Book Review Tragedy in the Commons

Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out about Canada’s Failing Democracy
by Allison Loat and Michael MacMillan

Tragedy in the Commons

The authors of this book set out to understand why the rest of the world views Canada as being best in class when it comes to freedom and democracy, but Canadians themselves seem to be quite apathetic to the political workings of their own country. The authors were trying to reconcile our global image with the reality of how we ourselves as Canadians view our political processes.

As the authors began by interviewing various former politicians, an interesting thing happened. They started to notice themes in what these former politicians were telling them, irrespective of which political party the politician in question originally belonged to. Below is a summary of the themes they noted:

1. The nomination process is broken. Many of the politicians interviewed by the authors seem to believe that the nomination process within individual ridings in Canada is broken. This statement has nothing to do with political parties, it has to do with the process itself.

2. There is no onboarding for new politicians. The MPs interviewed all said that when they arrived on Parliament Hill as rookies, there was virtually no orientation for them. They arrived in Ottawa, reported to Parliament Hill, and from that point on they pretty much had to figure things out for themselves. Again, this seemed to be true for all political parties.

3. Perception of what the job entails is different from reality. Members of Parliament often had a rude awakening once they got to Ottawa- their perceptions of the job of an MP versus the reality was very different. The concept of political representation, while simple in theory, actually causes many MPs great confusion. Members of Parliament are elected by the people in their ridings to go to Ottawa and represent their concerns. At least that’s what most people think – the reality is, MPs arrived in Ottawa, and are often torn between representing the people who voted for them and having to tow the political party line.

4. There is little substantive policy discussion happening in the Legislative Assembly. A startling trend that the authors noticed was that all politicians who were interviewed admitted that very little substantive policy discussion actually takes place in the legislative assembly. That may not be shocking to us as voters because we’ve all seen the types of interchanges that happen between politicians on television, but when you stop to think about it from a political process standpoint, it’s quite troubling.

5. The House of Commons committees is where the work really gets done. Almost all of the former politicians interviewed believed that the most effective element of Canada’s political process was the committees and the work they did. As president of I.E.Canada, I have presented before committees in both the House of Commons and the Senate and have seen that the work that happens in committees is detailed and focused. While it may not be perfect, parliamentary committees are far more effective than the legislative assembly.

6. Personal opinions, constituency opinions and party opinions often conflict. At some point, almost all MPs feel torn between their personal opinions on an issue, the opinions of the constituency that voted them into power, and the official party line of whichever party they belong to. Often those three elements do not align and at the center of that storm you have an MP who is conflicted about what stance they should take. The book makes it very clear MPs are expected to support the party platform – the views of their constituents and their own personal views on an issue really don’t matter.

7. There is disagreement as to where the seat of power should lie with the parliamentary system. There is a very interesting chapter in the book that looks at where the seat of power is within the Canadian parliamentary system. There is discussion about consolidating power in the office of the Prime Minister (PMO), the amount of power that exists in the privy Council, the legislative assembly, and then in party caucuses where all elected members of a particular party come together to discuss issues. In this regard, different politicians had different views about how much power a party leader should have and how that power could best be used to achieve the ends.

8. There are differing opinions on how to fix the process. When the authors asked MPs what they would do to fix the various issues identified in the list above, there were no real obvious solutions. Some suggested that we look to other countries to see how they handle their politics. Others suggested merely making tweaks to the existing process. And there were some who believed that the entire political process should be reviewed..

Overall this book was a very quick and enjoyable read. While I know not everyone likes to read books about politics, I think every person of voting age should read this book. Political democracy in Canada is only as good as the individual voter. If we don’t get involved in party politics, selecting party leaders, and demanding that parties form their platforms on issues that are important to us, then the system itself will become more important than the people it was designed to serve.

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