OTTAWA – The vast majority of Canadians feel their federal politicians are failing when it comes to representing vital issues in the House of Commons, new research shows.
The study from the Samara Institute, set for release Monday, found a mere 27 per cent of Canadians think Ottawa deals with the issues they feel are most important in a satisfactory way.
“Politics is not always held in high regard,” said Alison Loat, executive director of Samara, a non-profit organization.
“There’s a perception the MPs, or reality perhaps, don’t represent their constituents,” Loat said on the Global News program The West Block with Tom Clark.
The organization, which promotes political participation, analyzed almost half a year’s worth of parliamentary transcripts to determine what issues were talked about most in the Commons. The researchers then compared that list to one of issues Canadians identified as
important to them.
The findings were not as dire as the perceptions Canadians expressed. The researchers found Parliament is actually aligned with Canadians’ interests, although that alignment is weak.
With notable exceptions like health care and the environment, most of the top issues for Canadians were among those most frequently discussed in the House of Commons.
The issues were more aligned, however, in the venues where political parties exert less power over MPs, such as during member statements and filing petitions, as opposed to during question period.
The report highlights several reasons Canadians feel such a disconect. Those include the media’s focus on conflict, the perception that real work is only accomplished outside of the House of Commons, and confrontational questions periods — where issues are treated as punching bags.
Some of the research rings true for Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, who in 40 years of federal and provincial political involvement has seen many legislative transformations.
“There’s always a mismatch between what most Canadians would like, which is two political parties working together most of the time on issues that matter to them in their day-to-day life, and the dictates of the kind of partisan politics that you often see,” he said.
Unlike Canadians he said he also sees some of the parts of Parliament that work, including cross-partisan support on committee work or the high number of private members bills that have been passed in the last six years.
“Some of the good work that gets done isn’t noticed, but there’s a lot that can be done to improve the ability of political parties to work together,” he said.
Samara’s report suggests that MPs be given more power to voice their own ideas either by the party or through procedural rules. It also points to the need to clean up the partisan vitriol in the House of Commons.
Improvements can start with a question period stripped of protocols that see short questions and short answers, according to Segal.
“You may overstate a problem so as to get attention and then of course once that happens, then the notional response from the government side is to hit back with some kind of glib talking point which actually doesn’t advance the understanding of the issue at all,” he said.
Another problem he identified is the first-past-the-post electoral system that elects the person that gets the most, not the majority of the votes.
“A lot of people in that constituency just don’t identify with the MP that was elected and that creates a disconnect between the MP and Parliament and how people actually voted and engaged,” Segal said.
While provincial governments weren’t part of the Samara study, many across the country have been shutting down for months at a time, leaving Canadians to wonder what politicians are doing and how they can be held accountable.
In British Columbia, Premier Christy Clark shut the legislature down last May, and while MPs are expected back in March they may only sit for 19 days. Alberta’s legislature will also return in March, but is expected to sit only 39 days before rising for a nearly five-month summer break.
On the other side of the country, Ontario’s Queen’s Park has been empty since October 2012 when then Premier Dalton McGuinty prorogued the legislature, cutting last year’s sitting to just 78 days. Newfoundland and Labrador’s legislature reopened its doors in March 2012 after sitting just 33 days in the previous 14 months.
Segal said provincial lieutenant-governors need to stop giving premiers a blank cheque to prorogue, which puts Canadians’ faith in democracy at risk.
“If the legislature is not meeting, why do we have members of legislature, what are they doing, how do we express our concerns,” Segal said, adding there should be reasons and conditions for prorogation.