Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Parliamentary Institutions and Cyber-Democracy

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

Parliamentary Institutions and Cyber-Democracy

Article excerpt

The Internet has increased the public's freedom of information, freedom of speech and freedom of action tremendously. This article focuses on two challenges posed by the harmonization of cyber-democracy and our tradition of parliamentary democracy: first, how to marry active voter participation and parliamentary legitimacy; second, how to protect the separation of powers.


The "connected" public enjoys a level of autonomy, previously inconceivable. With even the most basic of web-surfing skills, people can quickly access an unprecedented wealth of information. Moreover, the Internet allows people to link with one another and to sometimes resolve directly issues that not so long ago would have been deferred to elected officials or bureaucrats.

This is one of the most beneficial uses of the Internet. It invites people to a new activism that is highly laudable. In addition, it allows many web surfers to forge virtual community ties, to form opinions and to seek out their collective voice. We applaud all of this because the clearest indication of a democracy in good health is the determination of individuals to involve themselves in political life.

However, in a society governed by the rule of law, the practice of democracy is not restricted to popular initiatives, however desirable they may be. Such a society is governed by laws that must be enacted by authorities whose legitimacy rests on universally recognized foundations. This holds even truer for a complex society such as ours, where the people do not govern themselves directly; rather, they express their sovereign will through the representatives elected to speak in their name.

In Quebec, this authority is vested in parliament, composed of the National Assembly and the Lieutenant Governor. Within the National Assembly, the members, in casting their votes, give the sole legal expression to the common will.

Therefore, parliament is inevitably the hub of the process by which we formally and collectively declare who we are and how we wish to live. The rules and principles governing our collective life ultimately draw their legitimacy from decisions made in our parliament.

That is why parliament's role cannot be ignored in any consideration of cyber-democracy and the various actions which may result from it. We cannot allow parliament to be marginalized or people to imagine that popular demonstrations, whether in the streets or on the Internet, are the real expression of the will of the people.

Unfortunately, the Internet could contribute to fueling this misconception, as it lends itself readily to a sort of direct virtual democracy. In this guise, it enlivens what might be called "democratic competition", fundamentally a good thing for any free society. But it can also give web surfers the illusion that everything, or almost everything, can be resolved in cyberspace, without any other formality.

In short, to be real and effective, cyber-democracy must not undermine the role of parliament; on the contrary, parliament must be given a central place. This is why it is important to show the public that the best way to participate in their own governance is to forge a partnership with the National Assembly and its members.

The first challenge is thus to marry popular activism and parliamentary legitimacy.

Protecting and strengthening the separation of powers

The second challenge concerns the relations between parliament and the public service. As you know, our political system is founded upon two main principles: the separation of powers and the supremacy of parliament.

The separation of powers is fundamental to all democracies. It protects the people from the inappropriate concentration of power in the hands of a single group or individual. It also permits each of the three branches of power--the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary--to function independently, being circumscribed and balanced by the other two. …

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