the time this article was written William Cross was Director of the Centre for
Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick.
Much has been written in recent
years concerning a ‘democratic deficit’ and ‘democratic malaise’ in Canada.
There is substantial evidence that many Canadians are dissatisfied with
the state of our democratic practices and institutions. At the same time,
new phenomena such as increased pressures of globalization and changing
communications technologies pose new challenges to Canadian democracy. To
consider these issues, the Centre for Canadian Studies at Mount Allison
University has launched a major research project entitled Canada Today: A
Democratic Audit. Under the auspices of this project, a team of prominent
political scientists from across the country will conduct the 21st century’s
first, wide-ranging examination of democracy in Canada. This article looks at
The final decade of the last century began with forceful
representations of Canadians’ dissatisfaction with their political processes
and institutions at the hearings of the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future.
The following passage from the Forum’s final report summarizes the
sentiments many Canadians’ expressed:
One of the strongest messages
the forum received from participants was that they have lost their faith in
both the political process and their political leaders. They do not feel
that their governments, especially at the federal level, reflect the will of
the people, and they do not feel that citizens have the means at the moment to
These findings were echoed in the
1991 report of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing
which found that “many Canadians are critical of their existing political
institutions. Many are concerned that these institutions are not
sufficiently responsive to their views and interests.”2 Public opinion survey data confirm that
at the outset of the new century large numbers of Canadians continue to believe
their politicians and political institutions are out of touch and unresponsive,
and are increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of parliament and
political parties.3 Consistent with these attitudes, voter
participation in federal election campaigns has dropped substantially in recent
elections, reaching a record low in 2001. And, as evidenced in Quebec City by
the protests of the tens of thousands of Canadians who took to the streets,
many continue to believe that public decision making is secretive, dominated by
a small group of elites and unresponsive to the citizenry.
The last decade has also seen
voters turn away from a pattern of electoral competition that has dominated
federal politics for more than a century. In the 1993 election the
governing Progressive Conservatives were reduced to just two seats in the House
of Commons as two new parties, the Bloc Québécois and Reform, enjoyed
remarkable successes. Many have suggested that the 1993 election result
represented more than a repudiation of the governing Progressive Conservative
party. It was in part a product of widespread voter dissatisfaction with
the state of Canadian democracy.4 Today, the party system remains in a state of uncertainty, with
the result being that there is no credible, single alternative government to
notwithstanding, any fair observer must conclude that not all is lost in
Canadian democracy. Canada continues to be the envy of much of the rest
of the world. A relatively wealthy and peaceful society, Canadians hold
regular elections in which millions cast ballots. These elections result
in the selection of a government with no question about its legitimate right to
govern. Canada routinely ranks at or very near the top of the United
Nations Human Development Index, and tens of thousands from around the world
apply each year to move to and live in Canada. Developing democracies
from around the globe routinely look to Canada for guidance in the
establishment of new democratic practices and institutions.
Given all of this it is time
to examine the state of Canadian democracy and to consider where it is working well,
where it is falling short, what the possibilities for reform are, and how it
can be improved. Hence the idea of a democratic audit.5
The term audit is, of course,
most often associated with the accounting and financial worlds. The
accountant uses established and accepted measures to ascertain adherence with
standard financial principles. A democratic audit is more than this. In
defining our purposes, we begin with the notion of an organizational audit
which the Encyclopedia of Banking and Finance defines as: “a systematic
review of an organization’s activities for assessing performance, identifying
opportunities and developing recommendations for improvement.”6 We add to this what the Oxford
English Dictionary calls an older meaning of listening and hearing.
Together these two definitions provide a working definition of the term
audit for the Canada Today: A Democratic Audit project. Thus, our
purposes are to examine the way Canadian democracy functions, to listen to what
others have to say about the operation of Canadian democracy, to assess its
strengths and weaknesses, to consider where there are opportunities for
advancement, and to evaluate potential reforms.
A democratic audit requires
the setting of benchmarks for evaluation of the practices and institutions
considered. This necessarily entails substantial consideration of the
meaning of democracy. Democracy is obviously a contested term and we are
not interested here in striking a definitive definition. Nor are we
interested in a theoretical model applicable to all parts of the world. Rather
we are interested in democratic benchmarks that are relevant to Canada at the
outset of the 21st Century.
