MPs embarrassed by party theatrics: study

Former parliamentarians are warning those campaigning for a seat that most of their work goes unnoticed and the greatest political frustrations are often internal.
The role of MPs inside the House of Commons is criticized as theatre in a new study of former parliamentarians conducted by Samara, a research organization. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Former parliamentarians are issuing a warning to those campaigning for a seat in the House of Commons that most of their work goes unnoticed and that the great political frustrations are often internal party matters.

Samara, a research organization that studies citizen engagement, conducted exit interviews with 65 former members of Parliament. It released a new report Monday outlining a series of tensions faced by federal politicians.

The report, titled "It's My Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered," said the retired MPs found their "real work" was often done in the private spaces on Parliament Hill, but that was often overshadowed by the theatrics of the daily question period.

'The MPs claimed to be embarrassed by the public displays of politics in the House of Commons, saying they misrepresented their work.'— Samara report, It's My Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered

"Instead, the MPs insisted they did their best work — collaborating across parties, debating and advancing policy, and bringing local issues to the national stage — in the less publicized venue of committees and the private space of caucus," the report said.

"Furthermore, the MPs claimed to be embarrassed by the public displays of politics in the House of Commons, saying they misrepresented their work. Many blamed this behaviour for contributing to a growing sense of political disaffection among Canadians."

The survey of former MPs said they often felt Question Period was "staged" by senior leaders of their parties and they felt like they were "trained seals"

One person responded by saying that Question Period had turned into a "zoo" and another said the daily ritual was now an "embarrassment."

While most committees are held in public, the exit interviews say that there is little media attention on most of their hearings.

It is there that the former parliamentarians say they can interview expert witnesses on proposed pieces of legislation and have debates with their counterparts on shaping the legislation.

The MPs' work in committees and in caucus meetings stands in contrast to the level of knowledge they have on issues as they cast their votes in the House of Commons.

The report points to Canada's long history with strict party discipline and how that often grates on MPs. It suggests that MPs vote so overwhelmingly along party lines that they often do not know the specifics of the bills they are voting on.

"Many said it was impossible to keep track of the bills on which they were called to vote. 'I hate to tell you how many bills I had very little idea what I was voting on. That's not necessarily my weakness, that's just the reality,'" the report quotes one MP as saying.

Internal tensions

The Samara report said the 65 former MPs also offered a consistent complaint that their biggest political frustrations were often internal. Each of the MPs interviewed had participated in at least one minority parliament.

The survey included a high number of Liberals. The report's authors state more Liberals were interviewed because of the number of party MPs defeated in 2006 and 2008.

The 65 MPs interviewed by Samara often described the decisions by the highest ranks of their parties as "opaque, arbitrary and even unprofessional."

Many of the MPs told the research organization that they were disappointed when the criteria for promotions, especially into cabinet, were not explained. And some punishment for actions or comments were described as "juvenile."

The internal tensions between politicians and their parties reflect the ongoing frustration between voters and politics.

Voter turnout levels have been declining in recent elections and there is a perception that people are becoming more disengaged from politics.

"Democracy relies on citizen engagement to thrive, but if MPs themselves are disenchanted with their own parties, then it should come as no surprise when citizens also choose to opt out," the report said.

"After all, if MPs — who arguably benefit more than any other citizen from political party membership — claim that the party leadership pushes them away from constructive politics, is it any wonder that so many Canadians also turn away?"