Lost in Translation or Just Lost? Canadians' priorities in the House of Commons

February 15, 2013
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Lost in Translation or Just Lost? Canadians' priorities in the House of Commons
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Parliament is more accessible to Canadians than at any time in history. In the past, only the most devoted had access to the House of Commons transcripts, which were delivered by mail. Democracy has gone digital: the TV cameras introduced in the House in 1977 now stream live online, and citizen-generated web tools like OpenParliament.ca help make parliamentary transcripts searchable and user-friendly. Members of Parliament, too, have more tools available to them in order to communicate with citizens—from Twitter to telephone town halls—than at any time in the past.

But this hasn't made Canadians feel any more connected to politicians or political institutions; instead they feel increasingly disconnected. In fact, as 2012 public opinion survey data from Samara shows, only 55% of citizens are satisfied with Canada's democracy—an all-time low1.

That same research produced another unfortunate finding: Only 27% of Canadians think Ottawa deals with the issues they feel are most important in a satisfactory way. These statistics echo comments from Canadians who are disengaged from politics: "Politicians are concerned for their own interests." "They don't really care what people want2."

Canada's system of democratic representation is faltering if a majority of Canadians do not believe their interests are well represented by their elected representatives.

But is this a problem of perception or is it reality? Most Canadians don't see the full range of discussion in the House of Commons, so their opinions are likely formed by Question Period and the headlines of the day. This Samara Democracy Report, "Lost in Translation or Just Lost?," analyzes almost half a year's worth of parliamentary transcripts to discover what subjects are discussed in the House of Commons and compares them to the issues Canadians say they care about. This research gives Canadians a chance to go beyond the headlines, to eliminate the theatrics of Members speechifying, and to take a closer look at what is discussed, or not discussed, in the heart of Canada's democratic life: the House of Commons.


From 34 million people, Canadians elect 308 citizens who serve as representatives in the House of Commons, a public space for debate, accountability and decision-making. Canadians vote for their representatives and expect the House to be responsive to their concerns. At the same time, the House must deal with issues that are necessary to the running of the country but not always prioritized by Canadians. A balance between the two must be struck over the course of the parliamentary calendar.

Through this report, Samara—a charitable organization that improves political participation in Canada—sets out to do two things: First, to systematically assess if the Members of Parliament's discussion in the House of Commons prioritizes the issues of concern to Canadians. Are Canadians correct that the balance is off—that public priorities are inadequately raised and debated in the House of Commons? Second, in response to the research findings, to stimulate a discussion about how the House of Commons could be more relevant to Canadians.

Over the 2012 parliamentary calendar year, Samara undertook an in-depth examination of how well the House of Commons debate aligned with Canadians' priorities. We compared public opinion survey data to official transcripts of almost half of Parliament's sitting days, and, with our co-author, Professor Kelly Blidook, created a score that quantifies the extent to which the House of Commons represents Canadians' priorities.

The results were surprising: despite Canadians' belief that the House of Commons doesn't prioritize Canadians' issues, Parliament3 is actually aligned with Canadians' interests, albeit weakly.

With some notable exceptions, several of Canadians' top issues were discussed the most in the House. However, during certain times of the year the discussion was better aligned with Canadians' priorities than during others, and perhaps more tellingly, certain scheduled times, or "venues," in the House of Commons' day were better aligned than others. In fact, a pattern emerges: the venues in which MPs best reflect the priorities of Canadians are those where political parties exert the least influence over the MPs.

In the end, there seems to be a disconnect between what's happening in the House of Commons and what Canadians believe is happening—something is "lost in translation."


There are many possible reasons.

It's possible that the oft-cited role of the decline in civility is playing a role in breaking down communications. Once emotions are involved, logic and understanding can be undermined and swept aside. Perhaps Canadians are turned off by watching the issues they value used as political punching bags. The media has traditionally been blamed for focusing on the partisan stories and not showing Canadians the full range of the work that's happening on the House floor. In Samara's series of exit interviews4 with former Members of Parliament, MPs agreed that this decline is real and that the party encourages, if not rewards, such behaviour.

It's also possible that Canadians feel disconnected from politics because they recognize that what they see in the House of Commons is only a slice of the decisions and debate in Ottawa. Many current and former Members of Parliament attest that, other than Question Period, the House is often almost empty. MPs often work elsewhere—in committee, caucus or their own offices (either in Ottawa or in the constituency)—and acknowledge that the "real work" and decision-making processes do not take place in the House. While Parliament is meant to be the country's centre for democratic debate, Canada faces a fundamental problem that "decisions are made elsewhere and then imposed on this place5." (Wherry, Maclean's, 28 February 2011)

With basic rules instituted centuries ago and a physical structure that emphasizes confrontation, not to mention whipped votes and debates shut down for Time Allocation, the House is not designed for dialogue and cross-partisan discussions.

What must change to enhance the representative work of MPs and their parties on Parliament Hill in order to make it relevant to Canadians—and set an agenda for Canada's future? At the end of the report we explore the roles a few groups could play in making these changes, and we ask for solutions to this pressing question.

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