Samara is a Canadian think tank dedicated to improving political participation in Canada and their research if the foundation of a new book, Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak out about Canada’s Failing Democracy (Random House, $29.95, 274 pages) by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan. In it they examine the role of MPs in Parliament through the lens of 80 former MPs that they interviewed. The authors stress that while these former politicians do not agree on what their erstwhile jobs entailed they do share a dissatisfaction with the relationship between elected representatives and the party leadership: the prime minister, party leader, party headquarters, the Prime Minister’s Office. Indeed, these two facts are probably related.
The authors do a fine job describing the difficulty in the balancing act of being an MP that must be true to one’s own values, adequately represent constituents (whatever that means), and being a good team player in a political party. Reading through how various MPs in the Bloc Quebecois, Canadian Alliance, Conservative, Liberal, NDP, and Reform parties attempted to balance those often competing demands illustrates that finding the right answer might well be impossible. It doesn’t seem that many of the 80 former MPs interviewed by Samara are entirely pleased with how they performed in office because politics being the art of the possible requires compromises. That is a given, but the issue for politicians is how much compromise. It seems the answer is: a lot.
Loat and MacMillan make a point that is seldom examined: why do so many intelligent, hard-working, and accomplished individuals, people who excel the private and non-profit sectors, give up their careers and private lives, to run for political office where they inevitably must subsume their own principles and thoughts to the party leadership? As the authors note, increasingly MPs are merely mouthpieces for the party, with their press releases, Members’ Statements, interview answers, mailings to their own riding, and much more vetted – or even provided – by the party’s center.
It is easy to blame the “Prime Minister’s Office” or “Campaign Headquarters” and the mostly young, unelected, and unaccountable political strategists, and controlling party leaders, but it makes sense that at a time when most political coverage is provided by media conglomerates at a national level and there is little local media political reporting, that the leadership would want to control the message. That does not excuse their meddling with the rights of candidates and members, but it makes it understandable.
What is not so understandable is why so many candidates and MPs go along with it, what the authors call “colluding in their servitude.” Certainly ambition is part of the reason: most MPs would like to become cabinet ministers or chair committees, which are appointed by the prime minister and party leaders. Speaking out – “freelancing” its called – is frowned upon as it prevents the party from delivering a single coherent message.
Loat and MacMillan trace the numerous developments that have deposited an excessive amount of power in the hands of party leaders, starting with giving them the power to sign off (and thus also refuse) on how can and cannot run under a particular party’s banner.
What makes this all so tawdry is Jeffrey Simpson’s observation that all decisions are driven by politics, not principle. It sometimes seems that the only goal in politics is to get elected and then re-elected. The job of an MP is to win and then win again, but not necessarily for himself or a set of principles, but the party.
Inky Mark, a former Reform and Canadian Alliance MP, told Samara that MPs are “scared … they are afraid of not climbing the ladder.”
To fix this, there needs to be changes in how parties operate, although as journalist Andrew Coyne says, the people who rose to the top under the current systems in place are unlikely to change the rules. So what is needed are better candidates and MPs, people for whom the wrong kind of ambition is not an issue. As former Liberal MP Andrew Telegdi advises politicians: “don’t sacrifice your principles in chasing after what (the party) can give you. Be true to yourself.” It might take a few brave souls, but systemic change is probably almost impossible to get through, whether at the party level or in Parliament. Voters just need to demand better calibre candidates.
And this is where Tragedy in the Commons comes up short. To some extent, in any democracy, the failings of politics must rest at the feet of voters. The authors give scant consideration to whether voters truly want MPs to speak their minds and to talk off-message on controversial issues. So in addition to a better class of politicians, we also need a better electorate.