Breaking Out: From “Partycracy” to True Representative Democracy

Feb 12, 2009 | Comments 16

This site is dedicated to mobilizing support for moving Canada to a higher level of democracy, one that would  make Canadian democracy truly reflect our democratic ideals.  Since you were attracted to this site, you probably already feel the need for political change.  A quick review of the archaic nature of the system will confirm that you are right in thinking as you do.  Going beyond that review, the site will also consider what that change should be and , most importantly, how it could be accomplished.

We have had a surfeit of criticism of the system but too little thought about   alternatives to it that would be both more democratic and support a better quality of government. What might be surprising is how straight forward those changes could be.If you are a typical Canadian, you  already believe that the change in the mode of representation advocated here, i.e.,  to one where MPs would represent their constituents rather than parties in the House of Common, should take place.  This change would usher in “policy democracy” to complement our existing “electoral democracy” — citizens would both choose their leaders and collaborate in deciding on the policies adopted by them. But it is also likely that you have been led to believe that it is impossible to achieve this form of representation and  that you, your children and grandchildren must  “live with” the existing flawed political order.

It is certainly true that a new system will not be “given” to us by our leaders. They are “captives” of the existing political order. We must demand it and refuse to be put off with modest alterations in the existing “embryonic” democracy, a system  that leaves government without the public support it requires to serve us effectively.First, the quick review of the origins and development of the political system that is commonly called  “liberal democracy,” “representative democracy,” “electoral democracy,”  or less frequently now, “parliamentary democracy.”  It is more accurately seen as a “partycracy” – a system where representing and governing is monopolized by parties – supporting “prime ministerial” government.

The discussion that follows is organized under three headings:

Where We Are Now

Our political system took its present form in the late l9th century at a time when Canada was predominantly rural; families offered what security they could to children, the sick and the aged; most people were “self-employed”; government was small;  taxes were low. It evolved to meet the needs of men of different political persuasions (Grits and Tories) who sought political power to build the country but, also, to enjoy the “fruits” of office.  Those men, like our founding fathers, Macdonald and Brown, rejected democracy in the strongest terms as a foreign “American” idea.  Voters were to chose their leaders and leave it to them to decide what was best for the country. 

It was not until WWI —  “fought to save the world for democracy”  –  that democratic rhetoric came into fashion  and was applied to the party-dominated political system that had taken form  in the previous century.  The words “democracy” and “democratic” were used freely to describe the system from WWI to the present but the power relationships established in the l9th century remained the same, apart from the extension of the franchise to all men and women.  Citizens were to choose their leaders by voting for competing party teams but the leaders, and particularly, the prime minister, were to exercise virtually unfettered freedom between elections  to decide public policy and run the apparatus of the state.

As the social and economic worlds changed dramatically during the 20th century, however, the virtually complete control of the state by the governing party during its term in office gradually became intolerable.   What government did was too important to citizens and, especially, to powerful groups in society, such as business, the professions and a multitude of others, for them to leave government to our political leaders. The response of political leaders to the need of these new interests to be heard, and for government to hear them as it made policy that affected them, was not to open up the l9th century system to these new would-be political actors.  That would have involved the dilution of their constitutionally-sanctioned control of government they had struggled so hard to win in competitive party elections. Instead, the demand for more participation had to be  expressed “informally” through lobbies, interest or pressure groups.  Citizens and organized interests were forced  to influence  the decisions made by the parties and particularly, of course, by the party in office, from outside the party parliamentary system. 

Superficially, this might appear to be an appropriate adjustment to the new set of demands facing government. If the politicians are blocking entry to “their” system, those concerned with what government does (all of us) can organize to influence them from the sidelines. The problem is, however, that this arrangement makes a mockery of the  democratic ideal of political equality — one person one vote.  While, for example, the pharmaceutical industry has the resources to make its voice heard and heeded by the government as it makes policy affecting their industry, the millions of citizens who have an interest in that policy as consumers of pharmaceuticals have only the opportunity to cast a vote for a party in a periodic election and personal lobbying as their means of influencing policy.  As political scientist, Stein Rokkan, put it pithily, in liberal democracies the result is that, “Votes count but resources decide.” We must, and can do something about that. 

