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National tragedy

Former MPs sound off on Canadian democracy's ills

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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 think-tank, 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 leaders and a former prime minister all weigh in.

But in the end, they couldn't be more disappointing.

The former MPs generally agree on the nature of the problem: a concentration of power at the centre of political parties, weakening the influence of individual MPs.

The authors point to two key changes in the Elections Act in the 1970s that reinforced 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, wide-open 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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 G7


Updated on Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 8:14 AM CDT: Adds photo, adjusts formatting.

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