The New Politics Initiative: Towards a Living Democracy
& Judy Rebick
What is participatory democracy? It is government that involves citizens at every level of decision-making. The form of participatory democracy we know best in Canada involves consulting citizens about policy. While experiences like the citizens constitutional conferences before the Charlottetown Accord are an important contribution to expanding our notions of democracy, the problem with them is that they have no power to make decisions. They are strictly consultative. Real participatory democracy, like the budget process in Porto Alegre, Brazil, actually involves citizens in decision-making. Other kinds of participatory democracy include citizens' participation in the administration of government, as in the case of citizens' committees choosing members of boards or agencies or citizen cooperatives running public services or citizen groups solving community challenges via local initiative projects that are publicly funded. For the New Politics Initiative (NPI), participatory democracy would combine with representative democracy to form a new kind of politics. Participatory democracy is government by the people and there are many examples of its emergence today.
Why Participatory Democracy?
On a global economic level it has become clear that top-down planning is not the best process to solving the world's problems. Over the last twenty-five years, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) economists, scientists and academics have attempted to impose their economic, technological and cultural “expertise” onto the rest of the world with disastrous and violent results. The countries of the Global South are less economically productive, poorer and more heavily burdened by debt than they were before they took the IMF and World Bank's advice.
The Left has also come to realize that the most progressive legislation can be quickly wiped out by the election of a conservative government. This is precisely what happened in Canada's biggest province from 1995 to the present. From 1990 to 1995, a social democratic government, the New Democratic Party (NDP) ruled Ontario, home of one third of the Canadian population. Despite its shortcomings, the party implemented many progressive policies and laws including, employment equity, stronger labour laws, expanded pay equity, and improved environmental protection. With the election of the Harris led Conservatives, citizens of Ontario have watched the new government eliminate every piece of progressive legislation that had been implemented over previous years.
Finally every government, even social democratic ones, can lose touch with their electorate and therefore need regular interaction with the populace. Participatory democracy not only provides that interaction but it also gives a left-wing government a base of power outside of the corporate and bureaucratic elites. The most significant appeal of Porto Alegre's budget process lies in its radical reform of the relationship between public, government and business. It is a “radical reform” because while it does not overthrow capitalism, it undermines corporate domination of the democratic process and gives left-wing governments and popular mobilizations legitimacy against corporate power.
Porto Alegre's Budget
The annual participatory budget process of Porto Alegre, that has taken place over the last twelve years, is structured by a number of phases. The budget process begins in March with citizen forums across sixteen geographic and sectoral areas of the city. The forums of five hundred to seven hundred people elect two representatives and two alternates to serve for one year on the participatory budget council. In April and May, the forum representatives organize smaller assemblies to propose the priorities that the public wants to see funded over the following year. Between May and mid-July, the proposed priorities are forwarded to the current, electorally chosen municipal council. Simultaneously, the forum representatives attend training sessions on municipal finance. A draft budget is constructed by the participatory budget council and municipal bureaucrats and is sent to the mayor and the municipal council (33 councilors elected by traditional democratic means) for consultation. Between October and December, the participatory budget council amends and completes the budget for a final rubber stamp from the municipal council and for its eventual implementation in January. Together the four phases aim at maximizing public involvement in setting the city's social and economic development priorities.
A similar example of government attempting to implement participatory democracy occurred with England's Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1980's. Before the Thatcher government dismantled it, the Council had attempted to change the internal structure of the state in a number of ways. The GLC tried to share the limited power it had as a municipal government with citizens' groups. One of their ideas was to shift power to the users of public services. The key to shifting power to users lay in strengthening user groups that offered support, legal advice and advocacy. Strengthened user groups led to greater awareness and participation from the public. In Canada, advocacy groups have tried to play this role over the last few decades but governments have stopped listening and reduced resources have meant that such groups are less able to represent the constituencies they serve. We need to develop new forms and broader forms of citizen representation in the delivery of public services. Most important is the involvement of the users of that service along with the workers providing the service in making decision about how a given public service will be delivered. For example, instead of the social service ministry controlling administrative policy on welfare, a board in its majority of welfare recipients and former welfare recipients might decide policy.
In a citizen's democracy, welfare workers would play a different role as well. Instead of policing welfare recipients, for example, a welfare worker would be their advocate, assisting them in organizing to improve their lives not just as individuals but as a group, including making demands on the government.
