Scott Brison, MP at a barbecue this summer in Hants County NS
MOST OF US THINK OUR MPS COULD DO BETTER. SO DO THEY. And they are not afraid to say so.
That is just one of the revelations in ongoing research released in July by the Ottawa-based Samara Centre for Democracy.
Samara’s research comes “straight from the horse’s mouth.” It is the result of 54 one-on-one, frank and candid interviews with former MPS who sat in parliament from 2011 to 2015. The former MPs belonged to all the different parties and came from every region of Canada—but they all agreed that they rarely got to be the MP they wanted to be for one main reason: confusion over what an MP can do, and should do; confusion over where the real action is.
Where is the real action?
There never used to be any confusion: MPs were supposed to go to Ottawa to debate and fashion national policy that would deliver the greatest good to the greatest number. It was serious work that kept them in Ottawa for most of the year. Few had offices in their constituencies. That changed in the early 60s.
The job of governing was “hollowed out.” All the important work and thinking was taken over by cabinet ministers and party staffers. The job of MPs was reduced to little more than knowing when to "show up for the vote."
With less required of them in Ottawa MPs used their time to pay more attention to work in their constituencies. Soon constituency offices were a requirement, not an option. MPs spent a lot more time back home “being seen” on the community “barbecue circuit”, “consulting” with various community groups and doing “case work” for individual constituents.
All worthwhile. Yet not directly engaged in governing. Recent public opinion data finds that a majority of Canadians would rather see MPs stay in Ottawa and focus their energy on governing.
The simple fact is parliament, and only parliament, is where the action is when it comes to keeping Canada on track. As one MP in the study put it:
“When I read MPs that say, ‘Oh well, Ottawa’s all theater, and the real work is when you can solve a problem for your constituent,’ I think that’s bullshit. That’s the work I used to do [before I was elected]. I did not put my name on a ballot so that I could do more of that work."
'As puff-pastry-thin as possible'
Constituency work is not an option these days. One MP told the researchers:
“I did about seven to nine [events] a day… And still, people felt that I wasn’t showing up… I spread myself as puff-pastry thin as possible and yet, still… I just constantly felt like I was letting people down.”
Another MP recalled:
“We had enormous pressure to go to events, and it was the driving, fundamental outreach strategy to make sure your MP was visible and at events, all the time. At certain events, they tracked your attendance…. [The PMO] tracked whether or not you were going and how many you went to, and would talk to you about it…. I never thought it was a good use of time.
When researchers suggested to one former MP that events could provide opportunities to hear the concerns of constituents, their response was blunt:
“That’s crazy talk. I’m sorry, but that’s crazy talk. ...Events—that’s where you’re drinking and socializing…. You don’t have time to have a fulsome discussion.”
'Guys at mics'
Samara reports some MPs strenuously tried to consult their constituents on a range of issues. One MP recalls just how futile their efforts proved:
“I really tried hard. I had, like I said, three to four town halls every year on various topics and I would send direct-mail letters and a “ten percenter,” and they were in a different area of the riding. I’d blanket the entire area. Let them know when it is, it’s free, there will be coffee and snacks: ‘Come and talk to your MP.’ It seemed to me that I generally got the same people every time. It didn’t matter where I held them. The turnout was always low.”
Another MP described the challenge of “guys at mics”:
“You put up the note that you’re going to have the meeting on something. You get up. You speak. And I call it ‘guys at mics’ come next. Because it’s always [the same] guys at mics. Wherever you are.”
Six million pieces of literature
Most of the MPs interviewed described how other aspects of constituency work had crowded out opportunities for thoughtful and innovative consultation.
“At the end of it all, I really don’t know how to connect with the broad range of constituents. I door-knocked every Friday for four and a half years. I held town halls. I did my social media. I sent out something in the neighbourhood of six million pieces of literature. Really trying actively for engagement. I don’t know that there was any real uptake in engagement.”
Buried alive in casework
Casework has grown to take up almost all the time of constituency staff. A result of the continuing cutbacks to frontline public services and the personal face-time that constituency offices offer.
Time spent on casework is stolen from time that could be spent on attending to the job of legislating. Also, since casework amounts to solving a personal problem for one individual constituent, there is a real concern about favouring some over others. Not something our government is ever supposed to do.
The never-ending demand for casework suggests a deeper problem: namely, an inadequate level of government services overall.
Former MPs questioned why this kind of work wasn’t the responsibility of the public service. As one MP remarked, “We were basically running a subset of the Federal Government of Canada in our constituency office.” Another recalled “I had great [staff]. But I’d think, ‘Why are you doing this work? There’s a Service Canada office just down the road.’”
Piecemeal solutions doled out one person at a time are not what is needed. Rather the need is for national, permanent, and system-wide solutions. MPs should push for those solutions, and they can do that most effectively in Ottawa—not from barbecues back home.
The Samara document ends with a call for the “reenvisioning of modern-day constituency work." A reenvisoning that “should mean connecting the local to the national, by bringing debates in Parliament to constituents in ways that empower informed participation, and by seeking national solutions to community problems.”
And for the reconfiguring of constituency offices “so that they become the shopfront not for public service delivery, but for innovative consultation and democratic deliberation.”
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