In Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy, authors Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan draw on exit interviews with 80 former parliamentarians to reveal how federal politicians felt about their experiences leading and directing the country. Chief among their findings: many MPs did not have a clear understanding about what their job in Ottawa was, and often felt stymied by a partisan system that constricted their freedom in Ottawa. These selected excerpts from Chapter 4 (“What Job Is This Anyway?”) suggest that many MPs interviewed found the most tangible result of their work to be individual casework for constituents in their home ridings, prompting the authors to ask if all constituency work alone is the best use of an MP’s talents and time.
Once they’ve faced down the challenges of their first weeks in Ottawa—where the office is, how to claim expenses, where to find staff, how to get to the bathroom—new MPs face a more long-term hurdle: managing the many demands on their attention and schedule. The former Liberal MP for Miramichi, New Brunswick, Charles Hubbard, for one, was astonished by the number of people who approached his office to seek help from one of the federal bureaucracies, such as Immigration Canada, Revenue Canada or Service Canada. “Your office is always facing calls where somebody is frustrated with trying to approach the government,” said Hubbard. “When you think of somebody having trouble with his income tax or with his EI or trying to access the Canada Pension or an old age pension, and they get the proverbial runaround, they wind up calling your office.”
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Many Canadians struggle to balance their families and careers. A 2011 Harris/Decima poll, reports that 47% of Canadians struggle to achieve a work-life balance, and family is often an important aspect of that balance. Certain professions, including that of MP, make achieving such a balance more difficult than others. This article looks at the overall nature of the strain on MPs the two strategies that MPs employ to adapt the challenges of the job, and potential reforms that might work to assuage some of the strain placed on MPs and their families. The data for this paper comes from a series of semi-structured interviews conducted by Samara, an independent charitable organization that improves political and democratic participation in Canada, as part of its MP Exit Interview Project. This paper used transcripts from the interviews of 65 former MPs who left public life during or after the 38th and 39th Parliaments. These men and women served, on average, 10.5 years, and together represented all political parties and regions of the country. The group included 21 cabinet ministers and one prime minister.
In his penetrating exploration of “the dark side” of political life in Canada, Steve Paikin saves the family for his book’s penultimate chapter. Paikin’s narrative stands as a stark warning to those entering politics and hoping to maintain a healthy family life. He tells the story of Christine Stewart, a Liberal MP elected in 1993, who attended an orientation session for rookies. “Look around this room,” warned the session’s guide. “Because by the end of your political careers, 70 percent of you will either be divorced or have done serious damage to your marriages.” Paikin reports that Stewart felt she would be the exception to the rule; instead, her seventeen-year marriage came to an end during her time as MP.
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This article is based on a larger study that used exit interviews with former MPs to determine, among other things, how the MPs described their jobs. The study found that there is little consistency in the ways our elected members viewed the job description of an MP, and outlined five broad and overlapping categories. It also suggests certain implications that flow from the absence of any shared understanding of the MP’s job.
Sixty-five former MPs were interviewed for this project in 2009-10. They served in public life for an average of 10 years, and left during or after the 38th and 39th Parliaments, which sat from 2004 to 2008. Each MP served in at least one minority Parliament. Many came to Ottawa at a particular point in our political history: when the Bloc Québécois, the Reform Party and later the merged Conservative Party of Canada became as important players on the national stage.1
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