Alex Binkley - Squaring the circle


Why Parliament runs like it has square wheels

While political parties treat 'their' MPs like fast-food franchises

The MPs are as disenchanted with Parliament as their constituents

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
Image manipulation by Geoffrey DowWith a lot of first time MPs likely to be elected May 2, Canadians might hope that the new faces will lead to more grown up behaviour among our Parliamentarians.
Don’t hold your breath. As a new report from Samara explains, the problem isn’t who we elect as much as the parties they belong to.
Samara is a charitable organization that has authored three studies based on exit interviews with 65 MPs who retired or were defeated between 2004 and 2009 to see how Parliament can be made a more effective voice for Canadians.
The latest report observes, “The floor of the House of Commons more often resembles a schoolyard than a chamber of public debate. Prime Ministers’ Offices, and their unelected staff, wield much of the decision making power. Polls indicate citizens feel poorly represented by their elected officials, or have chosen to tune out altogether.”
Instead of the usual excuse about the role of the news media or the rules of Parliament, the former MPs said, “It is often the way political parties manage themselves, their members and their work that really drives the contemporary dysfunction facing Canadian politics.”
Question Period and the regular debates in the Commons are time wasters for most MPs who said they got far more done working on committees and in party caucus meetings, Samara concluded. “The MPs insisted they did their best work — collaborating across parties, debating and advancing policy, and bringing local issues to the national stage — in the less publicized venue of committees and the private space of caucus.
“The MPs claimed to be embarrassed by the public displays of politics in the House of Commons, saying they misrepresented their work. Many blamed this behaviour for contributing to a growing sense of political disaffection among Canadians. They were frustrated with the public performance of their parties, and said it led them to pursue their goals elsewhere, away from the public and media gaze.”
From the interviews, it became clear the greatest frustrations MPs face “during their political careers came from within their own political party. … time after time, the MPs articulated how decisions from their parties’ leadership were often viewed as opaque, arbitrary and even unprofessional, and how their parties’ demands often ran counter to the MPs’ desires to practice politics in a constructive way.”
In a most curious observation, Samara equated “the uneasy relationship between the MPs and the management of their political parties (as resembling) the relationship between the local owner of a national franchise and its corporate management.
“The MPs consistently pointed to their parties’ management practices, and the incentives and punishments the parties put in place, as significant obstacles to advancing the real work of Parliament. While a certain amount of friction in the relationship between MPs and their parties is unavoidable, it would appear that little is done to manage, never mind mitigate, the tension.”
If MPS are “disenchanted with their own parties, then it should come as no surprise when citizens also choose to opt out. After all, if MPs — who arguably benefit more than any other citizen from political party membership — claim that the party leadership pushes them away from constructive politics, is it any wonder that so many Canadians also turn away?”
Which leads Samara to wonder what the political parties could do to reverse MP’s dissatisfaction with their role. Or whether parties, dominated as they are by unelected officials, have any interest in correcting the situation.”
Samara also questions why MPs don’t attempt to repair Parliament’s dysfunction. “First, it appears as though most of the MPs didn’t see themselves as the problem, and instead chose to distance themselves from their colleagues and their profession. This may indicate that the MPs held the same negative view of politicians as the general public.”
MPs come “to Ottawa from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a diverse set of experiences and perspectives, usually shaped by a long history of active involvement in their communities. Once they decided to run, however, their identity became closely tied to the brand and leader of their chosen political party. While clearly there are differences between selling coffee and representing constituents, the daily life of an MP involves many of the same struggles that confront the local owner of a national franchise.
“Franchisees are successful, in part, because they know their community and serve it well.
In return, they’re granted a monopoly over that particular geography and have latitude to make significant daily decisions. But their success is also due to the fact that they operate under a wider brand with standards and rules to which they must adhere, and with obligations they must carry out. If the wider brand is not well-regarded, the local franchisee is unlikely to stay in business for long. And he or she knows this.”
Under the national brand of their party, “MPs quickly began to rub up against the demands of modern party politics that dominated their lives in Ottawa: the need to work with party members to advance policy, vote with party priorities and support the party leader in sometimes controversial situations. ... What we didn’t expect to hear from the MPs, however, was how little effort they felt their parties put into mitigating this tension, at times even aggravating it.”
Next week we’ll delve further into the role of the parties in the public decline in respect for Parliament.

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