Interviewed on September 26, 2014 by Adam Kahane.
Kahane: What keeps you up at night?
Chong: One of our challenges is the need to renew our democratic institutions. Democracy is one of the greatest inventions of western society. The checks and balances on power that exist through a parliamentary or republican or other system of government are at the heart of western democracy. In Canada, the checks and balances on power in Parliament and in our election system have weakened over the last decades. If we are going to continue to meet the challenges of the 21st century, like the rise of developing economies, diversity in our country, and terrorism, we need to strengthen that foundation.
Canada is now an outlier among Westminster parliamentary democracies because of several changes in the way we do things. First, caucuses no longer have a direct say in the election or removal of party leaders. Second, party leaders now have unbelievable power to decide on party candidates. Third, caucuses are no longer decision-making bodies and their decisions don’t bind the caucus leadership. As a result, party leaders, in particular the party leader in power, the Prime Minister, have almost unchecked power. This is a serious, serious challenge to the strength of our democracy.
In the short run, command-and-control models of governance can produce huge gains, but in the long run, they fall flat. Without checks and balances, at some point a bad leader comes along and undoes all of the gains made and then some. Democracies are frustrating in the short run, because the lack of concentrated power makes for less efficient decision making, but in the long run they get it right. If you look at the last 180 years, all evidence points to the fact that people in an educated, civilized, and enlightened society will make the right decisions.
Kahane: If things turn out badly over the next 20 years, what would have happened?
Chong: Polling data shows that Canadians are losing faith in their democratic institutions. Voter turnout has declined precipitously in the last 20 years. In the last federal election, four out of 10 Canadians chose not to vote. That’s one of the lowest rates among western democracies. If over the next 20 years, we fail to renew our democratic institutions, engage Canadians in a meaningful way, and make these institutions more relevant to them, it’s not inconceivable that voter turnout could decline to 50% or even 40%. If that happens, these institutions will lack the legitimacy to act in a decisive way. We’d be looking at a system with even greater executive power and a legislative branch that is no longer central in our public life.
If Parliamentary reform fails, that increases the risk that we won’t be able to deal successfully with a range of issues. For example, as our economy has become more urban and more service-based, we face significant challenges in our large city regions, including Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Halifax. Look what has happened with Pittsburgh and Detroit. Both were manufacturing and industrial powerhouses throughout the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Both became Rust Belt cities with the decline of manufacturing and certain industrial sectors in North America. Today, Pittsburgh is a symbol of success; Detroit is not. Pittsburgh had good democratic governance that was able to respond to the decline of the steel industry and reinvent the city. The problem with Detroit wasn’t that the auto industry declined; it was that its democratic leaders and institutions failed to respond to that challenge.
It’s clear from scientific research that the planet is being stretched to the limit of its sustainability. We have to make sure that the land we have inherited is passed on to future generations in as good if not better shape than we received it. The path to environmental sustainability is through Parliament. A weakened legislature makes it more difficult to achieve consensus on meaningful policies.
Kahane: Has there been any historical example where Canadian democracy has risen to such a challenge?
Chong: Many! The rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada were a direct result of the concentration of power in the executive branch of government. People in what are now Ontario and Quebec rebelled because their democratically elected legislatures weren’t being heeded. Out of those rebellions came the great reforms of the 1840s and the vital principle that the executive branch of government is not accountable to the governor in council but rather to the legislature. We also had the great broadening of the franchise in the late 19th to earlier 20th centuries, when women and all males above a certain age were given the right to vote. In the 1870s, the right to a secret ballot in federal elections was adopted. We’ve been able to make reforms before, and I have no doubt that we will be able to restore Parliament to playing a central role in our public debate again.