The Accidental Citizen?

June 1, 2010
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Through the fall and winter of 2009-10, a series of exit interviews was conducted across Canada with a group of 65 former Members of the Canadian Parliament. This was the initiative of Michael MacMillan and Alison Loat, who created the charitable organization Samara to study citizen engagement with Canadian democracy.

Many organizations hold exit interviews with departing employees with an eye to gathering ideas on how best to improve the organization’s performance and the experience of current and future employees. However, in our federal Parliament – one of the most important workplaces in the country – this information is not gathered with any frequency. In fact, we believe this series of MP exit interviews to be the first large-scale, systematic effort to do so in Canada.

We interviewed those who left public life during or after the 38th and 39th Parliaments, which sat from 2004 to 2008. These “Parliamentary graduates” served, on average, for 10.3 years. Many came to public life at a particular point in our political history: when the Bloc Québécois, the Reform Party and later the merged Conservative Party of Canada rose as important players on the national stage. Each MP served in at least one minority Parliament. This report should be read with this context in mind.

These interviews also allowed for personal reflection, which provides different and often more detailed information than that received from polls, surveys or from daily media. It is important to recognize that this report is not a commentary on how one becomes a cabinet minister or a prime minister. This is a reflection of how 65 Canadians became Members of Parliament.

With introductions from the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, we were able to conduct most of these interviews in person. The MPs welcomed us into their communities and often into their homes. They allowed us to record each interview and granted us permission to use the information gathered to advance public understanding of their roles.

In these interviews, we asked the former Parliamentarians to describe what brought them to public life. We also asked about the essential role of the MP and how they spent their time, including: how they interacted with civil society, with their constituents and through the media; what they viewed as their accomplishments; what frustrated them; what advice they had for future MPs and their opinions on how to strengthen our democracy.

We approached this project as documentarians, reporting how the MPs described their feelings and what they believed. We assume that, like all of our memories, theirs may be coloured by the passage of time and affected by how they chose to interpret their own lives and experiences.

This report will focus on the first part of those interviews, where the former Parliamentarians discussed their motivations and paths to politics. It sets the stage for a larger series of reports based on the MP exit interviews. Our purpose is neither to applaud nor embarrass MPs, but to understand political leadership and the role of Parliamentarians in our system. We hope these reports will become a catalyst for a knowledgeable discussion of Canadian public life, and a provocation for greater engagement with it.

The central finding, and the one that frames this report, is how accidentally these MPs indicated they came to politics in Canada. This is not what we expected, and was revealed in several ways. First, Parliamentarians’ backgrounds, experiences, pre-political careers and expressed motivations for running were far more varied and much less predictable than we’d assumed. Most spent a generation pursuing other careers and interests before becoming an MP. Few self identified as political candidates. Most say they sought a nomination only after they were asked, and some accepted it with only weeks or mere days before the nomination vote took place.

Further, these MPs did not consider themselves to be political insiders, even though they were generally highly involved in their communities. Rather, most portrayed themselves as outsiders, and indicated they came to the job with that mindset. 

Finally, even the nomination process for a candidate’s political party seemed subject to chance. The nomination is an essential element of anyone’s path to politics. It was thus surprising that, for so many MPs, their gateway into politics was so unpredictable. Few MPs described the nomination process consistently; the confusing rules and their varied application made it difficult to understand the terms on which the nomination contests were fought. Perhaps as a result, most MPs were critical of some aspect of the nomination process, even though they had navigated it successfully. One can only imagine what interviews with less successful candidates might reveal.

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