In selecting these we were guided by the issues raised in the current
literature on Canadian democratic practice and by the concerns about Canadian
democracy commonly raised by opinion leaders and found in public opinion data.
Ultimately, we settled on three benchmarks: public participation,
inclusiveness, and responsiveness. We believe that any contemporary
definition of Canadian democracy must include public institutions and decision
making practices that are defined by public participation, that this
participation must be inclusive of all Canadians, and that government outcomes
must be responsive to the views of Canadians. This is obviously not an
exhaustive list of democratic benchmarks. There are other important
considerations. Nonetheless, for purposes of this project we are
concentrating on these three which we believe are particularly relevant to the
current discourse about the state of democracy in Canada.7
While settling on these
guiding principles, we are not imposing a strict set of democratic criteria on
all of the evaluations that together constitute the audit. Rather, our
approach allows each ‘auditor’ wide latitude in his/her evaluation. While
each auditor is keeping the benchmarks of public participation, inclusiveness
and responsiveness, central to their examination, each is free to add
additional criteria that he or she thinks particularly important to the area of
democracy they are examining. In this sense we differ from a financial
audit and from the Swedish project where the audit organizers have drawn up a
checklist of a dozen or so democratic qualities that are assessed in each part
of the audit. We rejected this approach for several reasons. First, it
requires that the number of individuals making the final assessments remain
very small to ensure uniformity in the application of the standards.
Second, the findings of the audit would be largely dependent on the list
of criteria established at the outset, which is problematic because the
selection of the democratic criteria is not an objective task. Rather it
is a highly subjective exercise and thus it is likely that different organizers
would compile different lists. Essentially, we rejected this approach because
we do not want the normative views of the organizing committee to determine the
Ultimately, we decided on an approach
that takes us somewhat away from the traditional notion of what an audit is.
We are using a rather large team of auditors – more than a dozen.
Each of whom is examining and assessing a discrete area of Canadian
democracy. While all of the team members have agreed to use the three
established benchmarks, each is free to include other democratic criteria
believed to be important to his or her investigation. The auditors are
also considering other values, such as the Canadian tradition of brokerage and
accommodative politics that might support restrictions on contemporary notions
of popular democracy.
Essentially, we have asked our
auditors to consider how the area of democracy they are examining measures up
to the democratic norms and expectations extant in Canada at the start of the
new century. While this does mean that there will not be absolute uniformity in
the measurements used throughout the audit we believe this adds to the value of
the project. Democracy is an inherently normative concept and imposing a
single, limited set of criteria throughout the audit and having a small group
make the assessments would not capture the depth and breadth of the debate
surrounding democratic practices nor would it capture the robustness made
possible by engaging more than a dozen of the country’s political scientists in
hile providing each auditor with substantial freedom it is important to note
that the auditors are all working as part of a team. The entire team is
gathering at several points during the project allowing us to collectively
consider the issues that are defining and shaping the audit. This
approach allows us to benefit from the group’s collective wisdom (something too
infrequently done in academe) and to ensure coherency throughout the project.
The next crucial question in
constructing a Canadian democratic audit is deciding upon the subjects to
tackle. We decided at the outset to cover substantial ground in a short
period of time. From start to finish this is a three-year project – a
relatively short period compared with the much longer Swedish and UK audits.
We also decided that each subject should be dealt with in some length and
so have opted for book-length manuscripts on each of the subject areas being
examined. These considerations necessarily narrow the scope of the audit
and require some hard choices concerning what to include and what to leave out.
In making this decision we are guided by the agreed upon democratic
benchmarks. Public participation, inclusiveness and responsiveness seem
particularly appropriate measures for study of public institutions and
electoral practices. In considering the arguments raised by many of those
who have been most critical of Canadian democracy over the course of the last
decade and considering the findings of public opinion pollsters, we are
convinced that a good deal of the concerns regarding Canadian democracy relate
to the processes of public decision making: who makes the decisions? what
opportunities do average Canadians have to influence these decisions? who sets
the public agenda? Accordingly, the audit is focusing on public
institutions, electoral practices and new phenomena that will potentially have
significant affect on public decision making in Canada. Some would argue
that economic and social justice issues should be included, others that there
must be a robust consideration of individual rights and liberties and they are
not wrong. Our examination is not exhaustive. Indeed, Canadian
democracy is a vibrant force the status of which can never be fully captured at
one time. Nonetheless, the areas we are considering are inclusive of many
of the pressing issues currently facing Canadian democracy. We do not
expect to have the final word on this topic, but rather hope to encourage
others to pursue similar avenues of enquiry.
