Nobody asked for it, but Canadians are voting today in a federal election that only the prime minister wanted. In that spirit I’ve decided to publish a modest list of improvements to our elections, and the whole system of government that seems to intrude ever more closely into our lives these days – a few proposals that might improve the efficiency of government and perhaps even restore some of the trust in government that polls tell us has been declining.
Our current prime minister is in favour of electoral reform. He’s promised it regularly ahead of every election, no matter if he’s been in power to enact it or not. Perhaps changing our electoral process is like drinkable water on native reservations – an election promise whose priority only escalates in proximity to a national vote. It’s easy to understand how these sorts of promises can slip your mind once you’re back in power – choosing new carpets and coming up with Instagram hashtags take so much time.
First of all, nobody believes that campaign contributions contribute to a credible democracy, so why not get rid of them altogether? For the last year and a half we’ve been told that we have to learn to do things differently in the face of serious changes to our lives – at home and work. Facing a new environment for running election campaigns, parties and their candidates will have to adapt just as everyone else has – it’s only fair.
The first thing to disappear would be lawn signs, but who would really miss them? If your neighbour is so desperate to let you know who they’re voting for, they can knock up a homemade sign out of garden stakes, Amazon boxes and masking tape. Added fun will come from trying to decipher just who they’re supporting after the first big rain.
With no money to pay for televised debates or town halls, candidates will have to go to the people, in person, showing up unannounced in public spaces where they can take the temperature of the electorate and their opinions up close. I’m sure that will go well most of the time, and when it doesn’t the candidate and their staff will have the sort of vivid picture of how they’re perceived that you can’t get from telephone polls. I’m sure Justin Trudeau has learned a lot about himself and the wisdom of calling an early election this summer.
Ending campaign contributions will of course leave a lot of money on the table, and any government will tell you that you can’t let that sort of thing persist. We know that politicians put themselves on the market whenever it comes time to fund a campaign, so why can’t voters do the same thing and sell their votes to the highest bidder?
Idealists will consider this a desecration of the sacred franchise, but anyone who’s had that sinking feeling when contemplating a blank ballot on election day knows that voting for the worst of a bad lot – or no one at all (I’ve come up with a dozen creative ways of spoiling my ballot) – can’t help but wonder why our election system can’t benefit them more directly.
If we can concoct systems like Bitcoin, we can certainly create a marketplace where the voter can offer their ballot up for bidding, in a dynamic, constantly changing, 24-hour digital bazaar. The partisan can, of course, donate their vote for free to the party of their choice, or sell it cheaply to whoever makes it their business to harvest them for the party that will serve their needs.
The rest of us can ride the wild free market of votes for every hour of every day until the polls close, waiting until we can cash out and discover the real value of our franchise. Back room players who were once anonymous will have to reveal themselves as they bid to ensure that their needs will be met, only this time it’ll be voters and not politicians who collect. Looked at this way, it’s the ultimate form of political transparency.
The business of government is full of ceremonial embellishments – rituals that long ago lost their meaning but get retained because they signify tradition, which gives government legitimacy. In a previous column I pointed out that we’d manage to go months without a governor general to no apparently harmful effect. Getting rid of the office altogether might be a bit much for some people, but if we must retain someone to occupy Rideau Hall and sit in parliament in full regalia once a year, does it have to be a human?
Replacing the governor general with a piece of antique furniture would be a marvelous piece of symbolism, but I know that it might still be too literal for some, so I suggest the office be filled by a rescue animal at appropriate intervals. Cats are probably too skittish and unreliable for such a dignified position, but a lovable dog obtained from a municipal pound or humane society across the country (I understand that provinces will jockey for the privilege, but that’s the inevitable cost of politics) would fill the role with most of the competence we expect from the former journalists we usually recruit.
There’s no denying that some sad-eyed mutt – preference will no doubt fall on an animal with at least a hint of Labrador Retriever in their background – sitting in one of the thrones behind the speaker’s chair (the other will necessarily be reserved for their handler, suitably attired, but still a considerable reduction in staff) at the opening of parliament will be an irresistible photo op for television and newspapers around the world, most of whom would no doubt applaud this national display of compassion.
