Calgary·Q&A

Why public consultations are 'phony' and 'undermine democracy'

‘I don’t think these things build consensus, I think they just get people more riled up,’ says Brianna Heinrichs, the author of a paper that questions the merit of public consultations.

Researcher for Canadian think-tank questions merit of Energy East hearings

A demonstrator is taken away by a police officer after disrupting a National Energy Board public hearing into the proposed Energy East pipeline project on Aug. 29, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The regulatory hearings into TransCanada's Energy East pipeline expansion are suspended, for now.

The National Energy Board is putting the process on hold after protesters disrupted the first day of consultations in Montreal.

But is public consultation really necessary?

That's something Brianna Heinrichs has been questioning ever since she wrote a paper for the Manning Centre called The Consulter's Conceit: How Phony Public Consultations Undermine Democracy and the Market.

Heinrichs, who is currently working as a researcher for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, was a guest on the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday. The following is an edited and slightly condensed transcription of her interview with host, Jennifer Keene:

Q: What are your concerns about public consultation hearings?

A: They're not representative of the general population and they're prone to being hijacked by special interest groups. Usually people self-select, they say 'I have something I really want to say about this.' They're not necessarily someone from the general population, it's somebody — they're passionate about something or they have an agenda and they're the kind of people that will show up at these sorts of things.

Q: Well shouldn't those people, the people who have the greatest stake in something like a pipeline have the right to be heard?

A: Absolutely they have a right to be heard but I guess the problem is when governments say, 'Look, we want everybody's opinion and come all, share,' ... What the government is getting then is not representative of the population.

Brianna Heinrichs is a researcher with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Canadian think-tank. (Frontier Centre for Public Policy)

They're not getting the thoughts from, you know, just your average, middle-class, 'I work 9 to 5' person.' You're getting opinions from the people that have the time to actually show up to those things. 

People are experts at different things. Like, I wouldn't hire an accountant to represent me in court, I wouldn't hire a lawyer to build a bridge. We're all smart people, or most of us are smart, but we're not experts necessarily at what we're being consulted about. So I wouldn't want the government to make their decisions based on these consultations.

Q: So what then, is the point of having these consultations?

A: Well, I think the governments like to do it because it gives legitimacy to whatever it is they want to do. It looks like they're being democratic by consulting and getting people's opinions … It's kind of a public relations thing in a way and it's informing citizens about what they're doing.

There's very rarely a consensus among Canadians about different issues. I don't think these things build consensus, I think they just get people more riled up.

Q: So without public consultations, if we're to do away with all of this - how would you suggest members of the public weigh in on something as controversial as the Energy East pipeline?

A: I mean, you could still write letters to your MP, your MLA … I'm not saying that governments shouldn't listen at all to what people have to say, it's just how much stake do we put in any particular consultation or hearing?  


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

now