October 5, 2011

Parliament 2.0: following the arrow of history

By Fiona O'Connor

Concluding his three-part series on the theme of the "digital commons," guest blogger Mark Dance discusses how a look at parliament's history may hold the key to its future success.

"We have to go out and engage in a truly open way and take a bit of a risk. I guess that’s what’s underlying a lot of this: you don’t know what the kids are going to come up with but you have to trust that what they’re going to come up with will be something thoughtful. They might come up with something radical and then you will have to contemplate that, too."
– Nathan Cullen, Member of Parliament

The arrow of parliament’s history is from rule by one towards rule by many, with great caution at each new stage to preserve the power and stature of the former structures.

But if we have the arrow, should we not follow it? Should Parliament not be open to its own development? My proposal here is about answering that question aggressively in the affirmative and then arguing that it is a particular form of participatory, digital democracy that holds the greatest potential to create a more complete Parliament and a more democratic Canada.

As article 17 of the Constitution Act, 1867 states, Parliament is a compound institution composed fundamentally of the Crown, the Senate (derived from the House of Lords) and the House of Commons. But it was not always so. Indeed, in a British context, the House of Lords sprang from the Crown: appointed elites who advised the Crown on how it should spend their money. And, subsequently, the House of Commons sprang from the House of Lords: elected representatives of a lower chamber who send legislation towards the Crown via the upper House in the form of petitions (or, later, bills).  By complementing the monarchical, meritocratic and representative institutions that already comprise parliament, a Digital House holds the potential to get Canadians involved in politics in a substantial way.

Some will answer immediately that the participatory solution that I have been proposing in these posts, even if it could be properly integrated into the current structure of Parliament, would still be undemocratic. They will say that not all Canadians have access to the internet, not all Canadians have time to learn about the legislative process, not all Canadians can even read. My answer is that democracy is always imperfect. It has always excluded certain people (based on age, income, race, gender, etc.) and perhaps it always will. The point is to do better than we have done before and better than we are doing right now. We should follow the great parliamentary trend towards democratization and, even if we do not arrive, at least we will be on our way.

Mark Dance is a graduate of the University of King’s College and an alumnus of the Parliamentary Internship Programme. Mark currently lives in New York City, where he works at Lapham's Quarterly.

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