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Irrationality in politics unfortunately includes Joseph Heath’s claims — but there is hope for more reasonable politics

The following letter by Democracy Watch Co-founder Duff Conacher was published in the March 9, 2015 edition of the Hill Times

Unfortunately Joseph Heath proves his own thesis that irrationality dominates politics these days with his claims that Canada’s parliamentary institutions “have been entirely evacuated of all of their democratic content. No one’s listening at committees, no one’s paying attention in the House of Commons, no genuine debate is occurring” and that these institutions “seem so hopelessly degraded that it’s difficult to see how they could possibly be improved” (Politicians ‘breaking democracy,’ need a new enlightenment to save politics, says author Heath – Hill Times, March 2, 2015).

In the same issue the recent passage of the Reform Act by the House of Commons is highlighted — a bill that makes one improvement by somewhat removing one power party leaders have over MPs in their party (and, depending on what MPs do now, will lead to more improvements that free and empower MPs in key ways).  The Reform Act was amended both after genuine House debates, and by a House committee — one of many bills to be debated genuinely and amended in the past year alone (along with changes to several government programs).

So there is hope, and that is why Democracy Watch will keep pushing for improvements to political institutions it has advocated for more than a decade, improvements that surveys over the past 20 years show again and again most Canadians want: an honesty-in-politics law covering everyone involved in politics with high penalties for misleaders; a law requiring meaningful public consultation by government institutions before any significant decision is made; stronger ethics laws to reduce favour-trading that corrupts decision-making processes; stronger laws reducing the powers of the Prime Minister and premiers and all party leaders so that MPs can more freely speak truth to power; stronger open government and whistleblower protection laws so everyone can know the evidence behind government decisions and can also speak truth to power, and; changes to voting systems across Canada to ensure voters are represented more accurately in legislatures (which will also open up political decision-making to more voices).

These proposals are, in part, based on international best-practice standards set out in documents such as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the research of psychologist Robert Cialdini set out in his 1984 book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and on Dan Gardner’s 2007 book Risk: The Politics of Fear.

As Democracy Watch has pointed out for more than a decade, we have government institutions already in Canada that use more rational, deliberative, transparent and ethical government decision-making processes — they’re called courts.  The more we can change the rules of political decision-making to require processes that match the courts’ requirements for honesty, ethics and openness, the more we will have rational policy-making.

Of course, given that politicians are elected, unlike judges they have to take into account how representative their decisions are and what voters want (even in cases when what voters want is not based on facts or fully rational assessments).  However, if the measures proposed above were implemented, at least policy-making discussions and debates would be effectively required to be much more rational than they currently are.

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