One of the dangers of participatory democracy is that it would reproduce the class exclusion and marginalization present in our current system. A true system of participatory democracy would prioritize the involvement of those most marginalized in our society, like poor and homeless people.
Participatory democracy can be promoted not only by progressive parties coming into power but also by citizens' groups tackling challenges through publicly funded local initiative projects. An example of grassroots democracy is Foodshare's “Field to Table” program in Toronto. The program provides subscribers with a box of fresh, healthy food every week for fifteen dollars. Food is distributed to volunteers in various neighborhoods and poor and middle-class people enjoy the same benefits for the same price. The basket is available for free or at a reduced price for poor people, who in exchange work in the distributing center. They are asked to work only as much as they are able to. Because Foodshare deals directly with farmers, the price is kept low. Therefore instead of going to a food bank and getting charity, poor people are able to purchase fresh food just like everyone else. Significantly, the program moves away from the hierarchical relations ensconced in food banks and towards creating a cooperative, participatory process in relation to social and economic services.
Participatory Democracy and the Party
Too often our own organizations on the left reflect the top down hierarchical structures of representative democracy. Whether in unions, social movement groups or left-wing parties, the elected leadership tends to take power from the membership and exercise it on their behalf. The biggest challenge for the NPI will be to develop new ideas for participatory democracy inside a political party. Some people in the New Democratic Party believe a first step in this direction would be one member one vote where every member of the party, whether or not they can attend convention, gets to vote on the leader and perhaps major policy or constitutional changes via referendum. While this has considerable appeal in terms of inclusion, it also poses numerous problems, like giving power to people who sign up just to support a particular leadership candidate and contribute nothing to the party. Another problem with OMOV is how affirmative action measures can be implemented or the fairness of the province which happens to have the most members because the party is in power there or a recent leadership convention having the most influence. How can a left-wing party empower its individual members at the same time as avoiding these pitfalls?
OMOV also seeks to remove the structural relationship between the labour movement and the NDP. This relationship has become very bureaucratic and is no longer a reflection of grass roots union members if it ever was. However, NPI seeks to extend the close relationship between the party and the labour movement to a variety of social movements. How would this be structured using principles of participatory democracy?
One idea might be to include two levels of party decision-making with a type of party Senate with social movement/labour movement representation. Finally how does the leadership political party, which has to make rapid decisions, remain accountable to its membership. Can a relationship between the parliamentary caucus and the grass roots of the party be more effectively structured to give the grass roots more power?
A Living, Participatory Democracy
The New Politics Initiative, building on the examples above, believes that citizens, not corporations, must be involved at every level of social and political policy-making and policy implementation. Towards this end, the NPI proposes creating a democratic political process that enables public participation. A participatory democratic process recognizes that its citizenry is constituted through different experience and expertise as both individuals and members of communities. The struggles of people of colour, lesbians/gays/bisexuals/transgendered and women over the last thirty years has highlighted the diversity of Canada's citizenry and demonstrated how our traditional institutions and processes of democracy have marginalized and suppressed the diversity of our voices. Over the past decade, poor people have been increasingly marginalized to the point of the creation of a growing underclass.
Participatory democracy is a form of politics that celebrates diversity, and encourages participation from a variety of constituencies, especially those who are most marginalized in our current system. Different viewpoints enhance our country's creativity and capacity to tackle old and new challenges. For example, immigrants, drawing from their own traditions, have promoted innovations in healthcare such as acupuncture, shiatsu therapy and other alternative forms of healing. As well, many immigrants from countries like Chile, South Africa and India have participated in creative linkages between people's movements and political parties and have many insights to contribute to the left in Canada.
Participatory democracy principles also appreciate that people understand their own situation best. Participatory democracy recognizes that it is people in their own communities that understand what is best for them. It is citizens consulting experts who should be making decisions not experts consulting citizens.
Most importantly, participatory democracy does not only recognize and celebrate the diversity of public participation but also promotes its proliferation. Participatory democracy encourages the development of new voices, new communities, and new social movements as part of an ongoing process of democratization. New issues such as biotechnology, the World Trade Organization, economic apartheid, the creation of a global consumer culture, and the USA's newest military space technologies need to be debated by the public in forums that are dominated by citizen participation not by the corporate-owned media. Via the promotion of a living democracy, the NPI hopes a new progressive party could create a direct relationship between the public and its government.