The troubles they've seen
Samara, the democracy-research project founded by Michael MacMillan and Alison Loat, has a new report out this morning, and it's a sobering look at the average MP's life through the eyes of the folks who lived it.
We have a story about the report in today's paper, and if you want to read the whole thing, you can click here. As well, I talked yesterday via email to Alison Loat about the report (she'll also be on CBC Radio's The Current this morning, too.) Here's the full text of her replies to some of my questions yesterday. (Photo at right courtesy of TVO and the website channels.com.)
Question: By releasing the report now, do you intend this as a cautionary tale to the 1,587 people vying to be MPs?
Alison's reply: Our goal is to contribute to a greater understanding of how our politics work among Canadian citizens more widely so that they can understand what works well, and why politics can fail to produce the results we might like. The hope is that by bringing together the collective voices of those who’ve served on the front lines of our democracy – so to speak – we can better illuminate what’s working and not. With time, we hope these stories will resonate with Canadians beyond those who follow politics every day to that they’re better able to engage in how our country runs.
As an aside: We’re already working with educators and other NGOs to develop ways to adapt this work into curriculum materials and educational activities. They’re interested, because they like how the stories/personal reflections provide a more engaging way to present politics to students that polls, surveys or the “how a bill becomes a law” type thing.
Question: As long as I've been in Ottawa, MPs have been complaining that partisanship got in the way of public service, but it gets worse, not better with each new Parliament, majority or minority. So how do you take politics out of politics? (i know, big question, but the complaints I read in here have been around since the 1980s, when I arrived in Ottawa, and they were dated then. I just think if people wanted to fix the system, they would have by now. Question is why they don't want to fix things, it seems to me.)
Alison's reply: An easy question for a Sunday morning! The biggest message I took from these MPs’ stories is the need to re-examine the role of a political party in our democracy. They are extremely important organizations that perform essential democratic functions - engage citizens, select candidates for office, develop and aggregate policy ideas and contest elections – and are heavily supported by public money, yet we rarely ask ourselves if they’re performing these functions in the way we’d like.
From what the MPs told us (and it’s notable that these views were consistent across political parties), it may be time to talk about how to revitalize our political parties. If even the stalwarts (the MPs) feel poked in the eye, is it any surprise citizens don’t want to participate?
If I read your question correctly, though, you suggest we are in a vicious circle that’s hard to break, and I agree. Political parties need citizen participation to thrive, but parties turn people off politics. Disengaged citizens do not want to join parties, so parties are not renewed in the direction citizens might like.
A first step is to systematically lay out the problem, which I hope these MPs, with our help, have done. The next step is to openly discuss how Canadians want political parties to work within our democratic system. This could include series in media that focuses less on Parliament being broken, and more on how the parties within it can better serve the needs of citizens. It could also include a discussion on how parties are financed, how nomination processes take place and how riding associations engage citizens on the ground both during elections as well as throughout the year. After all, there are few organizations with the potential to touch Canadians in every community across the country, but our political parties can.
As well, there is probably an internal discussion parties can have on how they manage themselves and relate to MPs in Ottawa so they don’t turn off the very people with the courage to stand up and serve citizens in Parliament.
Question: In a couple of reports now, you've seemed to be leaning toward the idea that Parliament should be run more like a business. (job descriptions, performance evaluations, franchises, etc.) Why do you think that's the solution?
Alison's reply: A lot of issues the MPs raise are what I’d term management challenges that faced by all kinds of organizations, public, private or non-governmental. In that way, politics is perhaps an extreme case of what many Canadians face in their workplace every day.
Yes, I think better management practices would help. For example, better clarifying the roles, responsibilities and expectations of MPs would help them know how to perform their job better. It’s notable that not a single MP we interviewed came close to articulating the classic definition of an MP’s role, and there were vastly different and often competing descriptions of what is, essentially, the same role. Any in any organization, when roles and responsibilities are not clear – never mind conflicting - it’s difficult to work effectively.
But more important than that, it will also help citizens better understand what to expect from their elected leaders. If the MPs themselves are unable to describe their own roles clearly and coherently, it is hard to blame the media or the public for not understanding the MP’s role either, and not understanding how to assess whether or not they’re doing it well.
Question: The Liberals, NDP and Greens have all proposed solutions in their platforms for tone -- Liberals, for instance, promising monthly meetings of party leaders. You don't see this as a campaign issue though. Should it be?
Alison's reply: The issues raised by the MPs go well beyond any one campaign and get to the heart of how our democracy works every day. I hope these reports help shine a light on how our politics work and what can be done to improve them.