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Canada: Virtual Parliament

Recently, I attended the ideaCity Conference in Toronto organized by Moses Znaimer, the eclectic chief of Citytv, MuchMusic, and a host of other specialty channels. Each of us “presenters” was challenged to present, in 20 minutes or less, an “idea” which we felt passionate about. I presented the idea of creating a Virtual Parliament for Canadians on the Internet.

By Preston Manning

When I was a member of Parliament from November 1993 to January 2002, I would sometimes go down to the House of Commons late at night after it was closed for the evening. In that silent and dimly lit chamber, I would try to imagine what Parliament could become if a true democrat occupied the prime minister’s chair, if the Speaker and House leaders truly believed in parliamentary reform, and if each party and member were genuinely dedicated to making the Canadian Parliament the best democratic institution in the world.

It was out of those musings that I began to play with the idea of creating a Virtual Parliament on the Internet. A parliament which Canadians could visit to participate in meaningful democratic activities. A parliament which would demonstrate to Canadians what a genuinely democratic institution could and should be.

Log on to the yet-to-be-established website of this Virtual Parliament, and you will find yourself entering a virtual building. The design which I projected on the screen at ideaCity was that of a traditional legislative building not unlike our present Parliament in Ottawa. But there would be nothing to stop us from having a contest among Canadian architects and architectural schools to design a 21st century democratic space and structure which might be radically different. One of the other presenters at ideaCity—Lise Anne Couture, co-founder of the architectural firm Asymptote—later demonstrated tools for designing virtual spaces which are limited only by the imagination and ingenuity of those using them.

Enter the Virtual Parliament and you will be invited to register as an Observer, a Member, or a Volunteer Worker—with strong encouragement to register as something more than just an Observer. As I frequently remind Canadian audiences, democracy is not a spectator sport, and those who choose to not involve themselves in the politics of their country are destined to be governed by those who do.

In the foyer of the Virtual Parliament you will be presented with a variety of venues—all constructed around some important democratic activity—which you may visit for the purposes of observing, or hopefully participating.

No matter what venue you choose to visit, every effort will be made to make your visit and participation easy, informative, action-oriented, and even “fun”.

You might choose to start out by visiting the Information Centre (library) where you may get information—“inform your discretion”—on the issue of the day or week. Or, you might choose to go to the Media Gallery where you can view media clips and commentaries on the issue of most interest to you. You might also choose to visit the Lobby, where interest groups can register on either side of an issue and make their pitches. For example, you might want to compare the different positions of Greenpeace and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers on the Kyoto Accord.

If you are really serious—perhaps you have some special expertise in a particular issue area—you might wish to visit a Committee Room where you can join with others in analysing and modifying a draft bill or policy statement. Or, if you are (or aspire to be) a political activist, you might visit a Back Room filled with virtual smoke and join with others in planning and executing an Issue Campaign, such as on health care reform.

No matter what your interests, you will surely want to visit the Assembly, join in an online debate and vote on the current issue of the day or week. The Assembly Room of the Virtual Parliament will have a number of features missing from our current Parliament: genuine freedom of speech unfettered by the taboos of political correctness, freedom of voting unhampered by party discipline, and a “trap door” under each member’s “seat” which can be triggered by a two-thirds majority vote if some speaker conducts himself or herself in an offensive manner (including speaking too long).

On certain days there will be “Special Debates”—perhaps an Idea Debate (our current Parliament hardly ever discusses new ideas), or a debate solely designed to bring scientific expertise and ethical values to bear on some issue like global warming or the regulation of the genetic revolution.

At the end of each day or week, the results of debates, votes and other activities at the Virtual Parliament will be summarized by the webmaster and forwarded to the media and members of Canada’s real Parliament and legislatures. The ultimate purpose will be to make the Virtual Parliament so much more exciting, interactive, attractive, and democratic than Ottawa’s Parliament, that our parliamentarians will eventually be encouraged or shamed into making meaningful parliamentary reforms. The Virtual Parliament will also be an effective “training ground” for responsible political activists, with a large number of Volunteer Workers being required to operate the various venues on a continuous basis.

If you don’t think Canada’s Parliament needs to be overhauled to make it more effective and democratic, just watch the parliamentary channel CPAC for a few days.

Above all, let us remind ourselves that, in the end, democracy itself is far more than a debating and decision-making structure or process. It is above all an idea. An old and noble idea that every individual is of infinite worth with a right and responsibility to influence by voice and vote the collective decisions which affect our lives. The Virtual Parliament is a means of giving new life and meaning to that idea for all Canadians in the 21st century.

And if you would be willing to contribute to the development of the Virtual Parliament just drop me a line at my personal website www.prestonmanning.ca.

( Preston Manning is a former member of Parliament and former Leader of the Opposition for the Reform Party of Canada.)

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