Is representative democracy actually democratic?

“If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it.” – Mark Twain

In its origin, democracy was participatory. The ancient Greeks defined democracy (dēmokratía) as “rule of the people”. A participatory democracy is one in which every eligible citizen is permitted a say and a vote on every issue of government. This probably presented some practical difficulties in early Greek city-states where perhaps tens of thousands were eligible to vote, but modern democracies with populations in the millions instead tend to be necessarily representative, where elected representatives vote on behalf of the people.

The main difference between a participatory democracy and a representative democracy lies then in the distance between the people and the passing of government legislation. How great is that distance today in Canada? How truly representative is democracy?

Consider the political career of Justin Trudeau. In 2007, Trudeau won the Liberal Party candidate nomination for the Montreal riding of Papineau with a total of 690 votes. He was subsequently elected as the MP for Papineau during the 2008 federal election with 17,724 votes, just over 41% of the total ballots cast in the riding.

Five years later, Trudeau was selected as the Liberal leader, winning with 80% of the ballot. According to the party, there were approximately 60,000 members at the time. Doing the math, he had the support of some 48,000 Liberals, thrashing more experienced leadership candidates. His leadership campaign had attracted attention reminiscent of the Trudeaumania days of 1968, riding the brand to victory.

In 2015 Trudeau won Papineau with 52%, or 24,797 of the 51,468 votes cast in the district, becoming the 23d Prime Minister of Canada when the Liberals won 184 of 338 parliamentary seats. According to Elections Canada, over 17.5 million votes were cast (about 68% of eligible voters), and just 6.9 million votes were cast for Liberal Party candidates. Statistics Canada estimated the 2015 population of Canada at 35,851,800.

Justin Trudeau’s rise to power began with winning the Liberal candidate nomination in the riding of Papineau. Viewed within the national context of his current office; only 0.000019% of the population (an infinitesimally small number, in representative terms) voted for him in that contest. Trudeau was then elected to office as the MP for Papineau by approximately 0.00049% of Canadians. Had he not been elected as an MP, he would not subsequently have run in the Liberal leadership race, which he won with the votes of 0.0013% of the population. Moving forward to the federal election of 2015; Trudeau won his riding with 0.0074% of the population, thereby becoming prime minister.

How many Canadian citizens were included in the decision-making matrix that selected Trudeau as head of government? Ignoring the obvious probable overlap (some of those Liberals casting ballots in the Papineau riding nomination would also have voted similarly in the following election, and so forth) the sum of all ballots and votes in the direct line from candidate for Papineau to Prime Minister of Canada is 92,805; approximately 0.0026% of the population, or 0.0036% of the 25,939,742 registered electors. That is a small number.

In a democracy of almost 36 million, less than 100,000 directly voted for the person who would become the highest official in the land. Of course, voters can only vote for candidates in their respective riding. Different parties have different nomination processes, however, it is typically a party HQ that approves nomination contestants. This aspect of the electoral system further distances Canadians from the legislative process.

Most parties use “Green Light Committees” to vet potential candidates. According to former Liberal candidate vetter Charles Bird, these committees are usually comprised of a half-dozen individuals, and are increasingly more centralized. Bird cautions that:

The green-light committees have to exercise some degree of judgement. It can be an enormously subjective process and it can also be a process where, if you’re not careful, it can be prone to manipulation. That’s to say, if certain individuals have a preferred outcome in terms of a potential candidate for a giving riding, lo and behold, every other candidate fails to past muster. One thing that is best avoided for the sake of our democracy is a situation where a perfectly upstanding person comes forward and has every reason to seek a nomination for a given party and a bunch of acquainted hacks basically say, ‘No thanks. We’re not even going to let you seek the nomination.’ That’s when things start to get dangerous.


Six party members can, therefore, select all candidates for an entire province. Without speculating upon the backroom wooing that may have taken place prior to Trudeau’s public political career, ultimately only six out of almost 36 million approved his candidacy.

A weak democracy is one where a very small elite determine the candidates to be elected as political representatives. Voters may get to chose between candidates, but they are completely removed from the candidate selection process, unless they ranked among the few elites in a political party.

It could thus be argued that during the last election, six people determined who the prime minister would be.

If they are denied a voice in who runs for office, Canadians cannot be truly represented by their government. Considering this, is Canada truly democratic, or is our electoral system merely an elaborate illusion to keep the ghost of Robespierre from the barricades?

One thing is certain: the 5,911,588 voters who elected representatives to form a minority Liberal government in October, went to the polls with a set of choices predetermined by the “permanent political class.” Canadians would be haunted by the words of Winston Churchill: “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Ken Grafton is a writer based in Wakefield, Quebec, just north of Ottawa. His background includes global executive level experience in engineering and telecommunications.

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