An Experiment in Direct Democracy

THUNDER BAY – This week at home in the riding my staff and I carried out an experiment in direct democracy. On Wednesday evening we held our first ever federal townhall meeting via telephone, and my immediate impression is that it was a great success and something worth doing again in the future.

I’ve always maintained that the people of Northwestern Ontario need and deserve a strong voice in Ottawa, but also that a strong voice is of no value unless it knows what needs must be said. This is the basis for my work in the riding since being elected as your MP in 2008. In this time I’ve held 15 townhall meetings and sent out 8 full riding wide surveys to give each household an opportunity to express their opinion and have a say in the work I undertake in Ottawa. The products of these meetings have been several bills and motions which were tabled in the House of Commons including; Bill C-501 to secure pensions and severance pay during bankruptcy proceedings, and others to put US forestry subsidies, funding for volunteer fire departments, and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder on the agenda in Ottawa.

Last week’s telephone townhall was an extension of what I hope will be the longstanding tradition of public consultation and engagement in our riding. This new technology provided more than 22,000 households in our riding the opportunity to have direct contact with their Member of Parliament over a one hour period. Of course not everyone took advantage of this opportunity, but more than 8,500 people who received the initial phone call invitation opted into the meeting and more than 2,500 stayed on the call for an extended period of time and participated in some of the interactive polls that we were able to conduct. For a one hour period I think is a very good result and allowed for a level of outreach and contact that would have taken weeks or even months to realize by other means.

As mentioned above, the telephone townhall meeting afforded us an opportunity to conduct some interactive polls. In all, I asked four basic questions. The questions and results are as follows:

-Is the Harper Government on the ‘right track’ or the ‘wrong track’? (Right track 24%, Wrong track 76%);

-Should the federal portion of the HST be removed from home heating? (Yes 96%, No 4%);

-What issue would you most like to see action on in Ottawa right now? (Making Life More Affordable 41% , Retirement and Pension Security 27%, Healthcare 16%, the Economy including the Deficit and Debt 10%, something else 6%);

-Has the HST made it harder for you and your family to make ends meet?” (Yes 96%, No 4%).

These results tell me that the majority people in the riding think the government is moving in the wrong direction, that the HST has had a negative impact upon the households in our riding, and that people would like me to focus on making life more affordable and securing their retirement for the most part. This is very valuable information, and I will be using it guide my work this spring as well as passing it along to my New Democrat colleagues in Ottawa for their consideration as we evaluate the contents of the federal budget that is to be presented next week.

While I would like to report that this townhall meeting went off without a hitch I simply cannot. There were some glitches. In one or two cases, people who were contacted and tried to opt out of the townhall were unable to disconnect right away while some did not receive an invitation at all. My staff and I will be investigating these quality assurance issues to clean up the process for next time, but in the meantime I would like to apologize to those were inconvenienced or unable to participate in this unique event.

All in all I would have to say this was a very useful and successful experiment in direct democracy. I am always eager to hear your questions and concerns and I think this meeting was a huge step forward to ensuring you and I are on the same page and that I can speak authoritatively and be the strong voice in Ottawa that our region deserves.

John Rafferty MP