The emergence of organized interests as a powerful force, overwhelming the very small control over public policy that we have through voting for one party rather than another, crept up on us. It is not as though there was a constitutional convention and it was decided that powerful interests should be given a preferred place in influencing government.  Now, however, it has reached the point that citizens are aware that what should be “their” government has somehow been “stolen” from them by this development. While the “ear” of government has increasingly been tuned to emerging powerful interests in society, our voice, as unorganized citizens,  has grown progressively  more faint. We tell pollsters that we feel “powerless” in our “democracy” and are politically alienated.

As individual citizens, we are not a  force that can demand respect from our political leaders. Further, the attention paid to our views is lessened because “partycracy” does not encourage us to become well informed on political matters.  Why should we pay much attention to politics when the parties and their leaders monopolize making and administering public policy? Uninformed, when playing the limited role in governing ourselves that we are allowed, we are likely to make misjudgments. To take a foreign example of this: George Bush, thought by many Americans to be the worst president in their history, was elected twice by them.  The damage he did in office was enormous.      

We are encouraged to participate in politics by the rhetoric of political leaders who want followers and supporters, but are pushed to one side when it comes to deciding what the people we elect should do with the power partycracy bestows on them. The role of “mere” voter might have been acceptable to us when government played a small role in our  lives, when we  were poorly educated, and when communications did not exist to let us know what was happening in Ottawa, but it is not sufficient now. The government we have (“our” government?)  faces huge challenges in the form of global warming, a depression, challenges to national unity, etc, without our full support.  Indeed, many of us reject government appeals for support feeling, often with justification, that we, and the government that is supposed to be representing us, are moving to “different drummers.” 

In summary, the political system that evolved in the 19th century is not what we, in the 21st, need. It is archaic and beyond simple fixes. Partycracy fails to meet the desire of citizens to have a larger voice in government, and citizens, responding to this,  fail to give government the  support it needs if it is to  meet  its challenges  effectively. Although these weaknesses are widely admitted by party leaders who talk about the “democratic deficit,” they  are unwilling to fundamentally change the system that empowers them. Instead, they give some support to incremental changes in the system that fall far short of significantly engaging citizens in the process of governing. We are conditioned to depend on these leaders, and when they propose only tampering with the existing system, we are left in a kind of vacuum. We want significant change, but feel we have to put up with what we have.

In my forthcoming book on political reform, I liken the system to an old and battered freighter. A significant part of its crew must devote its time and energies to keeping it afloat. Its hull, rusting through in many places, is patched, but still more leaks appear as the general deterioration of the strength of its metal hull worsens steadily. The  decrepit vessel can only limp along bearing a limited cargo toward an uncertain destination. That destination shifts with crew changes; weather that can easily blow the ancient tub off course; and frequent stops for repair. Traversing familiar routes poses dangers: striking out on new ones is beyond consideration. The decrepit nature of the ship poses risks to the crew and all others dependent on its performance.

Having benefited from a life in Canada blessed, for most of it, by peace and prosperity, I feel an obligation to do what I can to leave a more vital polity to my children.  Further, while I do not venerate any particular age group, I do think that those of us who have lived long enough to gain great familiarity with the political system should act on what we have learned: Those caught up in the system will not, cannot be expected to, bring a l9th century system into the 21st without us “pushing” them forcefully. Force, in this case, means popular organization, means us joining hands to end the democratic deficit.

Admittedly, it would cause political instability that nobody wants if the basic elements of the political system were changed often.  On the other hand, political instability is likely eventually if an archaic system is kept in place on life-support when people reject it, and it functions poorly.

