The trend toward lower voter turnout is like a canary in the mine shaft of Canadian democracy. Over the last 16 years, we have witnessed a 14-per-cent decline in balloting in federal elections. Moreover, the diminishing sense among young people that voting is “essential” suggests that this trend will continue.

To combat increased cynicism about elections, governments and politicians, elected officials are proposing a variety of measures. New Brunswick has launched a commission to investigate replacing their winner-take-all elections with a system of proportional representation. British Columbia has struck a constituent assembly made up of randomly selected citizens to analyze electoral reform, with the promise of a binding referendum on their recommendations in 2005. Dalton McGuinty, the Ontario premier, has established “citizen juries” to deliberate over major policy questions, and Prime Minister Paul Martin has committed to parliamentary reform in an effort to reduce the “democratic deficit.”

These initiatives reflect a growing alarm over voters’ progressive disengagement, but each one addresses an isolated part of the problem, be it the diminished role of backbench MPs, under-representation of smaller parties in legislatures, or the absence of citizen input in government decision-making. That’s because the measures needed to combat the democratic deficit are so varied. Voter turnout could be increased to 100 per cent if we implemented compulsory voting, as is the practice in Australia. The role of elected officials could be enhanced by increasing the power of parliamentary committees and conducting more free votes, as Martin advocates. Citizen input could be expanded through regular referenda, recall and initiative provisions that are common in many U.S. states, such as California.

But if you look below simple patterns of voter turnout to the underlying attitudinal forces driving this behaviour, the picture is even more frightening. It suggests such simple and draconian measures, in isolation, likely would not solve the larger problem of citizen alienation, and could even make matters worse. When electors cease to go to the polls, it weakens the foundations of democracy because they are tacitly saying:

- the individual has little impact on, or say in, our national affairs;

- the welfare of the collective has little bearing on individual well-being;

and

- individual well-being can flourish (or flounder) independent of decisions initiated through legislative democracy.

Because the erosion of our democratic ethos has been more wholesale than incremental, any effort to reform the system (and re-energize the role of voting and government in civic culture) must begin with two guiding principles. Changes must be designed to (a) bring citizens in closer contact with one another and their elected leaders, and (b) provide tangible evidence that the average Canadian has both a say and a stake in the political process.

If Canadians believe their votes are meaningless, and if entire regions feel their voices are not adequately heard through theelectoral process, why not consider a system of proportional representation? This would reflect voting results more accurately, and give legislatures a richer partisan hue. The most common argument against such a system (parties receive legislative representation proportional to their actual percentage vote) is that it leads to rapid government turnover and political instability. Italy is often cited as the example to be avoided. But what is the inherent problem with more elections? In all the years I have been polling, I’ve never found any more than the smallest percentage refer to an election as “unnecessary.”

A much greater concern than political instability is stability bordering on inertia, where one-party rule can last decades. In fact, Canada’s tolerance of diversity would probably lend itself to coalition-building and legislative co-operation (compared to the bickering and blind adherence to party discipline witnessed today).

If outright and immediate change is too disruptive, we could consider a bicameral system in which the Senate is elected along the lines of proportional representation and is given new powers to represent regional interests. This has been demanded by Western Canadian politicians for decades and would make the system more responsive to their needs. Direct input from the regions through an elected Senate might also dislodge the log-jam of federal-provincial relations, in which provinces rarely speak for the national interest and instead expend all their efforts on pillorying the federal government and demanding more funds.

Instead of simply using citizen juries as listening posts for politicians, we could employ technology to facilitate democratic education and interactivity. In the last two decades, we have seen an explosion of technology designed to empower the individual. What have we done in politics? Every four years or so, we give voters a pencil and invite them to place an “X” on a piece of paper. We could develop simulation models for major public policy issues and make them available over the Internet to give citizens more direct input and greater insight into the consequences of the courses they might follow.

And why should we be afraid of more referenda? The tyranny of the majority is to be feared only when the masses are uninformed. Evidence in the United States, with a three-decade history of regular referenda, indicates that citizens will make better decisions when they learn to live with the ones they have already made.

The use of citizen assemblies — everyday citizens are relieved of their regular job responsibilities for a period of time — could be expanded beyond B.C.’s focus on electoral reform. Assemblies could serve as a form of focus group for government, considering the same laws as legislators. Cabinet ministers would appear before them to state their case, connecting politicians to the real world while giving voters a better understanding of government.

We could institute mandatory charity and social development service, domestically or around the world. In this vein, Paul Martin’s recently announced Canada Corps should be applauded as a step in the right direction. Under such programs, young people could work on environmental clean-up sites, in senior citizens’ homes or on foreign aid projects. This would not only be great social policy but would also bring Canadians closer together in a common sense of purpose and creed.

Since they are already active, we could integrate the volunteer sector and non-governmental organizations more meaningfully into the political system. On a rotating basis, they could be invited to sit on parliamentary committees, making recommendations to government. This would give their interests a voice in mainstream decision-making, and force them to moderate their often extreme positions in the “crucible of consensus” that is Parliament. In the same way the town square and the theatre aided democracy in ancient Greece, governments need to fund public spaces so that citizens can be brought together to share music, art, festivals, public debates and a sense of community.

These reforms, either alone or together, are not a panacea for the rot that has set into our political system over the last two decades. But they at least engage citizens and start a dialogue about what kind of society we want.