The Democratic Deficit: Paul Martin and Parliamentary Reform

By Aucoin, Peter; Turnbull, Lori | Canadian Public Administration, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Democratic Deficit: Paul Martin and Parliamentary Reform


Aucoin, Peter, Turnbull, Lori, Canadian Public Administration


Abstract: Paul Martin's plan to reform parliamentary government in order to eliminate the so-called democratic deficit calls for greater independence for individual MPs and the House of Commons vis-a-vis the government. In this article, we first examine what is required to make the reforms work according to his measures of success. We then consider why he has restricted his assault on the democratic deficit to the reform of Parliament. Third, we consider whether parliamentary reform is sufficient to address the discontents and criticisms of Canadian government that have given rise to the perceived democratic deficit. We conclude that the Martin plan, except for the review of government appointments, is sound from the perspective of representative democracy but that it will be successful in addressing the democratic deficit only to the extent that the prime minister and his reform-minded colleagues are able to convince Canadians that citizen participation in the institutional processes of reformed parliamentary government can be meaningful.

Sommaire : Le projet qu'a M. Paul Martin de reformer le gouvernement parlementaire afin d'eliminer le soi-disant deficit democratique exige une plus grande independance des deputes individuels et de la Chambre des communes a l'egard du gouvernement. Dans le present article, nous examinons tout d'abord les exigences necessaires pour que les reformes fonctionnent selon ses mesures de succes. Nous examinons ensuite pourquoi M. Martin a restreint son attaque du deficit democratique a la seule reforme parlementaire. Troisiemement, nous examinons si la reforme parlementaire est suffisante pour remedier aux insatisfactions et critiques envers le gouvernement canadien qui ont engendre le deficit democratique percu. Nous concluons que le plan de M. Martin, a l'exception de la revue des nominations gouvernementales, est solide du point de vue de la democratie representative. Il ne parviendra cependant a s'attaquer au deficit democratique que dans la mesure ou le Premier ministre et ses collegues soucieux de reforme seront capables de convaincre les Canadiens que la participation des citoyens aux processus institutionnels d'un gouvernement parlementaire reforme peut etre constructive.

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When Paul Martin delivered his major address on parliamentary reform in the fall of 2002 he could not help but be cognizant of the potency of the slogan "the democratic deficit" for his political future. (1) Given that his principal claim to fame is his slaying of the federal government's fiscal deficit, the slogan is a fortuitous one for the former finance minister. And, given that the charge against his political nemesis over the past decade was a concentration of power in the office of the prime minister, the rhetoric also provided him the convenient cover to criticize the legacy of Jean Chretien without attacking him overtly. It also speaks to a wide range of current democratic discontents--from MPs who want more power, to reformers who want to adopt proportional representation, and to citizens who want to be more involved in decision-making, to have their MPs be more responsive, and to see greater transparency and accountability in governance. This rhetoric has placed Prime Minister Martin--the leader of a well-entrenched governing party, of which he has been a central figure as finance minister--squarely on the side of change and reform.

In commenting on Martin's use of the term, Hugh Winsor, the veteran Canadian political columnist, could not have put it better: "Sometimes a catchy phrase such as 'democratic deficit' lands on such fertile ground it becomes the caption of an era, spinning off political synergy that goes far beyond the dreams of its progenitor." (2) Martin, of course, did not coin the term; he was not even the first prominent Canadian to use it as grand rhetoric. And, for the most part, he has restricted its application to the issue of the role of the MP and the House of Commons in Canadian representative democracy. …

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