How Most Canadians Want To Be Represented

When we turn from these general observations to the specifics of change, we must ask what we citizens want in a new, modern political system. Surprisingly, that is quite clear, and has been for a century or more.  Overwhelmingly, we want the persons we elect in our constituencies to represent us, rather than their party, in the House of Commons. When asked:  “How should your member of parliament vote on major issues?” 71 per cent said they should vote according to the majority view in their riding; 21 per cent according to his or her own conscience and beliefs. Only 7 per cent endorsed the present system of party representation, i.e., that the MP should vote according to the policies of his or her party. Polls that ask us to rank institutions in terms of our respect for them place political parties almost at the bottom of the list.

It is not unreasonable that the person we elect to represent us should do so!  And it is understandable that when this does not happen citizens in a self-styled democracy should be alienated. Imagine hiring a lawyer to represent you and while he or she agreed to do so, and took your fee for the work, he or she then followed the instructions of the head of the firm when they  conflicted with yours. Worse, the lawyer did not even ask for  your views  in any serious way!

Politicians, and particularly those seeking to break into the system, sense what voters want that the established parties are not providing and offer it. The the western farm parties in the l920s, and more recently the Reform Party of Preston Manning, realized that they could get votes by advocating “constituency” representation, and promised it. They failed to follow through on their promises, however, and did not even seriously consider how constituency representation might be organized responsibly. In addition, we know that most new candidates of the other parties for the office of MP promise to represent their constituents but are quickly “whipped” into representing their leader-dominated parties if they are elected. The failure of party MPs to act on their promises is understandable, a conventional party is not likely to take seriously the organization of a replacement for party!

Consider the significance of these public attitudes toward party representation. 

The system of representation on which the political system is based relies on parties for which we have little respect. Further, the rejected form or mode of party representation  shapes how all the institutions of government are organized and function. The House of Commons, for example, would truly be a forum of the people if it was composed of 308 representatives of citizens rather than parties.  If you believe, as I do, that such a forum is essential then we must turn to how it could be organized. 

A “constituency parliament” could be elected in every one of our 308 federal constituencies charged with the responsibility of meeting regularly with the constituency’s MP and, in collaborative deliberation with him or her, defining the position of the constituency on issues. The MP would then support this position in the House of Commons on most issues.  To give credibility to the work of the local parliament, its members would have to a) have sufficient time to meet and discuss issues in depth and b) have access to all the information available to the MP. Constituency parliament members would have to meet with their MP on conditions of relative equality and mutual respect.

In this model, general elections would feature a candidate or candidates nominated by the constituency parliament committed to working with it if elected, and others nominated by parties, if they continued to exist, and independents.  In a House of Commons dominated by “constituency MPs” or perhaps totally composed of them, the MPs would choose an executive to provide  leadership – truly accountable to them and through them to us – to guide the government.

Civil servants working for a government based on a House of Commons that truly represented us would be working for Canadians and not for a changing party-in-office whose claim to represent us is always weak, and sometimes completely unfounded.  Their morale and commitment to their work might be quite different!

These few paragraphs provide only a sketch of how the alternative form of representation long sought for by us might be organized. Full details and answers to the many questions you might be expected to have are spelled out in my forthcoming book. But just this sketch may be enough to suggest to some that we should “get on with it” now.  They  will believe that involving more of us in the policy making process in an organized  responsible way must be an improvement over the present system, and give substance to the often empty rhetoric of our political leaders who now talk so much about the “democratic deficit”; about how they want to represent their fellow citizens. Really, they are only prepared to shuffle power among themselves.

How We Can Get To Where We Want To Go

Those who want to press ahead now with significant reform will ask how it can be done.    How do we break out of this “box” – the existing system in which we are trapped  — when the people who must institute change are committed to party?There are, I believe, three “escape” mechanisms that will facilitate our movement from partycracy supporting prime ministerial government to a true representative democracy. First, those supporting fundamental change in the form of constituency representation must advance a convincing model of what they want to change to around which  they can organize. It is not enough to advocate constituency representation. People must be able to see, how, on the ground, it could be realized. In the very brief sketch set out above, I have provided that.

