It's time for politicians to stop campaigning against politics and take responsibility for making them better.
It was startling to hear how often MPs accepted their own helplessness, starting with the prevalence of the outsider narrative that so strongly permeated the MPs’ reflections. Although there is beauty to be found in the MPs’ stories of entrepreneurial success that we citizens don’t hear much about or appreciate as we should, it’s unfortunate to hear that most of these MPs — who worked in Parliament for, on average, over a decade, a third in Cabinet posts — still describe themselves as having felt powerless and outside the system. Why aren’t these representatives of Canadians working within the system to make change? Or if they are, why aren’t they willing to admit it?
It is time for MPs to confront, and change, the narratives they use to describe themselves. The myth of the outsider, riding into a town to save politics from itself, is a powerful one in our culture. Of course, the outsider narrative has been a part of politics for generations; but still, it is ludicrous. Most MPs we interviewed weren’t outsiders at all: most of them had participated in their communities as leaders in substantial ways. Several had worked hard as volunteers or paid staff for political parties, or as officials elected municipally or provincially. They had placed themselves in positions where they were certain to be asked to run. So why did they feel so obliged to wear the outsider cloak?
This is most likely because MPs know the public considers politics so distasteful that even long-time parliamentarians are reluctant to define themselves as a part of it. In this, the MPs agree with many Canadians: the way politics is practised is not particularly constructive or engaging. Even if the same MPs enjoy aspects of the political game — which is more likely, or else the games likely wouldn’t persist — they also know that they turn people off politics.
But these narratives ring hollow in the ears of a cynical public. By distancing themselves from their chosen endeavour, explaining away their interest in public life and suggesting, for example, that their decision to enter was a response to persuasion, the MPs set up a narrative that smacks of insincerity and perpetuates the problem.
Instead of claiming they didn’t want to run, why didn’t more say, “You know, I believe politics is a great way to make a contribution and I had my eyes open for a chance to participate”? This should not be a controversial statement, but from what the MPs told us, it would arouse suspicion about a candidate’s motives.
The problem is made worse by the tendency to campaign, not just against a political opponent but against the occupation of politics itself. Of course, at a time when Canada is facing serious public challenges, we need elected officials who are willing to embrace their jobs, and describe why politics matters. Until we do, we should not be surprised that so few young people consider the political arena a worthwhile place to invest time or an effective way to make a difference.
MPs also need to better understand and stand up for their roles. Less than five of the eighty MPs we interviewed, for example, saw their role at all in terms of the traditional Westminster definition, centred on the MPs’ task of holding the government to account. Instead, the MPs defined their jobs chiefly in terms of representing the views of constituents and those of the party, sometimes with specific reference to advancing legislation, although often in more vague, general terms. A subset of MPs emphasized solving constituents’ problems with federal departments, such as Citizenship and Immigration Canada…
They also failed to take responsibility for the impetuous behaviour on display in the House of Commons. Some even made a point of saying they never acted like those politicians we see on TV. “I set as a goal when I was elected to never heckle in the House and I hated when people banged their hands on the desk. I never once banged my hand on a desk. Not once,” said Ken Epp, even after acknowledging that his own partisan behaviour had debased serious discussion on Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. But there was a hall-of-mirrors effect listening to MPs disparage the rhetoric they heard in the Green Chamber: they spoke about it as if watching from the visitors’ gallery, as if they hadn’t in fact participated or, through their silence, tacitly endorsed the behaviour.
We acknowledge that party leadership pushes the MPs to issue catcalls and criticisms to help them define the party’s position and frame their opponents in a bad light (though the impact of that rhetoric must be acknowledged — in what other workplace could any staff member so abuse a colleague or competitor?). “The party,” however, was rarely personified or described. At moments, the exit interviews felt like something out of The Wizard of Oz, with the MPs expressing awe and fear of an ostensibly great and powerful figure behind a curtain, unknown and unnamed. While loyal to their leader, they displayed remarkable aversion toward leadership and those holding the reins of power — elected or otherwise. Most MPs were imprecise about who or what the term “party” described — as if not naming it dispensed them from dealing with it. Or perhaps it was a convenient way of ignoring the fact that those leaders were often people the MPs knew, likeable friends and colleagues. Or that the leaders might just be the MPs themselves.
