Who's the Boss? Canadians' Views on Their Democracy

December 1, 2012
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Who's the Boss? Canadians' Views on Their Democracy
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Despite Canada’s status as one of the world’s leading democracies, new research shows that just over half of the population is satisfied with the way Canadian democracy works—a 20-point drop in less than 10 years. Canadians are even less satisfied with Members of Parliament, and a leading source of this dissatisfaction centres on MPs’ priorities: Canadians feel MPs do a better job representing the views of the party than they do representing their constituents.

Democratic Satisfaction

New public opinion research commissioned by Samara reveals that only 55% of Canadians report being satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada. Notably, this view is consistent across Canada regardless of gender or province of residence. (The single exception, Francophone Quebecers, reported even greater levels of dissatisfaction.) While dissatisfaction with politics is by no means new, an identical survey question1 asked in 2004 saw Canadians’ satisfaction with democracy at a much higher rate of 75%.

Although Canadians believe their democracy is successfully enabling freedoms of expression and equality, they are disappointed with their political representation. In particular, Canadians indicated feeling that their elected representatives often are not accountable for their actions nor do they pay attention to what Canadians think.

If Canadians don’t believe that those elected to represent them are listening, what do they think their representatives are doing?


The Role of the MP

When asked about the performance of Members of Parliament, only 36% of Canadians were satisfied with how MPs do their jobs. Samara dug underneath this dissatisfaction by looking more closely at Canadians’ views on the key roles of an MP and found a strong divergence between the roles Canadians most value and their assessment of how well MPs perform in those roles. (See above chart.)

When asked to assess MPs’ performance for each role, Canadians gave most a failing grade of less than 50%.

Although this bleak report card suggests a need for all-round improvement, one result is particularly worrisome. Canadians awarded MPs the highest marks at representing the views of their party, fully 15 points higher than the mark they awarded for representing the views of the Canadians who elected them to office.

In other words, Canadians feel MPs are doing the best job at the very thing Canadians see as a low priority: representing the views of their political parties.

In Samara’s MP Exit Interview project, in which 65 former MPs were interviewed about their life in politics, many said they went to Ottawa to represent their constituents to the country. “I’ve always been driven by trying to represent the people who elect me,” said one.

Many cited a desire to bring constituents’ views forward. “I ran on an unofficial platform but one that was very clear to me. It consisted of what I was hearing over and over again at the doorstep: ‘If we elect you, we want you to take our message to Ottawa, and not the other way around,’” said another.

But when they arrived in Ottawa, many MPs realized that their work was often circumscribed by an unexpected player: their political party.

The Party Wins Again

In Samara’s MP exit interviews, many former MPs reported feeling that they spent too much time working in the interest of their parties. “I realized early on that ... you’re there to vote the party’s position more or less, or you’re there to represent the party to the public,” observed one.

Others felt discomfort when party discipline forced them to vote against their constituents. As one former MP summarized, “... the party isn’t always right for my riding. The party, in [many] instances, was terrible for my riding.”

Samara’s survey research confirms that MPs are not the only ones who recognize the primacy of political parties. Canadians sense it too, and feel that their MPs’ work representing constituents is falling short when compared to MPs’ representation of their parties.

Certainly, part of an MP’s role is to explain the positions of one’s political party, but to what extent should it come at the expense of the ability to represent constituents’ views to the party and Parliament? What does it suggest about Canadian political parties if both MPs and citizens see those parties as being at odds with MPs’ abilities to represent their constituents?

Leaders We Turn To

Despite their dissatisfaction with MPs’ performance, this research suggests that Canadians understand the importance of MPs and look to them to tackle public problems. For example, when asked to whom they turn when it comes to policy issues that concern them, Canadians’ number one choice was Members of Parliament, followed by elected leaders at other levels. In fact, political leaders outranked all other groups, including business, interest groups, the media, protesters, non-profit and international organizations or religious leaders.

The Path Forward

Parties play a critical role in Canadian democracy. They are responsible for engaging citizens in politics, selecting candidates for elected office, aggregating diverse policy perspectives and contesting elections. They dominate the public’s understanding of politics, such that most people cast their vote for a party and rarely elect independent MPs.

Given these important responsibilities, it is unfortunate that parties are often described as being at odds with citizens, rather than a vital conduit between citizens and government.

Clearly, steps should be taken to ensure political parties—and the MPs who serve in them—better reflect citizens and their priorities. Former MPs pointed to many examples of ways they could provide successful local representation within caucus, committees, and even at certain times on the floor of the House of Commons. However, this new research suggests that MPs’ efforts are not well-recognized or that they’re overshadowed by political party messaging.

With the citizen at the centre, the political system would be both more representative and accountable, something that would contribute to citizens’ increased satisfaction with Canadian democracy.

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