Second, the public must be informed about the existence of an alternative to the present system of party representation. That will require using every available means of challenging the political status quo — the media, town meetings, lectures, and, most important, a party (see below).

Third.  The first and second “mechanisms” will not, of course, be enough to bring about change. Nor will pressuring (party) politicians to support a non-party system of representation.  As is often said, “power must be met by power”.  Party representation and government must be challenged by a party solely committed to bringing about change, change that would make the change-party redundant once its sole objective had been accomplished.  This party vs party challenge is, in my view, the only hope of bringing about significant political change in our lifetimes or that of our children. Institutions (parties) are notoriously difficult to dislodge but a challenge from another institution that reflects the values of the overwhelming majority can be successful if we organize behind it.   

We, Canadians, are restrained, thoughtful people. Fortunately, it is not in our makeup to even consider the violent overthrow of the regime to replace it with, one might hope, a more democratic system. But a party that gives voice to the long desired mode of representation that most already think is appropriate in a democracy may well earn the votes of citizens and set the stage for  an orderly evolution of our system. 

I am very conscious of the fact that a proposal to fundamentally change a functioning political system must be supported by more than the brief comments set out above. (hence the forthcoming book)   On the other hand, I know, too, that many of my fellow citizens need little convincing.  They, too, have thought about these matters and are ready tfor positive action.

I hope that those who have further questions and ideas and those who are ready to push ahead will get in touch with me. We need to find one another and pull together the organization needed to bring about the change that Canadians have long sought.  You will find contact information on this site.  I hope to hear from you. Let us organize and insist on the adoption of constituency representation for ourselves, our children, our country, and for a world needing models of democracy that welcome citizens into the role of “governors.” 


  1. Ross Johnson

    CONGRATULATIONS to, and even Three Cheers for Prof. Lyon daring to start this much needed conversation!

    I’m not going to argue with the critique of the existing system or the philosophy presented here because my studies and experience have convinced me of the need for change. I expect that as we discuss the implementaion, any philosophical weaknesses may show up at that time.

    Jut to get the conversation going, would you suggest that this be done one constituency at a time? I ask this because you do say that, “In a House of Commons dominated by “constituency MPs” or perhaps totally composed of them,” which leads me to think that some constituencies would still be electing “party” representatives.

    Another query – you say, “To give credibility to the work of the local parliament, its members would have to a) have sufficient time to meet and discuss issues in depth and b) have access to all the information available to the MP. Constituency parliament members would have to meet with their MP on conditions of relative equality and mutual respect.” I don’t presume you mean that constituency parliaments would have their own bureaucracy. Would the MP’s staff in Ottawa be charged with providing the Const. Parl. with all the information available to MP’s?

  2. Rune Deon

    The apathy is frightening. It’s encouraging to hear someone speak of change, I just don’t know what will mobilize people when our streets are overflowing with the homeless and our children savage another country for shallow reasons. Our passiveness as a country has reached a point where it is shameful. We watch as Israel commits one war crime after another and when we finally speak, it is in support of the criminals. Yea Bring Change on.

  3. Joyce Macdonald

    If the electorate were allowed to choose a budget as well as representatives we would overcome many of these problems. Before an election a formal audit of government finances could be conducted. On its basis each party (or individuals with the resources and support) develop an audited 4/5 year budget plan. During the campaign these are promoted and explained to the electorate. As well as voting for MPs/MLAs at election time citizens choose a budget. No matter which party is elected the citizen’s budget must be implemented and so the role of opposition is to ensure government stays on course. There could be a provision for unanimous consent for unforseen circumstances etc. This is a brief description of a proposal.
    It seems to me it clarifies citizen responsibility, allows for education and discussion of issues, and limits the power of parties.

