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Tragedy In The Commons

With recent debates over the Prime Minister’s powers to prorogue parliament, Senators’ accountability, and the “Fair ” Elections Act galvanizing public conscience, one could forgive Canadians for holding a jaded view of Parliament and the people ‘we’ elect — or ‘they’ appoint — to operate within its musty chambers. But I think many of us would be surprised to learn that departing Members of Parliament (MPs) — regardless of gender, party, or status within their party — would espouse similar skepticism, and at times even apathy, when reflecting on their years on the Hill. Yet that is just what Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, founders of Samara have uncovered by interviewing 80 former MPs; 35 of whom had held cabinet positions.


Loat and MacMillan joined an enthusiastic, full house at the Ottawa International Writers Festival to discuss, along with Kate Heartfield of the Ottawa Citizen, the process of writing Tragedy in the Commons , a book which weaves together the findings from these interviews.


Although the MPs were mostly frank and forthcoming, the interviews are equally fascinating when one considers what topics were not raised. Relationships with the public service, and with the media? Although always of interest to the Ottawa audience, most of the MPs did not discuss these issues. Nor did any particularly imaginative recommendations for improving the health of our political system emerge from the interviews.


But let’s get to what the MPs did say. And do keep in mind that all except Jay Hill, a Reform Party MP who served as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s House Leader from 2008-2010, spoke to Loat and MacMillan on the record. Here are some golden nuggets straight from the MPs-turned-pensioners:


A majority of interviewees acknowledged that most Canadians have an unfavourable view of politicians, and quickly sought to distance themselves from the ‘typical MP.’ For instance, many claimed to have ‘stumbled into politics’ or even been ‘dragged’ into the political arena from careers as social workers, educators, lawyers, and community activists.  Many said that nothing in their pre-political careers prepared them to succeed in Ottawa. Furthermore, once they arrived on Parliament Hill — following a gruelling nomination process and campaign — a large number noted they felt unsupported, and even that some of their caucus colleagues were hesitant to point them in the right direction, not wanting to position the rookie to outshine him or her within the party.


In spite of the fact that Canadian MPs vote in line with their party positions the vast majority of the time, most of the interviewees were quick to elaborate on the instances in which they fundamentally disagreed with their parties. That ‘whipping votes’ is effectively silencing elected officials is well established as the current status quo. A number of MPs criticized their parties’ “opaque” and “black box” processes, and many had some unpleasant things to say about their experience obtaining the nomination in their riding to run as a candidate — and these were the voices of the winners of those intra-party contests!


When asked if they had any advice to offer future parliamentarians, many MPs suggested that they try to become experts in ‘something,’ so that when their issue comes up on the agenda, they will be their party’s ‘go-to.’ Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan’s expertise in environmental science comes to mind. Yet Loat and MacMillan are right to question how this modus operandi might challenge traditional views of the role of the MP as a faithful representative of, or trustee for, constituents and their policy preferences.


I’m a theatre person myself, so I was interested that the authors described MPs as ‘playing a role’ in a piece of parliamentary theatre, rather than being the scriptwriter and director of their own career. At the extreme end of this tension was an MP who said, “I didn’t leave my wife and children and move across the country to Ottawa to be told what to do,” presumably by ‘teenage PMO staffers in short pants,’ as the saying goes.


Many MPs claim the ‘real work’ takes place not in the House of Commons, but in parliamentary committees. Yet they point out that the thoughtfulness of committee work vanishes as soon as the agenda becomes tinted in partisanship and the media rushes in. As Loat and MacMillan wonder, why is it that MPs are on their worst behaviour in front of the cameras, and their most constructive behaviour when left to their own deliberations?


Though they themselves had few ideas for improving parliamentary processes and practises (except for electronic voting to speed things up in the House of Commons), a number of MPs from all parties expressed support for ‘dissident’ MP and former Conservative cabinet minister Michael Chong’s private members bill, which would give caucuses the ability to demand leadership reviews, and would erode the discretion of party leaders in local nomination contests. 


Tragedy in the Commons is a riff of Garrett Hardin’s economic theory “tragedy of the commons,” which examines the short-run incentive to exploit common resources, such as common grazing fields, in spite of the long-run, collective advantages of prudence and moderation. Indeed many of the MPs expressed frustration over the extent to which the Canadian political machine forced them to sacrifice the long-run social good for short-term partisan gains. It would certainly be interesting to compare perspectives by interviewing retired MPs in various other Westminster parliaments, especially New Zealand and Australia.


For Loat and MacMillan — whose day jobs see them dreaming up ways to increase public participation in political affairs during the years between elections — the key question raised in Tragedy in the Commons is as follows: how can we expect Canadians, particularly young people, to be energized about participating in politics if their own departing MPs offer such a sour and stagnant view of the very system they devoted their lives to navigating?