A chance to rebuild democracy — one brick at a time

Legislatures around the world are getting facelifts, giving parliamentarians an opportunity to shore up democracy, too. Will they take it?

By: /
9 September, 2019
Canadian members of parliament and staff pose in the House of Commons in advance of the closing of Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Madelaine Drohan
By: Madelaine Drohan

Canada correspondent, The Economist

When Canadian members of parliament and senators moved to temporary quarters earlier this year as part of the 10-year renovation of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block, they joined a surprising number of homeless politicians around the globe whose usual place of work is being renovated or abandoned in favour of more modern digs.

Austrian MPs are meeting in one of the 2,500 rooms of the imperial Hofburg Palace in Vienna while the final touches are made in a four-year renovation of their 130-year-old home. Ireland’s 156 parliamentarians have stayed in place while the oldest bits of Leinster House are repaired. Dutch politicians are preparing to vacate the thirteenth century Binnenhof complex in the Hague. Parliamentarians in the United Kingdom are poised to “decant” in a few years from Westminster, whose aging electrical systems have led to 24-hour fire patrols. Legislators in Thailand and Egypt have new homes. And Jamaica just unveiled plans to abandon its 1960s parliament building in favour of a grander venue that resembles a football stadium.

This great wave of parliamentary building projects is mostly age-related. Many were constructed or renovated in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the height of nation-building, says Rob Wright, the civil servant managing Canada’s parliamentary precinct renovation. It’s not surprising they should “rust-out” at the same time, he says, regardless of where in the world they are located. Yet it falls at an awkward time, when voters are increasingly disenchanted with their parliamentarians and populism and authoritarianism are on the rise.

Renovation and new construction offer opportunities to make cultural, technological and physical changes that reconnect citizens with their parliaments and help rebuild democracy. These are not being seized. Politicians fear that eye-watering bills will lead to charges they are feathering their own nests. When they talk of changes it is with an eye on making their working lives easier. Public consultation is rare and often occurs after the big decisions are made. In keeping their eye on the bottom line rather than on the future, they are missing an opportunity to strengthen their democracies.

Legislative buildings do more than just put a roof over the heads of politicians and peers. They are symbols that reflect the national character, sometimes inadvertently. Think of Australia’s sprawling Parliament House in Canberra that echoes the country’s wide open spaces. Or the Binnenhof complex in the Hague, a pragmatic mix of modern and medieval. Canada’s Gothic Revival parliament buildings speak to the young country’s British connections.

Parliamentary buildings also contribute to a country’s political culture, Charles Goodsell, an American academic, wrote in a paper on legislative architecture. They perpetuate the past, manifest the present and condition the future. Each of these separate tasks give rise to unavoidable tensions in renovations. How much of the past and whose version should be perpetuated? How can contradictory pressures in the current day, such as the push for more openness and the equally strong push for more security, be balanced? And are those in charge of conditioning parliaments for the future thinking broadly about a country’s collective future or more narrowly about their working conditions?

The Thai government was clear on whose history would be paramount in the recently completed Sappaya-Saphasathan, which overlooks Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River. The architectural design competition awarded 40 percent of possible points for “Thainess,” with only 25 percent of points for functionality. The winning design is based on Mount Meru, a sacred peak in traditional Thai Buddhism, with a golden stupa at the top to represent nirvana. It is comfortable imagery for 95 percent of Thais who say they are Buddhist, less so for the five percent who follow Islam.

When Indian lawmakers eventually decide whether to renovate or rebuild the colonial-era Sansad Bhavan, they will have to determine the fate of 59 murals in the outer corridor of Parliament House, commissioned in the 1950s to depict the newly-independent nation. The artworks mix history and mythology to show that democracy had deep roots before Britain established colonial rule. The story they tell focuses on the heroism of the elites, but skips lightly over colonial humiliations, the caste system and contributions to nation-building by ordinary people. Whatever choice lawmakers make will be controversial.

In Austria, the heritage authorities wanted the parliament building faithfully restored to its former glory. A compromise was reached. The elegant staterooms on the first floor, or Bel Étage, were restored, albeit with LED lamps in the chandeliers and a new heated floor underfoot. New, modern spaces were created in the unused attic, now a cafeteria, children’s workshop and public terrace, and the basement, now a visitors’ centre. The plenary hall, last renovated in the 1950s, was restored but given a glass roof.

Are those in charge of conditioning parliaments for the future thinking broadly about a country’s collective future or more narrowly about their working conditions?

One of the trickier conflicts to resolve is between the desire on the part of citizens for parliament to be more open, not just physically but in its operations, and the competing drive on the part of parliamentarians to feel secure. The push for transparency has different motivations. In countries like Canada or Britain, it comes from people who want to know what their politicians are up to, says Andy Williamson of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an organization of national parliaments. Whereas in Latin America, he says, “it comes from ‘We know what they’re up to and we want to stop them.’”

