Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada's Failing Democracy

By Alison Loat, Michael MacMillan
Random House Canada, November 30, 2013, $29.95

I’m not sure what’s worse for democracy — the truth, or fictional representations of the political world.

On the one hand, we’ve got shows like “House of Cards” that make politics look like the playground of the most manipulative, selfish and conniving people in our society, and on the other hand, we have constant real life scandals swirling around our elected (and non-elected) representatives.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, there are those who believe we can’t give up on our democratic institutions.

Wishful thinking?

One can’t help but admire the efforts of Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan of the Samara Organization in putting out Tragedy in the Commons, which is an important book that aims to salvage a system that seems destined to remain as is: broken.

Indeed, their organization has already contributed a lot to educating Canadians about our democracy.

Among its various initiatives, the organization publishes “Democracy Reports” to capture the disconnect between the priorities of Canadians and what’s actually discussed in Parliament; provides resources for educators and community activists right off its website on how to teach about citizen engagement; and co-sponsors an annual prize for political writing, along with seminars on public affairs reporting.

And yet, it must be said, the book is a real downer.

If the authors of this book intended to inspire hope in our political future, they’ve failed miserably. However, if the authors are simply hoping to alert us to the sorry state of our democracy, then kudos to them.

Indeed, they say the whole project started out as an attempt to figure out just why Canadians are so disengaged from politics.

What do the politicians say?

Tragedy in the Commons is based on exit interviews conducted with 80 parliamentarians, representing various political parties and regions. The authors’ voices are present throughout the book, offering their own insights on what they were hearing from the ex-Members of Parliament, as well as weaving relevant studies and commentary within each chapter.

“The tragedy of the Commons is that public good is sacrificed on the altar of short-term political gain,” observed MP Keith Martin, one of the numerous MPs who express dissatisfaction at how little they can truly accomplish on behalf of their own constituents.

That’s pretty much the underlying current of Tragedy in the Commons, of which its title riffs off of Garrett Hardin’s notion of the tragedy of the commons; that if people only act self-servingly, the collective is harmed.

Is that a surprise? Not really. But what’s surprising is how slowly former MPs became aware of the system’s dysfunction. Yet even with that realization, very few MPs can do anything about it; the system is pretty inflexible and seems to primarily reward those who toe the party line.

One of the many problems identified in the book is that when MPs first get elected, they don’t even know what’s coming or what to do and are ill-equipped to do anything that risks ire. Or, as more aptly described in the book, they remain in perpetual fear of the wizard behind the curtain, like in the Wizard of Oz.

Loat and MacMillan are certainly big on analogies. They also describe the party brand as a franchise and the MPs as franchisees. But they observe that central management really has no idea how to “exploit the front line” to “strengthen the brand as a whole.” Kind of disturbing that one has to use corporate terms to describe how democracy should function. Though it reflects the times we live in.

Political culture vs. political change

Political columnist Andrew Coyne’s columns are featured several times in the book. The long-time observer is pretty pessimistic that anything will change unless the “culture” changes. So tinkering with legislation, rules, etc., won’t help, unless the people taking part see themselves differently.

Are there any suggestions for how to make change? Well, yes.

For one, the authors conclude that MPs need clear job descriptions. “If MPs aren’t given a clear sense of what’s expected of them on the job, who’s really to blame when that job doesn’t get done?” they write matter-of-factly.

Otherwise, MPs can be busy helping constituents on a case-by-case basis, or decide to freelance on issues they care about, but at the end of the day, there is no way to know whether or not they’ve actually successfully represented their ridings and fulfilled their duties to their parties.

The only way they get any kind of feedback on their performance, at least by their own party, is whether or not they find themselves holding important portfolios, or relegated to the backbenches — which winds up being something of a popularity contest and hardly the stuff of praiseworthy service.

The only way MPs can avoid becoming “bobble heads” or “potted plants,” is to take their work in committees seriously (perhaps the only place real work gets done), but even there the work can be sabotaged by political parties.

Imagine debating issues quietly and reaching consensus and finding on vote day, a political party has replaced all its members with people who won’t vote based on what they’ve learned, but according to the party’s already-made-up-mind. Awful.

So the biggest villains on the hill appear to be the parties themselves, and, more often than not, their leaders. Through the gradual centralization of power (that was taking place even before Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to town), MPs had fewer and fewer opportunities to act independently. “Prime ministers currently dominate the machinery of government to an extent that was not possible 40 years ago,” observes Donald Savoie, an academic who specializes on parliament.

Power to the people?

The authors also call for more financial transparency, given that parties are heavily subsidized by Canadian taxpayers. And yet, they report way less of their financial information than Canadian charities and publicly traded corporations, while yielding way more power.

It also seems that Canadians just don’t feel like they have any influence when it comes to how political parties are run. One study shows that a miniscule one to two per cent of Canadians are members of a political party.

Perhaps it’s because there’s no way of influencing a party one belongs to. Figuring out how to even run for one remains an opaque process, note the authors, who actually studied the websites of political parties in 2013 and came up with some interesting figures. Of 1,300 riding websites, only one per cent gave information on how to become a candidate, just over six per cent included the local party executive team, and less than five percent had information on meeting schedules.

Despite this book’s dreary prognosis on the health of our democracy, one can’t help but hope for a sequel where questions surrounding the lack of diversity in our political system — like the dearth of female, youth, members of various socio-economic classes and visible minority representatives — could be explored.

I’d also like to hear from more of our former prime ministers who could explain just how they felt democracy was being served when they consistently worked to centralize power in fewer and fewer hands — including unelected “professionals,” as chronicled in the book.

But will the answers matter if change doesn’t follow?

Amira Elghawaby is a contributing editor at rabble. Follow her on twitter @AmiraElghawaby

Amira Elghawaby

Amira Elghawaby

Amira Elghawaby is a journalist and human rights advocate living in Ottawa. Her work has appeared in various publications and online including the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her stories have...