Canadians are dissatisfied with democracy – partisan politics to blame

Pity the poor political party.

After years of being whipped and beaten and bent and rallied, political affiliation is now being identified as the key failing of Canada's democratic system.

A new research study from Samara Canada points the finger squarely at party affiliation for growing dissatisfaction among Canadians, who increasingly see politicians as agents of a certain party rather than representatives of themselves.

The latest Samara Democracy Report found that only 55 per cent of Canadians are satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada.

One might think that half of the population giving our system the seal of approval would be a positive sign, but alas. The same survey conducted in 2004 found that 75 per cent of Canadians were on board.

That drop is worth a second take.

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"Parties play a critical role in Canadian democracy ... They dominate the public's understanding of politics, such that most people cast their vote for a party and rarely elect independent MPs," the report concludes.

"Given these important responsibilities, it is unfortunate that parties are often described as being at odds with citizens, rather than a vital conduit between citizens and government."

The report comes as politicians and pundits hammer at perceived failings of the current system.

First, the National Post's Andrew Coyne opines against the current 'first-past-the-post' voting system in favour of 'proportional representation'.

It is interesting to note that while the argument is focused on giving better representation for political parties, the solution he offers involves temporarily abandoning those party lines.

Second, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May argues that a key failing of the current system is a crumbled firewall between politicians and the civil service.

In a blog post, May says the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has had too much sway over the Privy Council Office (PCO) — those busy beavers that compile reports and offer advice to those in power.

Says May:

It is a tricky relationship. Obviously, civil servants must take instructions and implement policy under different political masters.

What is not acceptable is for the PCO to "cook the books" to help buttress a political argument. The PCO has to stick to the facts, not invent them for the government in power. Which is exactly what I think is now happening.

May goes on to address cabinet ministers, suggesting they have been reduced to spokespeople, rather than point men. She says Stephen Harper's cabinet simply accepts cue cards and reads "the approved message" rather than voice their own thoughts.

This perception of May's — the idea that Members of Parliament are simply mouthpieces for their party — is exactly the issue raised in the Samara report.

The study finds that Canadians feel Members of Parliament focus too much on running in line with their party.

The study asked respondents to rate MPs on a number of activities. They scored low on "holding the government to account" and "representing the views of constituents."

At the bottom of the barrel was "managing individual constituents' concerns," while "representing the views of their party" was the highest score awarded to MPs.

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In a separate study conducted with 65 former MPs, many said they spent too much time working for their parties and not their constituents.

"I realized early on that … you're there to vote the party's position more or less, or you're there to represent the party to the public," one unnamed former MP observed to the charitable organization.

So what is a democracy to do? Remove political parties from the equations? Take the politics out of politics? Burn the system down and build a new one?

Samara suggests refocusing politics to place citizens at the centre, saying:

With the citizen at the centre, the political system would be both more representative and accountable, something that would contribute to citizens' increased satisfaction with Canadian democracy.

It's an idea that's crazy enough to work. But we won't know exactly how to reach this utopian vision until, of course, Canada's political party leaders send down their talking points.

So stay tuned.