Introducing Samara’s MP Exit Interviews: Volume II

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Happening Now Monday, June 04, 2018 View Count = 362

Introducing Samara’s MP Exit Interviews: Volume II

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Representative democracy is in trouble.

Trust in democratic institutions has been declining for decades, but recently we’ve seen how this trend can be mobilized to do lasting damage when leaders amplify distrust in democratic institutions for their own gain. According to one former Member of Parliament: “We’re not just in a sort of post-truth politics, but we’re in a post-democratic politics.”

In 2018, it’s urgent that Canadians rehabilitate representative democracy as the middle ground between daily referendums and government by unchecked elites. At the centre of representative democracy are the representatives themselves—the critical link between citizens and their democratic institutions.

From 2008 to 2011, the Samara Centre for Democracy conducted the first-ever systematic series of exit interviews with former Members of Parliament. In the first research project, 80 interviews took place in the homes and communities of former MPs who sat in the 38th, 39th and 40th Parliaments (2004-2011). The discussions formed the basis of a series of research reports and the bestselling book Tragedy in the Commons

In those interviews, we noticed something surprising: Even after years of public service, MPs lacked a clear, shared sense of what their job as political representatives actually was—how they should spend their time and energy to represent their constituents in Parliament and the community. So how can we expect parliamentarians to defend representative democracy if they don’t agree on what core purposes they are supposed to serve?

Last year, Samara, with the assistance of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, again reached out to past representatives; this time to MPs who had sat in the 41st Parliament (2011 to 2015) and who resigned or were defeated in the 2015 general election. We wanted to understand if the MPs’ roles were changing—for better or worse. Once again, parliamentarians opened up about their experiences as representatives in one-on-one interviews that took place in their communities. More than 100 hours of interviews with 54 MPs representing all parties, in all parts of the country, made one thing clear: the problem of a “job with no description” has not been solved. In some ways, it has worsened. Parliamentarians are more cut off from the essential work of scrutiny, legislation and representation than before. If the work of an MP is hollowed out, elections themselves become hollow. Parliament is degraded, and as one former MP put it: “We don’t have a democracy, outside of that institution.” An intervention is needed.

This report series uses the stories and experiences of former Members of Parliament to make the case for a particular vision of political representation—one which is independent, thoughtful, engaged and empowered.

Yes, this is an ambitious view. Yes, this vision requires individuals to step up and share power. But Canadian democracy requires ambition, especially in a public climate of greater polarization, partisanship, cynicism and distrust. Democracy requires Canadians to strive to make it better, and the country deserves nothing less.

Each report in this series will focus on a key setting where all MPs spend significant time and energy. Each report will also share recommendations that advance specific goals in these settings:

  • In Parliament: MPs—whether from the backbenches of the governing party or from the Opposition—should independently shape law and policy, and take the lead in careful scrutiny of government, rather than going through the motions of debates and scrutiny under direction from their party centres.

  • In the constituency: MPs should find new and innovative ways to bring citizens into political processes, rather than doing the basic customer service provision that is properly the job of the public service.

  • Within political parties: MPs should open doors to citizens and participate in true deliberation about party policies, rather than gatekeeping and following the leaders.

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