The Canadian democratic audit
includes examinations of several key decision making bodies: legislatures, the
courts, and cabinets and governments. While the focus is at the federal
level, we acknowledge that many Canadians primarily deal with provincial and
local governments and wherever appropriate attention is paid to these levels of
government. The structures of our governing and electoral systems are
also important to the nature of our democracy and so the audit includes studies
devoted to federalism and to our electoral system. The ways in which
citizens participate in electoral politics and policy making is a key component
of the project and thus we include studies of interest groups, social movements
and political parties. The desire and capacity of Canadians for
meaningful participation in public life is also examined. Finally, two
new phenomena that raise important challenges to the practice of democracy are
investigated: globalization and new communications technologies.
The audit does not include
studies devoted to the status of particular groups of Canadians. Rather
than separate out Aboriginals, women, new Canadians, and others, these groups
are treated together with all Canadians throughout the audit. For
example, the studies on courts, federalism, governments and the electoral
system all examine questions of particular relevance to the status of
Aboriginal Canadians. They do so, however, within the context of their
overall study and not as part of a separate investigation into the status of
various constituent groups of Canadians.
At the end of this project we
expect to have produced ten volumes examining specific areas of Canadian
democratic life. As well, we are planning a synthetic, concluding volume
that will provide an overall assessment and make sense out of the different
approaches and findings found in the individual volumes.8 While we do hope to shed light on how
various aspects of Canadian democracy are performing, and to consider
possibilities for reform, our principle goal is not to issue a report card on
the status of our democracy. Rather we hope to add to and encourage
on-going discussion about how best to fashion Canada’s democratic institutions
and practices well into the new Century.
1. Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future:
Report to the People and Government of Canada (Ottawa: Supply and Services
Canada, 1991), 135.
2. Report of the Royal Commission on
Electoral Reform and Party Financing, volume 2, (Otttawa: Supply and
Services Canada, 1991), 229.
3. For more on this, see R. Kenneth Carty,
William Cross and Lisa Young, Rebuilding Canadian Party Politics
(Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000), 28-29.
4. See, Alan Cairns, “An Election to be
Remembered: Canada 1993,” in Canadian Public Policy, volume 3 (1994);
and F. Leslie Seidle, “The Angry Citizenry: Examining Representation and
Responsiveness in Government,” in Policy Options, volume 15:6 (1994).
5. The idea for a ‘democratic audit’ of Canada
comes from similar projects conducted in both Sweden and the United Kingdom.
For more on these projects see Michele Micheletti, “The Democratic Audit
of Sweden,” in Viewpoint Sweden, No. 18 (1998); and, David Beetham, “The
Idea of Democratic Audit in Comparative Perspective,” in Parliamentary
Affairs, volume 52:4 (1999).
6. Glenn Munn, F.L. Garcia and Charles
Woelfel, Encyclopedia of Banking and Finance, 9th ed.,
(Rolling Meadows, Illinois: Bankers Publishing Company, 1991).
7. This approach is consistent with the
definition of democracy found in Robert Dahl’s classic work Polyarchy
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).
8. Members of the Democratic Audit Team are:
Darin Barney, Université d’Ottawa; André Blais, Université de Montreal; David
Cameron, University of Toronto; R. Kenneth Carty, University of British
Columbia; John Courtney, University of Saskatchewan; William Cross, Mount
Allison University; David Docherty, Wilfrid Laurier University; Elisabeth
Gidengil, McGill University; Ian Greene, York University; Richard Nadeau, Université
de Montréal; Neil Nevitte, University of Toronto; Richard Sigurdson, University
of New Brunswick; Jennifer Smith, Dalhousie University; Janice Gross Stein,
University of Toronto; Frank Strain, Mount Allison University; Michael Tucker,
Mount Allison University; Graham White, University of Toronto; Lisa Young,
University of Calgary.