Na­tional tragedy

For­mer MPs sound off on Cana­dian democ­racy’s ills

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Don­ald Benham

ARE you one of those Cana­di­ans who loathes and de­tests federal politi­cians? If so, you’re in good com­pany. Most federal politi­cians, by their own ac­count, ap­pear to loathe and de­test them­selves. Au­thors Ali­son Loat and Michael MacMil­lan have con­ducted a re­mark­able exit sur­vey of 80 for­mer mem­bers of par­lia­ment. Tragedy in the Commons de­scribes the some­times-frus­trat­ing re­sults of the study, con­ducted for their think­tank, Sa­mara. This is the first book for both, but they have pub­lished other re­ports about Cana­dian pol­i­tics on their web­site. Loat is an in­struc­tor at the School of Pub­lic Pol­icy and Gov­er­nance at the Univer­sity of Toronto. MacMil­lan has won both an Os­car and an Emmy for his work in the Cana­dian film in­dus­try, co-found­ing At­lantis films and then run­ning the merged com­pany, Al­liance At­lantis Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Their premise was sim­ple: Cana­dian democ­racy is im­per­illed by low voter turnout and lack of en­gage­ment in pub­lic is­sues. Per­haps the people who have been clos­est to the ac­tion would have some pro­pos­als for fix­ing the prob­lems. The for­mer MPs couldn’t have been more gen­er­ous with their time and can­dour, nor could they have been more rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Op­po­si­tion and govern­ment back­benchers from all par­ties and all re­gions, cab­i­net min­is­ters, party lead­er­sle and a for­mer prime min­is­ter alla weigh in. But in the end, they couldn’t be more dis­ap­point­ing.d The for­mer MPs gen­er­ally agree on the na­ture of the prob­lem: a con­cen­tra­tion of power at the cen­tre of po­lit­i­cal par­ties,p weak­en­ing the in­flu­ence of in­di­vid­u­alin MPs. The au­thors point to two key changes in the Elec­tions Act in the 1970s that re­in­forcedr the trend. Bal­lots pre­vi­ously listed only name and oc­cu­pa­tion. By re­plac­ing oc­cu­pa­tion with party af­fil­i­a­tion, the bal­lots sent the mes­sage that the can­di­date was pri­mar­ily rep­re­sent­ing the party to the voter, not the other way around. More im­por­tantly, to get that party la­bel, can­di­dates now needed the sig­na­ture of the party leader on their nom­i­na­tion pa­pers. While rarely car­ried out, the threat to with­hold his or her sig­na­ture is a ham­mer ev­ery federal leader can hold over re­cal­ci­trant cau­cus mem­bers. In the early days of Re­form, wideopen nom­i­na­tion meet­ings saw thou­sands of people take out party mem­ber­ships, par­tic­i­pate in the process and sub­se­quently feel their MP was truly rep­re­sent­ing them. Now all the party lead­ers have so con­tam­i­nated the process that most of the for­mer MPs, even though they had won a nom­i­na­tion, thought they had been play­ing a rigged game with murky rules. It is just one of many ex­am­ples of how the for­mer MPs rail against what the party sys­tem has be­come and what it forces them to do. To be a politi­cian is in such bad odour with Cana­di­ans, even the most ob­vi­ously am­bi­tious cling to their self-im­age as out­siders, ab­solved of blame for the sys­tem’s fail­ures. Loat and MacMil­lan in­clude a num­ber of pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing forc­ing po­lit­i­cal par­ties to be more trans­par­ent about their fi­nances and nom­i­na­tion process. They posit MPs should be al­lowed to de­velop ex­per­tise by serv­ing full terms on com­mit­tees, with­out party lead­ers in­ter­fer­ing to de­mote or pun­ish them. Loat and MacMil­lan sug­gest cracking down on the neg­a­tive po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing that turns vot­ers off from all the par­ties. None of these wor­thy ideas will change any­thing un­less Cana­di­ans are will­ing to set aside their loathing of pol­i­tics and politi­cians to do the hard work of re­build­ing trust in their sys­tem of govern­ment. Don­ald Benham is di­rec­tor of hunger and poverty

aware­ness at Win­nipeg Har­vest.

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