The drive for security is more straightforward. Even before Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up the British parliament in 1605, terrorists have targeted legislative buildings. Among more recent examples, nine people including the five gunmen died in an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. A soldier standing ceremonial guard and the gunman died in an armed attack on Canada’s parliament in 2014. And a driver mowed down pedestrians and cyclists on Westminster bridge before crashing into a barrier near the British parliament in 2018. Those in charge of renovations do not like to talk in much detail about anti-terrorism measures, for obvious reasons. Wright cited security as the reason Canada plans to move its visitors’ centre from inside parliament at the base of the Peace Tower to a chamber to be built underneath the parliamentary front lawn.

Yet Canada’s plan is a perfect example of how making legislators more secure can also make them more isolated. At a Commons committee meeting earlier this year, MPs were told that in future visitors (no one refers to them as citizens) would be channelled to an underground chamber in the front of the buildings for a security check, then through a tunnel that would take them directly to elevators that let them off at the visitors’ gallery. “The paths of visitors and members of the public would not necessarily cross those of parliamentarians and those doing parliamentary business,” testified Larry Malcic, the architect of the design. None of the MPs questioned whether separating MPs and the public was a good idea. Nor did anyone suggest that forcing visitors underground while MPs and their staff entered through the main doors of the building might not set the right tone for what is after all the people’s parliament.

Digital technology offers lawmakers a means of being more open without increasing physical contact with the public. They can use official channels, such as open publishing of legislative records and digital broadcasts of sessions, which has overtaken traditional broadcasting. They do it unofficially through personal social media accounts and instant messaging. Of 168 parliamentarians from 86 countries surveyed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2018, 96 percent use a mobile device and 80 percent said they expect their digital communication with the public to rise.

Members of the public can use digital technology to have their voices heard. E-petitions are on the rise. Britain created a special Commons committee that selects e-petitions that garner 100,000 signatures for debate in Westminster Hall, which Britain began using as second chamber of the Commons in 1999. It is the first committee in the British parliament to be instructed by the public as to what it will look at, says Williamson.

Canada may follow the example set first by Australia and then by Britain by adding a second chamber to its Commons. A committee report in June 2019 recommended that the next parliament consider this measure. One has been tentatively sketched into the renovation plans, although it also may end up underground. Yet here too the committee discussion and report were disheartening. The reasons listed for supporting the idea were all about how such a chamber would help MPs. It would expand the total amount of sitting time in the Commons without increasing or lengthening sitting days. It would move private members’ business more quickly, give them more time to make statements, and work as a testing ground for new members. It fell to MP Frank Baylis, who appeared before the committee on another matter, to remind its members that the British found a parallel chamber was popular with the public because they felt it gave them more say. “Just like what happened in the United Kingdom, they'll be more engaged in their democracy,” he said.

At least the twin pressures of security and openness are occasionally raised in discussions of parliamentary renovations. A far harder stretch for politicians is to envisage and set time aside to discuss what changes, both physical and cultural, are needed to condition democracy for the future.

Seating in the chamber is one of the easier examples to think about. Despite being heavily invested with tradition, seating arrangements often came down to chance. Britain adopted two benches after the first House of Commons in 1547 met in St. Stephen’s Chapel, with MPs sitting in the choir stalls on either side and the speaker assuming his place at the altar. Had they, like the French at the time of the revolution, been forced to use a converted theatre for a meeting of the Estates General, British MPs might be sitting in a semi-circle today. Winston Churchill insisted the parallel bench arrangement be maintained when the Commons was rebuilt after being bombed in the Second World War.

A more recent school of thought holds that facing political opponents head-on leads to more adversarial politics and that more collegial debate emerges from the fan-shaped arrangements common in European parliaments. Even if this were not entirely true — the fan shape has not made American political discourse more collegial in its Senate or House of Representatives — changing the seating could help refresh political discourse where it has gone stale. Yet politicians seem hesitant to let go of arrangements made centuries ago.

With the temporary move of the Commons to the West Block, Canada had an opportunity to test a new seating arrangement. Would adopting a fan-shape or a circle change the nature of debates? If forced to sit in an unfamiliar seat, might MPs be more inclined to change their point of view? We’ll never know, because parliamentarians chose to replicate on a slightly smaller scale the chamber they had vacated in the Centre Block. Viewers watching Question Period on television would be hard-pressed to spot any differences, unless the cameras panned up to the glass ceiling.

The government website for Canada’s parliamentary renovation project, which covers more than the Centre Block and will last for several decades, says that it is “the largest, most complex heritage rehabilitation project ever seen in Canada.” It promises the plan will deliver buildings that will “meet the needs of a 21st-century parliament for years to come.” But will they meet the needs of Canadians for a stronger, more open democracy?

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