Avoiding responsibility for the problems that plague life on the Hill was a constant in our interviews. MPs can blame the political parties. They can blame political staffers, their party leaders and the prime minister. They can blame the media and they can blame the culture of Ottawa. But at its root, any parliamentary problem exists because the Members of Parliament allow it to exist.
Should MPs so choose, changes could come very quickly, without legislative change or expensive consultation. Here’s a start on a bucket list for willing MPs: refuse party-drafted talking points in the House and in committees; take steps to reaffirm a place between constituents and Ottawa; clearly articulate a job description and how to prioritize its key responsibilities. As a start, these measures will help clarify each MP’s approach and enable citizens to know better what to expect from their elected representative.
There’s more. Help localize the decisions made in Ottawa in a minimally partisan way. For example, following each Speech from the Throne, MPs should make a point of outlining what it means for their constituency, bringing their own voice and perspective to what may appear to be an otherwise distant presentation. Now that so few local news outlets have reporters in Ottawa, it is all the more important for MPs to provide that context if national politics are to remain relevant to their constituents.
And lastly, in the next election, each incumbent MP — as well as every candidate — should identify two or three pro-democracy commitments they’ll make if elected. They could identify initiatives to raise voter turnout or advocate for greater transparency in their political party, starting with their local riding association. They could draft a code of conduct for themselves and their colleagues. They might even ask their constituents to suggest what changes they’d like to see that might lead them to hold MPs in greater esteem. Each of these steps, while small, can be easily accomplished and on a wide scale could achieve a powerful effect.
The MPs told us several stories about influencing legislation, such as policies aimed at renewing post-secondary education, when they banded together in small groups. Perhaps a similarly constituted group of MPs could work toward a movement for political renewal, and together slowly break through the tiring rhetoric that too often characterizes talk in Ottawa today. This could spark a much-needed discussion on the role of the MP in twenty-first-century democracy and how those roles should evolve so as to best serve the public.
There have been promising rumblings on Parliament Hill that suggest improvement is possible. We’ve seen back-bench government MPs standing up to their leaders’ efforts to silence them, and one, Michael Chong, going so far as to propose legislation on the matter. We’ve seen political parties promise open nominations, and an opposition leader include in his campaign promises the pledge to provide more power to individual MPs. Although he is far from the first to do this, maybe this time it will stick. We have seen veteran MPs realizing that they can articulate points of view that differ from those of their party, as they realize they don’t always have to toe the party line. We hope to see more of all of this in future.
And while the primary responsibility for responding to the former MPs’ appeal lies at the feet of MPs serving today, and those to come, they will ultimately act because we, the citizens, ask them to do so and support their efforts to make the changes our democracy so clearly needs.
The changes suggested in this book, in most cases, do not require complex legislative amendments. Although amendments to Canada’s Elections Act or party constitutions may help move things along, in the meantime, let’s not overlook small, basic changes that can take place tomorrow if the actors involved choose to make them a priority…
The MPs’ successors have it in their power to demand changes and act differently, and the former MPs insisted that it is worthwhile to do so. As future crops of MPs enter the House of Commons, let’s hope they’ll act as Members of Parliament, and not just members of a party. And let’s hope they’ll resist the temptation to re-enact life on the kindergarten courtyard and come with ideas and initiatives of their own. Let’s hope they advocate for reform within their own party.
Let’s also hope that these new politicians will cease the toxic and counterproductive assertions that they aren’t really politicians. If the newcomers really want to avoid being “typical politicians,” then they should behave differently. They should embrace the politicians’ role. They should take responsibility for the quality of politics and stop blaming an amorphous party. And when someone or something is to blame, they must call it out specifically, so it’s clear who or what Canadians should hold to account, and what should change.
Excerpted from Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy (Toronto: Random House Canada). © 2014 Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan. Used by permission.