The Outsiders' Manifesto: Surviving and Thriving as a Member of Parliament

September 14, 2011
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In earlier reports, we summarized the numerous, and often conflicting, ways MPs described the essential purpose of a Member of Parliament. This report shows that their advice and recommendations were similarly varied. With a couple of small exceptions, such as better MP orientation and training, improving civics education, implementing electronic voting or eliminating Friday proceedings in the House of Commons, no one recommendation was mentioned by more than three or four MPs. Perhaps this suggests that, despite the dominance of party politics and the rules of Parliament, political life is something those living it experience very individually. 

Furthermore, the MPs’ ideas bore little resemblance to those frequently debated in the media or in academic circles. For example, only a few MPs recommended institutional changes, such as Senate or party financing reform, and save for two former NDP MPs, no one recommended electoral reforms or proportional representation. 

Instead, the MPs’ recommendations focused largely on improving the culture and practice of politics and building opportunities for citizens to become better engaged. In short, the MPs argued that politics has a “people problem,” and in chapter one, we describe the three broad areas of concern into which their recommendations fell. The first two are a variety of suggestions to enable more professional management of Parliamentarians and the work they do, and more sophisticated means by which citizens can engage with their democratic institutions, including better civics education. The third area is one where the MPs provided more general advice to future MPs on how to survive some of the personal travails that politics presents to those who live it every day. 

In reviewing these interviews, however, we found that some of the MPs’ best advice was not delivered as such, but was instead illustrated in their recollections of the moments about which they felt most proud. These stories indicate that, for many MPs, their most fulfilling times as Parliamentarians came when they worked outside what several termed the “Ottawa bubble” and stayed true to what brought them to public life in the first place: a stated desire to do politics differently, and to bring to Ottawa a different voice and way of working.

In chapter two, we summarize some of these stories. Although the MPs described much of their daily work was dominated by their political party, their most salient moments were remembered as those spent working outside Parliament’s agenda or that of their own party. Rather than toeing the party line, the MPs described themselves more as entrepreneurs, leveraging their own preParliamentary experiences, relationships and understanding of constituent issues to push for change, both at the legislative level and in the lives of individual citizens. 

In writing these four reports, we at Samara have used the voices of the former MPs to tell their stories in their own words, giving the Canadian public access to a set of narratives that have never been collected before. In the final chapter of this our final report, we reflect on four areas that have been of continued concern to us while writing these reports and suggest some overarching responses.

First, these politicians—who Canadians no doubt view as consummate insiders—often describe themselves as “outsiders” in the system, accidental politicians who, even when they’re in government, prefer to work on the margins to accomplish their goals. Although this “outsider” narrative may suggest Canadian politics are open to a more diverse set of people than citizens commonly realize, it also serves to undermine the occupation and engenders cynicism toward it. We’d encourage politicians to rethink this idea, bring themselves back into the system and therefore take responsibility for both its successes and failures.

Second, we open a much-needed discussion of the role of the MP and what citizens should expect from them. As the role is currently described by the MPs themselves, it’s far too multi-faceted for any one person to do all parts well, and the corresponding confusion over the essential purpose can frustrate and confuse citizens, and lead to a misallocation of important public resources.

Third, we suggest a more systematic method for gathering citizens’ thoughts and recommendations—helping to strengthen constituents’ relationships with their MP. At the moment, MPs have no regular way of gathering citizens’ views or encouraging their participation, and their efforts to do so creatively are rarely rewarded or shared with other MPs. With time, attention to this area may help to slow and hopefully reverse the increasing disengagement between citizens and their politics.

Finally, in response to the variability among the MPs recommendations, we suggest regular and ongoing efforts to bring the MPs suggestions and ideas together with those of the wider public to improve our democracy. 

To conclude the final chapter of this report, we will also outline the ways in which Samara will carry forward this work, and we’ll ask for your involvement in helping us do so.

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