Show Your Work – On the Alberta Legislature, open legislation and debate

As you may have gathered..and as I may have mentioned one or two times, I’m a fan of municipal government. I respect greatly, its importance in our day-to-day lives. I value its accessibility to residents, whether it’s an interested citizen or a community group looking to be engaged in policy, and in operation of their city, town, hamlet, summer village, etc. And I appreciate the ability of my councillor, and the small group of decision-makers next to them, to engage in debate and discussion in an intimate setting that allows my representative, and everyone’s representatives to ask numerous questions, to engage one-on-one and have an indepth say. An advantage of a smaller group that also isn’t encumbered by party lines.

Being a good politico I do of course closely follow provincial politics. Their federal cousins however, I tend to consider far out of reach of the average citizen; operating from a place where the concept of “all politics is local” tends to take a back-seat, not so much to national discussion, but party ambition and the ability to fall back upon party name rather than a personal connection with constituents come election time. Yes of course, provincial politics could well be accused of having the same flaws. But 80+ MLAs doesn’t quite match the bustle of 300+ MPs or the sound volume of national campaigns.

Anyways, where am I going with this? Debate, the development of legislation, the consideration of amendments, and consultation with the public throughout.

It’s budget time for municipalities. Aside from a few in camera sessions, the process is open for all to drop into Council chambers and view the proceedings. You can/could attend a public hearing, watch civic departments and agencies make their budget requests, see the Mayor lay into the province and feds over municipal funding and next week, see Councillors debate various motions before arriving at a final product. It’s a far cry from the traditionally behind the scenes provincial budget process with an often rhetorical public discussion.

Not that budgets or even municipal funding were a prime topic for MLA’s yesterday. This past evening I tuned into the proceedings in the Leg, and kept the live stream going mostly out of curiosity as to whether any opposition amendments to the topic at hand, the elections accountability act, would actually pass. I believe the final tally was 2 accepted amendments out of 100+ proposed.

I suppose if you swing heavily to the government side, the process doesn’t particularly bother you. But to this observer, there’s something aggravating about watching, what seemed to be some quality proposals, falling under the wheels of a party bus. Isn’t it supposed to be province first, not party first? Opposition MLA’s are generally strong when it comes to articulating their proposals (I say this regardless of whether or not I agree with their politics). But it’s from the chorus of “NOs” which shot down so many of these amendments, that I’d like to hear some articulation of their viewpoint. The reason for their vote.

Perhaps I’m missing something here and have just spent too much time listening to Councillors speak to their reasons for voting yay or nay, one by one, prior to a vote. Maybe I’m just irked by the differences in accessibility by the general public to the policy development process between provincial and municipal politics. Or maybe I’m just plain annoyed that my elected provincial representative can propose an amendment – good, bad, or in between – and see it shot down by dozens of members on the other side, seemingly along party lines with limited explanation justifying their votes.

With the tools of the 21st century, and with a laptop, a smartphone, and/or an iPad sitting in front of almost every MLA and member of the public, there’s a better way to do this; it’s in the development of legislation and amendments using the open source model. A model that inherently creates public consultation and transparency by starting with a blank page and drafting public policy with many eyes upon it.

 

OpenLegislation – It’s a tool developed for the New York State Senate and Assembly

OpenLegislation is a web service that delivers legislative information from the New York State Senate and Assembly to the public in near-real time.

The platform allows bills and their various versions to be published as they’re drafted and as the legislative process moves on. It shows, in an easily accessible manner, how various members voted and even provides the public with the ability to comment and engage in discussion along the way.

The size and bustle of the Legislature may not allow for that intimate debate that can take place in municipal Council chambers. This is however the era of Twitter, of Facebook, of blogs and online forums. There is absolutely no shortage of tools for provincial politicians to post their thoughts on policy, to elaborate on how they vote and make decisions – or for the government to only reveal a bill when it’s reached what they consider to be a final, or near final product. The only hindrance is laziness, a lack of desire for transparency and the failure of the public to provide any political hit for being aloof and disconnected.

Yes, the government does have some public surveys and consultation processes. And sure, many members of the Provincial Assembly and many politicians in fact do utilize social media. But a public meeting with no follow-up, a survey whose results are only revealed through an MLA/minister and social media broadcasts – “Proud to be…”, “Great day at…” “Thrilled to be…” – aren’t engagement. They add little or nothing to the public debate, and as a citizen, I’m not particularly interested in giving up an evening to attend a public meeting, the feedback from which I’ll never have any insights into how it’s actually considered. Nor am I interested in a politician’s events schedule and how productive and great their day was. Although, if they wanted to announce what interest groups they’ve met with and who’s set up meetings to lobby them, that wouldn’t be a bad thing ;).

Yes, we live in a representative democracy. We elect people to make decisions on our behalf. But it shouldn’t mean that we aren’t provided a window into the process, from the drafting of policy to its passing, or the ability to open that window and engage in discussion. It shouldn’t mean that we don’t closely follow the progress of our representatives through the term – asking to see why they’ve voted as they have – what their thoughts are on proposals and ideas from all corners of the assembly. When the process is dominated by party politics, much of which takes place outside the view of the general public or with media at a party AGM crammed into a little room – in failing to do so, we probably deserve what poor policy and debate comes down the pipe as a result.

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