The New Politics Initiative: Toward a Living Democracy

By Ponniah, Thomas; Rebick, Judy | Canadian Dimension, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The New Politics Initiative: Toward a Living Democracy

Ponniah, Thomas, Rebick, Judy, Canadian Dimension

What is participatory democracy?

It is government that involves citizens at every level of decision-making. The form of participatory democracy we know best in Canada involves consulting citizens about policy. While experiences like the citizens' constitutional conferences before the Charlottetown Accord are an important contribution to expanding our notions of democracy, their weakness is that they have no power to make decisions. They are strictly consultative. Real participatory democracy, like the budget process in Porto Alegre, Brasil, actually involves citizens in decision-making.

Other kinds of participatory democracy include citizens' participation in the administration of government, for example: citizens' committees choosing members of boards or agencies; citizen cooperatives running public services; citizen groups solving community challenges via local initiative projects that are publicly funded.

For the New Politics Initiative (NPI), participatory democracy would combine with representative democracy to form a new kind of politics. Participatory democracy is government by the people and there are many examples of its emergence today.

Why Participatory Democracy?

On a global economic level it has become clear that top-down planning is not the best process to solving the world's problems. Over the last 25 years, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) economists, scientists and academics have attempted to impose their economic, technological and cultural "expertise" onto the rest of the world with disastrous and violent results. The countries of the Global South are less economically productive, poorer and more heavily burdened by debt than they were before they took the IMF's and World Bank's advice.

The Left has also come to realize that the most progressive legislation can be quickly wiped out by the election of a conservative government. This is precisely what happened in Canada's biggest province from 1995 to the present. From 1990 to 1995, a social democratic government, the New Democratic Party (NDP) ruled Ontario, home of one third of the Canadian population. Despite its shortcomings, the party implemented many progressive policies and laws including employment equity, stronger labour laws, expanded pay equity, and improved environmental protection. With the election of the Harris-led Conservatives, citizens of Ontario have watched the new government eliminate every piece of progressive legislation that had been implemented over previous years.

Finally, every government, even social-democratic ones, can lose touch with their electorate and therefore need regular interaction with the populace. Participatory democracy not only provides that interaction but it also gives a left-wing government a base of power outside of the corporate and bureaucratic elites.

Some argue that North Americans are so involved in consumer culture that they would not participate in such democratic structures. The little experience we have in Canada argues otherwise. Every time people are given a meaningful way to participate in civic life, they do so. Social activism at the community level also shows a desire for participation in civic life. People are turning away from traditional politics because they don't think their participation matters. Polls show that people want to be more involved and would participate if they thought that participation would be meaningful.

Porto Alegre's Budget

The most significant appeal of Porto Alegre's budget process lies in its radical reform of the relationship between public, government and business. It is a "radical reform" because while it does not overthrow capitalism, it undermines corporate domination of the democratic process and gives left-wing governments and popular mobilizations legitimacy against corporate power.

The annual participatory budget process of Porto Alegre that has taken place over the last 12 years is structured by a number of phases. …

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