I was privileged yesterday to take part in a discussion on CBC radio’s Ottawa Morning show with host Robyn Bresnahan and Jennifer Ditchburn, Editor in Chief of Policy Options. Jennifer had written an excellent piece about a huge, decade-long programme to renovate the Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament, something that is not being discussed but should be, because of its potential to significantly disrupt the working lives of parliamentarians and the ability of the media and citizens generally to engage with and scrutinise their elected leaders.
You can find audio of the interview here on the CBC Listen website:
I’ll be writing a longer piece for Policy Options shortly but the key issues are these:
- Reorganising the seating in a plenary chamber does not make “politics” go away or make politicians “behave”, whatever that means. That’s a strangely deterministic way of looking at the world. What such things can do is symbolise other changes – changes in procedure, constitutions, institutional incentives, public norms and so on – but they can’t make them happen on their own.
- Nonetheless, more general site organisation is important. In democracies we want parliaments that are working buildings in which elected representatives can get on with the work, but in which direct engagement with other kinds of representatives — advocacy group representatives, citizen delegations, constituents, journalists, academics — is also encouraged.
- New parliaments have an increasing tendency to quarantine MPs from citizens and the media alike, even ministers from back-benchers, all the while making grand but empty gestures to openness. Take a close look at the Welsh National Assembly and the Australian Parliament, for instance: designed references to openness, but members actually sealed off from the public and each other by rat-runs and swipe cards.
- Old parliaments get sealed off in another way: by ‘historicisation’. They get turned into sacred monuments, in which the messy, everyday business of politics becomes increasingly off limits.
- And both are getting securitised to death through visitor centres and perimeter security.
As Jennifer stresses in her article and the interview, all of the above should be the result of open public discussion, not left to building managers, security and architects in private. Otherwise the risk is that our leaders are allowed to seal themselves off from us, and from each other.
This cannot be allowed to happen in Canada, the home of, till now, one of the most open parliaments in the world.
My book on these issues is Democracy and Public Space, available in electronic, hardback and paperback editions from Oxford University Press.