises of democratic participation, that of voting, citizens perhaps need to be reminded that democracy requires constant involvement from its citizenry to function at its best.

In ancient Athens, citizens (which, admittedly were limited to free men) were required to serve on juries, in the Boule, and to sit on various boards overseeing public works and departments. In addition to this, a large proportion of citizens attended the Assembly regularly. The result was a mentality that "those who took no interest in politics were not minding their own business, but that they had no business at all."

I am not advocating a move to direct democracy on the level of the Greek polis. Such a system would be both impractical and unruly. Modern western societies, such as Canada, have a long tradition of representative government that, on the whole, functions very well. However, this system, in its basic form, can only function better if more citizens involve themselves in it either by directly participating in the decision making process or, more importantly, indirectly through the exercising of their right of speech on public matters.

I am somewhat wary of the fact that these new democratic initiatives have been imposed from the 'top down.' It is somewhat paternalistic to tell citizen's that they have to participate. It leads me to question what the true motives of the governments that initiated these projects are. If they turn out to be only a means to appropriate and regulate public opinion that will be unfortunate.

However, the initiation of these projects could also be a response to the public's desire for a greater level of public participation and consultation. If the citizen's involved in the project are given a wide degree of latitude and the governments take their recommendations seriously then the legitimacy of these assemblies and consultations will be affirmed. More importantly, if the quality and quantity of public debate is raised as a result then this may be the small beginning of a revitalization of our democratic systems.

Posted by Matthew @ 2:21 p.m.