Why “The Unbroken Machine”?

Why “The Unbroken Machine”?

Posted on April 4 by Dale Smith in Non-fiction
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In many ways, The Unbroken Machine began out of my own frustrations as a parliamentary journalist as to the kinds of lapses that I see around me on a daily basis. I see MPs who don’t understand their jobs and who burn all kinds of time and energy on things that aren’t their responsibility. I see my fellow journalists struggling to properly cover certain events without having a proper grounding in how our parliamentary system works, leading them to import American terms and ideas as though they were interchangeable with our own. And I see ordinary citizens who don’t understand how they can make a difference in our system, and who fruitlessly spend their energies signing online petitions or donating to public interest groups and declaring a difference made.

"After all, we don’t really get a proper civics education in this country."


It’s very hard to find useful information about our democratic system all in one place. There are plenty of books on different aspects of the system, but not a lot that put them all in one place and show how those aspects interact. It’s also hard to find something that doesn’t focus on political theory or abstract ideas rather than the mechanics of the system. After all, we don’t really get a proper civics education in this country. In light of all that, I thought it was time to take my frustrations, and all of the books I’ve read on Westminster democracy in Canada, and bring them all together in a book.

As I was writing the bulk of the book, Parliament was debating Michael Chong’s Reform Act, which so many pundits declared to be the saviour of our democratic system without necessarily understanding that it had the potential to be the opposite – a solution in search of

new problems that would make things worse on the whole. And this wasn’t the only debate. The Mike Duffy trial focused a lot of attention on the Senate when most people didn’t really have a good grasp of the institution — they still don’t, to be honest — and that coloured a lot of the discussions. And more recently, as The Unbroken Machine was being edited, Canadians engaged in a national dialogue around electoral reform, again with a lot of people making arguments that relied on a faulty understanding of how the current system works (the main support for it being “broken” was simply that it was old), or asserting that there was tremendous value in First-Past-the-Post (which wasn’t being defended at all but for a few voices) with no better defence than “it works.”

I’m hoping that The Unbroken Machine will help give people a better understanding of how Canada’s democratic system works and why we need to stop calling for quick fixes or “one simple trick” solutions to perceived problems with it, so that we can have a more robust conversation and engagement with the system. After all, it’s not that the machinery of democracy is broken, it’s only that we’ve forgotten how to use it.

Dale Smith

Posted by Dundurn Guest on June 14, 2016

Dale Smith

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery, writing about politics full-time since the 2008 federal election. He has written for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post, Maclean’s, Canadian Business, the Canadian Press, iPolitics.ca, and the Hill Times. Dale lives in Ottawa.