  4. jessica

    I have one very big concern about this idea. I feel that people living in rural areas that have very limited resources and population, would not have there very serious issues met. I feel cities would be heard as they are now, (very loudly) while rural areas are a whisper and ignored. This has been happening for so long now that the farmers in canada are starving and going bankrupt. Farmers are the very life and blood of this and any other country yet because they are not many they are being made extinct. Small towns are paying as much on property tax as big city people do yet they don’t have public access or even reliable taxis companies. They have either NO HOSPITAL or one that is under-funded to the point that it is unsanitary, yet you will wait 4hrs to see a docter just like in the city. I feel Insurance companies; and it being made law to have insurance is a crime against our human right to choice. (I bet every government official put money into the insurance stocks right before they made it law!!)
    December of 2008 our canadian government was found guilty (by the Supreme Court of Canada) of stealing our EI Funds and yet there was and still is no concequence to our government for doing so. That money does not belong to them to do as they please, that is still our money taken for a specific purpose!!! Yet it is our government who is pushing for more super jails?!! The odacity. And for the findings to be aired on the news over the christmas holidays when most people are in family mode vacation time, how rude. Most canadians are not even aware that this took place. We need alot more organisation and better thoughtout ideas then what you have proposed because we also have immigration to concider and with attention paid to our Constitution in regards to majority rules. Thank you for reading my long shpeal…..I hope this is helpful to you even just for consideration.

  5. Ed Pitt

    I may be wrong but I think the STV system would give us much more democratic and representative representation than we now have.

  6. John Fellowes

    I have wanted change for a long time but conversations about it are hard to find and harder to start. I need a very short opening statement that catches anothers interest. And then keep it really short and simple. Then if they are interested i can give them more info. I find very few people read, except headlines. Few would read through your whole statement.

  7. Balraj Cheea

    I absolutely convinced that the existing format of democracy is a misnomer. The reinvention of system of parties, elections and need to have citizens participation is essential if true democracy is our objective.
    The existing politicians and their agendas are so tied up with the status quo that they can never ever conceive of bringing in real democratic system.
    Some politicains are sure to loose and that is what stands in their way to introduce changes in favor of democracy.
    People need to be educated, people need to think of their better interest and the interest of their future generations. The present system has not delivered and shall not deliver in the future.
    If we have changed our ways in social, religious institutions; why not in the political arena as well.
    People have to wake up to new realities and new politics.

  8. Donr

    We arived at the present parlementary system by presenting a group’s concentrated pressure. But it is a hold over from those days when “property holders” designed it to protect their values. It has slowly moved to protect those with the largest property to protect, in a society where everyone in the “middle” class has property.
    The phraseology “of the people” was adopted as propaganda to convince the uneducated that they were included.
    We must organize ourselves to have the power to make changes, like you say -the establishment will not give up their power easily. Most communities have many focus groups, these could be consolidated and used as embrionic starters for commitment to a larger group where “town hall” meetings would serve to air problems and commit to larger working models with the purpose of electing community commited representatives.
    It will not be an overnight change. It will provide us with a more aware community.
    The first and major job might be to push for a Proportional representation system.

  9. Thomas A. McDowell

    Some of these opinions are right on the mark. Our anti-democratic leader Mr. Harper applauds the war crimes of the blood thirsty, genocidal maniac Netanyahu, and sends our young men and women to attack people who have done us no harm, in an area where our countries vital interests are not at stake. There is never a murmer about any of this in any of our news agencies. All I read is an attack on president Obama for mentioning the 1967 borders. Not that he means that Israel should withdraw there!! Heaven forbid.

  10. fred schwentafsky

    the entire world outside canada, not just the islamic world, views its complicity with washington and nato and the u.k. as being part of the evil empire. i came here from south africa in1986. this govt. is doing the same thing that the white govt. did in south africa. truth, reconciliation and genuine peace is not on the agenda. i am convinced that young thinking people in canada are not happy with this govt. ask them on the street and they will tell you they dont like it. the corporate world has created a world of illusion and spectacle which has turned our politics, our education, our economics, our society and even our religion into junk yard dedication. one young person said to me on the street in halifax a few hours ago. i wish the riots in vancouver were against the govt. actions in libya and not some stupid hockey game.

