Critical comments concerning Cullen’s contest

Last week, Nathan Cullen announced a contest in which his constituents will compete to have their ideas for a new law turned into a private member’s bill and introduced in parliament during the fall sitting. Cullen envisions the contest as a means of fighting cynicism about politics by demonstrating that voters can have real influence over their MPs. However, if this is the aim, then the contest is a poorly conceived instrument by which to pursue it.

As it happens, voters are already entitled to send MPs their ideas for laws. And obviously MPs should, as a matter of course, turn great ideas into private member’s bills—at least insofar as a reasonable ordering of priorities allows (after all, MPs have other responsibilities). This is supposed to be standard operating procedure for representative democracy, not a radical departure from it.

Although Cullen describes the contest as a unique demonstration of trust in voters, there is already plenty of trust to go around. We trust the public to select good representatives, and part of what makes a good representative is being judiciously responsive to the public between elections. This means we also trust the public to form and communicate views and preferences that tend to be worthy of response.

Ordinarily, Cullen would act as gatekeeper, deciding whether or not an idea from his constituents is, all things considered, worth turning into a private member’s bill. This contest does not do away with the gatekeeper; it merely replaces an elected and accountable gatekeeper with “a volunteer panel of local business, faith, cultural and ethnic leaders”. What makes this contest remarkable, then, is not the trust it puts in voters but rather the mistrust it puts in representatives.

By portraying the opportunity for “real influence” as an exceptional event, Cullen encourages the perception that under ordinary conditions, voters have no real influence. And by removing himself from the process of evaluating the public’s suggestions for new laws and calling this “real influence”, Cullen encourages the perception that MPs are obstacles to—rather than facilitators of—democratic engagement. All this should be expected to feed voters’ cynicism rather than fight it.