Despite Canada’s status as one of the world’s leading democracies, new
research shows that just over half of the population is satisfied with the way Canadian
democracy works—a 20-point drop in less than 10 years. Canadians are even
less satisfied with Members of Parliament, and a leading source of this dissatisfaction
centres on MPs’ priorities: Canadians feel MPs do a better job representing
the views of the party than they do representing their constituents.
New public opinion research commissioned by Samara reveals that only 55% of Canadians
report being satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada. Notably, this view
is consistent across Canada regardless of gender or province of residence. (The
single exception, Francophone Quebecers, reported even greater levels of dissatisfaction.)
While dissatisfaction with politics is by no means new, an identical survey question1 asked in 2004 saw Canadians’ satisfaction with
democracy at a much higher rate of 75%.
Although Canadians believe their democracy is successfully enabling freedoms of
expression and equality, they are disappointed with their political representation.
In particular, Canadians indicated feeling that their elected representatives often
are not accountable for their actions nor do they pay attention to what Canadians
If Canadians don’t believe that those elected to represent them are listening,
what do they think their representatives are doing?
The Role of the MP
When asked about the performance of Members of Parliament, only 36% of Canadians
were satisfied with how MPs do their jobs. Samara dug underneath this dissatisfaction
by looking more closely at Canadians’ views on the key roles of an MP
and found a strong divergence between the roles Canadians most value and
their assessment of how well MPs perform in those roles. (See above chart.)
When asked to assess MPs’ performance for each role, Canadians gave most
a failing grade of less than 50%.
Although this bleak report card suggests a need for all-round improvement,
one result is particularly worrisome. Canadians awarded MPs the highest marks
at representing the views of their party, fully 15 points higher than the mark
they awarded for representing the views of the Canadians who elected them
In other words, Canadians feel MPs are doing the best job at the very thing
Canadians see as a low priority: representing the views of their political parties.
In Samara’s MP Exit Interview project, in which 65 former MPs were interviewed
about their life in politics, many said they went to Ottawa to represent their constituents
to the country. “I’ve always been driven by trying to represent the
people who elect me,” said one.
Many cited a desire to bring constituents’ views forward. “I ran on
an unofficial platform but one that was very clear to me. It consisted of what I
was hearing over and over again at the doorstep: ‘If we elect you, we want
you to take our message to Ottawa, and not the other way around,’” said
But when they arrived in Ottawa, many MPs realized that their work was often circumscribed
by an unexpected player: their political party.
The Party Wins Again
In Samara’s MP exit interviews, many former MPs reported feeling that they
spent too much time working in the interest of their parties. “I realized
early on that ... you’re there to vote the party’s position more
or less, or you’re there to represent the party to the public,” observed
Others felt discomfort when party discipline forced them to vote against their constituents.
As one former MP summarized, “... the party isn’t always right for my
riding. The party, in [many] instances, was terrible for my riding.”
Samara’s survey research confirms that MPs are not the only ones who recognize
the primacy of political parties. Canadians sense it too, and feel that their MPs’
work representing constituents is falling short when compared to MPs’ representation
of their parties.
Certainly, part of an MP’s role is to explain the positions of one’s
political party, but to what extent should it come at the expense of the ability
to represent constituents’ views to the party and Parliament? What does it
suggest about Canadian political parties if both MPs and citizens see those parties
as being at odds with MPs’ abilities to represent their constituents?
Leaders We Turn To
Despite their dissatisfaction with MPs’ performance, this research suggests
that Canadians understand the importance of MPs and look to them to tackle public
problems. For example, when asked to whom they turn when it comes to policy issues
that concern them, Canadians’ number one choice was Members of Parliament,
followed by elected leaders at other levels. In fact, political leaders outranked
all other groups, including business, interest groups, the media, protesters, non-profit
and international organizations or religious leaders.
The Path Forward
Parties play a critical role in Canadian democracy. They are responsible for engaging
citizens in politics, selecting candidates for elected office, aggregating diverse
policy perspectives and contesting elections. They dominate the public’s understanding
of politics, such that most people cast their vote for a party and rarely elect
Given these important responsibilities, it is unfortunate that parties are often
described as being at odds with citizens, rather than a vital conduit between citizens
Clearly, steps should be taken to ensure political parties—and the MPs who
serve in them—better reflect citizens and their priorities. Former MPs pointed
to many examples of ways they could provide successful local representation within
caucus, committees, and even at certain times on the floor of the House of Commons.
However, this new research suggests that MPs’ efforts are not well-recognized
or that they’re overshadowed by political party messaging.
With the citizen at the centre, the political system would be both more representative
and accountable, something that would contribute to citizens’ increased satisfaction
with Canadian democracy.
Over the last year, Samara has undertaken research into the state of our political process, which we're presenting in a series of reports. These Samara Democracy Reports are designed to increase Canadians’ understanding of politics, investigate commonly held assumptions, provoke questions and elevate the discussion on the health of Canadian political and democratic participation in Canada.
"Who's the Boss?" is the fourth in the series. You can read earlier reports here.
Samara’s public opinion research also indicated that two thirds of Canadians believe their interests are not being represented in Ottawa.
Are they right? Samara’s next report "Lost in Translation or Just Lost?" seeks to answer this question by examining
the topics MPs discuss in the House of Commons and comparing it with what Canadians say
they’re concerned about. Read Samara Democracy Report #5 here.
1. The 2004 Political Support in Canada study was conducted by Harold D. Clarke,
Jason Feifler, Allan Kornberg and Thomas J. Scotto. Field work was carried out by