  11. LizP

    Yes, democracy needs fixing but why do I think that those that want to fix it would be really unhappy if their opinion did not prevail and want to fix it again? It’s like having “stakeholders” in a Climate Change Working Group where the stakeholders are actually business people hoping to make money off the theory. Is that democratic? I have a feeling that the constituency parliament would be made up of special interest groups that don’t really reflect the opinions of the majority of Canadians. Just because people do not belong to a focus group, does not mean they don’t have an opinion.

  12. CanadianForChange

    The main problem with the changes that are needed to our political landscape is the current players will not be so willing to give up their seats.

    For years I’ve been pondering different forms of true representation, I think ultimately … given the state of current technologies (internet, twitter, sms messaging, phone voting) it would be entirely possible to have the Prime Minister and Parliament only act as the producers of bills to put forth to the people of Canada to vote on.

    We are at juncture in time and technology where every voice in Canada should be allowed to decide policy and law, a juncture in time and technology where this is entirely feasible.

    Hopefully over the next decade we can force the issue and truly change our democracy to be truly democratic and evict the charlatans that are more for corporations than they are for the people.

  13. Dave

    It truly is a time for change. And it needs to happen before things become irreversible. As the wealth and power of the political (party) elite grows it becomes harder and harder to reform the system.

  14. Dave

    I am a monarchist and believe our salvation could well lie in the office of the Governor General federally and the Lieutenant Governors provincially. If these offices would exert the little power they have and stand up for the rights of the people perhaps change could slowly be accomplished. Any comments on this?

  15. Surken

    I agree with most of it, but I would like that it would go much further. I would like to see Canada with a direct Democracy. There are several web pages to support that. Like

  16. Denis Falvey

    I think two truisms are that political parties or factions are not going away anytime soon, and that money will always find power.

    The history of representative democracy is one of blunting tyrannies; the tyranny of the king, the tyranny of the lords, the tyranny of the majority, and always the tyranny of the rich. There are I think two tyrannies with which we must struggle in our age and country; the tyranny of money, and the tyranny of false majorities (aka the Prime Minister’s Office or PMO), and they are related.

    If you follow the money of elections, it is the leaders of parties that have the power to have candidates elected, because they control the expenditure of money raised by the party. This means that successful candidates owe allegiance not to their constituency but to their party; they do not represent the electorate in parliament so much as they represent their party’s views to the electorate. (If you don’t believe this try writing an email to your MP on really any issue.)

    It is not clear to me how community parliaments would correct this, although I think it an interesting idea for other reasons, and that it should be developed. I am delighted to see people thinking constructively about these matters.

    What would be a move to correct both the money problem and the false-majority/PMO problem is multi-member proportional representation. The reason for this is as follows, in brief.

    Proportional representation would get rid of false majorities which plague our current system, make it possible for the PMO to function the way it does, and make it impossible to effect needed changes to the system.

    Our current government exercises 100% of the power as a majority government on the basis of the support of about 24% of the electorate. They, or any of the parties that are successful in this system, are never going to change what worked for them; pit people against each other with wedge issues, create voter disgust and apathy to keep them away from the polls, obfuscate and hide, attack opponents. They, and their opposing parties, will do whatever is necessary to manipulate a false majority.

    In a multi-member proportional system everyone is represented, and no votes or voices are lost. I wonder what effect the other 76% of the electorate would have had on the current government if they were represented in Parliament? I suspect it would go a long way toward blunting the tyranny of the PMO.

    One of the changes that should be made to thwart the tyranny of money is for spending on campaigns to be drastically restricted. There should be no tax benefit for donating money to parties. The names of all candidates, their bios, and their platforms should be promulgated by Elections Canada in each riding; publicly funded media coverage of all candidates positions on the issues should be provided through CRTC regulations; all-candidate forums in each riding, each week of the election should be organized by Elections Canada. No other advertising of any sort should be allowed, and no polls should be made public during an election.

    Money talks, but in elections at least it should shut up.

    Change like this won’t happen without proportional representation.

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