Good intentions not enough

 

Good intentions quickly dissipate for new MPs

Like the citizens who elected them, MPs often grow disillusioned with Ottawa's day-to-day realities

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

The reality of life in Parliament quickly scuttles the ambition of most new MPs to make a difference in public life and their communities, say men and women who have spent time in the House of Commons.

With a new Parliament on the way, what better time to deal with the issue?

A report on life on the Hill prepared by Samara says most MPs come “to Ottawa determined to create a different politics from that which was on offer — one where their communities were better represented, and where the political culture encouraged more citizens to pay attention to their country’s politics. They described entering Parliament with a sense of awe for its majesty and history, reflecting their understanding of the importance of the institution and the work that lay ahead.

“But for many, these initial feelings soon receded, replaced by confusion and frustration,” the report continues. They “received very little training, making it difficult for them to navigate the complexity of Parliament. Their initial committee assignments and other appointments were allocated by their political parties in ways that seemed random, and often had little to do with their interests or pre-Parliamentary experience.

“Even after they settled in, the MPs found that their parties’ leadership did little to manage the tension inherent in the relationship between political parties and their MPs. Parties amplified this tension by providing little guidance, structure, or expectations, and by intervening arbitrarily—often without explanation—in the MP’s work.”

Last time, we looked at Samara’s conclusion that the structure and management practices of political parties in Parliament is the main reason for much of the institution’s dysfunctionalism and the childish behaviour of MPs in Question Period. 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.

Despite all the frustrations, many of the former MPs think “they accomplished good work in Parliament. They described finding the latitude to champion causes they cared about. Often these were constituent matters they brought to greater national attention. From post-secondary education to agricultural policy ... and there are many more.

“For an enterprising, energetic person, politics seems like a way to make a difference,” the report says. And MPs can find ways to improve the situation. “While there are structural, legal and financial issues that affect how a party operates that should be discussed, they do not preclude parties from starting to make necessary changes to their internal management approaches.”

It will take time, energy and the will to change to give MPs a greater role in Parliament,” the report notes. “With time, removing obstacles to how MPs do their jobs should also remove obstacles to citizen engagement.”

One observation MPs made that should concern the public is that much of the good work of Parliamentarians is done “almost entirely away from the public gaze, restricted to the more private spaces of committees and caucus.” Samara says Parliament is one of the few workplaces where mistakes are obvious to every. In private, MPs can deal with issues without putting on a performance to impress the party.

“On the other hand, the work of the Parliament of Canada is critical to how we live together as a society since decisions made on the floor of the Commons influence issues as diverse as Canada’s economic policies, its healthcare system, and whether the country goes to war.”

But how is the public supposed to judge the conduct of MPs if they are working in private, the report wondered. “How can high-level debates be brought out into the open for the public to see, evaluate, and even participate in?

“Furthermore, as technology and evolving social attitudes lead to greater demands for transparency in society, should we be concerned that Parliamentarians claim they can’t engage in critical debates or produce good results in public?” the report wonders. “Or should we instead find other ways to hold political debates on the issues that matter?”

Parties should be playing a role in solving the problems in Parliament, the report suggests.

“We know that Canadian citizens are certainly not engaged with political parties — less than 2% of Canadians are members, and voter turnout is at a record low. And if Parliamentarians are also frustrated, perhaps parties are not meeting their obligations to Canadian democracy.

“Reforming them, therefore, requires citizen participation. However, it would seem that we are currently in a vicious circle. Parties need to be renewed, but parties turn people off from politics. Disengaged citizens do not want to join parties, and so parties are not being renewed or reformed in the direction the citizenry would like.”

For starters a public debate is needed on how Canadians want political parties to work.

Add new comment