It's My Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered

April 18, 2011
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It's My Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered
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The resounding lament from the press and elsewhere is that Canada’s Parliament is broken. 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.

Commentators point to a variety of factors behind these problems. They include weak or outdated rules governing Question Period, overly restrictive access to information, media coverage that focuses too heavily on personality and conflict, and an electoral system that doesn’t properly represent Canadians.

Yet when we asked those on the front lines of Canadian democracy—Members of Parliament— they pointed their fingers in a different direction. To them, it is often the way political parties manage themselves, their members and their work that really drives the contemporary dysfunction facing Canadian politics.

This report is the third in a series sharing the stories and advice of 65 former Parliamentarians who recently left public life, each of whom dedicated an average of nearly ten and a half years to being the bridge between Canadians and their government.

The first report, The Accidental Citizen?, detailed the MPs’ backgrounds and paths to politics. The second, Welcome to Parliament: A Job With No Description, described the MPs’ initial orientation to Ottawa and the varied ways in which they described the essential role of an MP.

This report picks up where the last left off, examining the MPs’ reflections on how they spent their time in Ottawa.

Two Main Trends

Two overriding trends emerged from these reflections, raising provocative and important questions for the health of our democracy.

First, what the MPs described as their “real work” was done away from the public spotlight in the more private spaces of Parliament. In fact, the MPs told us that the politics most commonly seen by the public—that which took place on the floor of the House of Commons—did little to advance anything constructive.

Instead, 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.

Furthermore, 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.

The MPs’ insistence that important work was done only in private raises some serious questions for Canadian democracy and citizens’ ability to engage with it.

After all, how are Canadians to observe and understand the work of their elected representatives— to say nothing of their ability to hold them accountable—if all the “real work” is done away from the public gaze? And if the MPs were so embarrassed by the behaviour on display in the House of Commons, why didn’t they do something to change it?

This leads to the second major trend: the consistent observation from the MPs that the greatest frustrations they faced during their political careers came from within their own political party. Although our interviews did not specifically ask about political parties, 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.

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