Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada's Failing Democracy
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In Tragedy in the Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, founders of the non-partisan think tank Samara, draw on an astonishing eighty exit interviews with former Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum to unearth surprising observations about the practice of politics in Canada.
Though Canada is at the top of international rankings of democracies, Canadians themselves increasingly don’t see politics as a way to solve society’s problems. Small wonder. In the news, they see grandstanding in the House of Commons and MPs pursuing agendas that don’t always make sense to the people who elected them.
But elected officials make critical choices about how this wildly diverse country functions today and how it will thrive in the future. They direct billions of dollars in public funding and craft the laws that have allowed Canada to lead the way internationally. Even with so much at stake, citizens—voters—are turning away. How did one of the world’s most functional democracies go so very wrong?
In Tragedy in the Commons, MPs describe arriving at their political careers almost by accident; few say they aspired to be in politics before it “happened” to them. In addition, almost without fail, each MP describes the tremendous influence of their political party: from the manipulation of the nomination process to enforced voting in the House and in committees, the unseen hand of the party dominates every aspect of the MP’s existence.
Loat and MacMillan ask: Just what do we want Members of Parliament to be doing? To whom are they accountable? And should parties be trusted with the enormous power they wield with such little oversight or citizen involvement?
With unprecedented access to the perspective and experience of Canada’s public leaders, Tragedy in the Commons concludes by offering solutions for improving the way politics works in Canada, and how all Canadians can reinvigorate a democracy that has lost its way, its purpose and the support of the public it is meant to serve.
MP Jim Gouk. “Literally, we had nobody to tell us anything. Plus, [even from] the little that people could tell us—we were down there to try it differently. So we made lots of mistakes. ” Likewise, Liberal MP Roger Galloway said: “It takes time to figure out how it works … and [to figure out] what I want to do here. What can I do here? You don’t do that in a month, or a year. It’s an evolution over time. ” THE FAMILIES OF MPs are of course tossed into the fray as well. Galloway left behind a wife and four young children in the Sarnia area when he first went to Ottawa as an MP in 1993, and he made the weekly commute to Ottawa and back for the five-or-so months a year that Parliament is in session.
During his campaign in December 2005 and January 2006, First Nations voters on the Saskatchewan reserves asked him a question that others, more informed of federal politics, might not have thought to ask: “What does an MP actually do? ” What is illuminating is that Merasty was a bit stumped. He knew the broad-strokes answer—in fact, he thought of the job as requiring three different hats. “Battle hard for your constituents; be available to respond and advocate for them as much as you can,” he says.
We inquired into their motives and their paths to politics. We asked how they spent their time in office. How did they interact with their constituents and civil society organizations? What did they view as their accomplishments in office? How did they work within their party? And what advice did they have for future MPs—and for Canadians themselves? During the interviews, the former MPs were at times cagey, protective of themselves, their parties and their place in Canada’s public life. But for the most part, they were open, helpful and forthcoming about their experiences and the problems they identified in the way our politics works.
In a lot of parties, nominations are protected, and it’s hard to unseat the incumbent, and there’s lots of things that work against real democracy breaking out. It was all about the excitement of being able to choose a new candidate—and to be a part of the democratic process. ” OPEN AND TRANSPARENT nominations really can engage people in the democratic process, as the story of Solberg’s nomination shows. In fact, they exemplify the way many Canadians believe nomination battles work—ideally, an open call for candidates, who then compete for support among the riding’s party members in an election that is overseen by a leadership that takes pains to minimize any bias or perception of favouritism.
You listen to their problem. ” This can mean assisting constituents with the bureaucratic matters—immigration, employment insurance, passports or veterans’ support. It also includes helping people benefit from federal programs or legislation, and fulfilling the role of a representative by attending social occasions or other commemorative events. In fact, about a quarter of the MPs we interviewed said this service to constituents, when they could operate freely from any party interference and the results were tangible and personal, was the best part of being an MP.