As a country, Canada craves this sort of international approval, so I imagine the tradition will become enshrined in no time, and we’ll look back with regret on the long decades where we were so unenlightened as to deny animals their place as ceremonial heads of state.
Another tradition that needs to be updated is the new pair of shoes finance ministers wear when delivering a budget. Is it really necessary to subsidize the haberdashery of someone whose future involves well-compensated sinecures on corporate boards? Wouldn’t it be more suitable to require a finance minister to walk barefoot over a half mile of fresh gravel, laid in a path from the Bank of Canada building to the door of the House of Commons? After all, somebody always suffers from the effects of every federal budget – why shouldn’t the cabinet member in charge of that budget be forced to experience some analogue of that pain?
Which brings me to the houses of Parliament themselves, the venues in which our government performs and the style to which its members have become accustomed. There’s no denying that we’re no longer attracting the best people to elected office, so isn’t it time we tried to discourage the ones who are making government their calling and Ottawa their home?
Members of parliament usually have residences in both their riding (or at least somewhere adjacent to their constituents) and the capital. This is an unfair imposition on the means of our elected officials, so I suggest that we provide them lodging at a modest annual fee in a special tent city to be built within a shuttle’s distance to parliament. (There are ample green spaces available across the river in Hull and Val-Tétreau.)
Living under canvas while Parliament sits might be a slight inconvenience, but public service is supposed to be undertaken as a sacrifice, and anticipation of the discomforts of living through an Ottawa winter in what should never be more luxurious than a well-run refugee camp will make each session much shorter and more efficient, so that MPs can return as soon as possible to their homes, their ridings and their constituents.
As everyone knows, the House of Commons and the Centre Block are undergoing an extensive renovation that’s expected to take until 2030 to complete and cost an estimated $5 billion. Since nobody expects this project to be completed to the proposed deadline and budget, it’s not too late to completely reimagine the future of the House and its ceremonial home.
The Centre Block is a lovely building, redolent of all the majesty and authority with which we once imagined government to function. But if you’ve ever had the misfortune to watch CPAC and sit through a televised Question Period, you know that it’s hardly fit for current purpose.
Government should take place in surroundings that reflect its tone and intentions, and it’s been many decades since neo-Gothic was suitable to the workings of our federal government. Byzantine might seem to be an architectural style more appropriate, but it’s been a while since any administration has been able to hide its real agenda or intentions behind layers of court intrigue. (As hinted earlier, this might have something to do with the sorts of people attracted to office.)
Our governments are extremely fond of leaving behind a legacy of public buildings in the most fashionable and forward-looking modern architectural styles, so it’s appropriate that it be housed in the best kind of edifice ambitious contemporary architects can design.
These architects are most comfortable with structures that evoke the sports stadium, the office block, the fast-food court and the abattoir, which is fortunate because they’re all appropriate to the look of a truly modern House of Commons. I’m imagining a cavernous space, hinting at unearned authority, with truly atrocious acoustics and terrible sightlines, finished in clean, antiseptic tile, which can be easily hosed down for cleaning.
As for the Centre Block and the former House of Commons, perhaps they can be opened up for public use, to host meetings of citizens’ groups when they travel to Ottawa to plead for their causes to be heard. The rest of the building could host a museum dedicated to the history of government in Canada, using the rooms and hallways full of carved wood and stone to house exhibits telling the story of how we once imagined ourselves represented by the best people, dedicated to creating a new country and balancing the needs of its people with the rich resources and landscape they called home.
Somewhere in there you’d need to find a space for a cutting edge, multimedia exhibit devoted to figures like William Lyon Mackenzie King, our longest-serving prime minister. The latest museum and funhouse technology would be required to illustrate how he communed with the spirit of his dead mother to ask for advice on how to steer the country through some of its worst crises, like the Great Depression and World War II. Perhaps the contract to design and run it could be given to Disney.
Alternately we could leave the Centre Block and the House of Commons in ruins. As metaphors go, it has to be the most honest and obvious one we can imagine.