In 2009, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan founded the political think tank Samara. They were concerned about a growing disengagement among Canadians from their political system, what MacMillan describes as a “turning away from the village green, from the importance of how we decide to live together and make decisions together, and how that translates into how we govern ourselves.” They saw these trends in the larger culture, but also among colleagues and peers.
“So many people that I knew,” says MacMillan, describing his frustration, “Smart people in their middle age — a good proxy for part of the population — saw no reason to talk about this stuff, let alone vote, let alone join a political party, let alone actually read a book, let alone sign a petition.”
These problems are not unique to Canada. Western democracies are all suffering similar symptoms of citizen disengagement, even as those countries attempt to export their systems of governance to other parts of the world. Not only has voter turnout dipped significantly, but fewer people are joining political parties, donating to campaigns, and otherwise participating in political culture.
But Loat and MacMillan don’t necessarily see citizens as the root of the problem. “To throw the blame at the feet of 35 million disparate citizens, who have many other things on their plate, is probably not fair,” says Loat. So they sought out a small sector of the population with much more direct experience of the inner-workings of Canadian democracy.
Western democracies are all suffering similar symptoms of citizen disengagement, even as those countries attempt to export their systems of governance to other parts of the world.
Through Samara, Loat and MacMillan aim to create educational programs and research projects that will shine a light on issues of citizen engagement in Canadian democracy, and their first such project was to conduct exit interviews with former Members of Parliament about their experiences on the job. Who better to diagnose the problems of our political system than those who have worked inside it? They ultimately spoke with eighty MPs, including 35 cabinet ministers, across all parties and regions of the country, and, based on those conversations, they wrote Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy.
The title may seem alarmist to some readers; an audience at the Ottawa Writers Festival took issue with the characterization of Canada’s democracy as “failing.” The phrase “tragedy of the commons” is borrowed from a 1968 essay by an American biologist on the challenges of managing public resources: how can the long-term benefits of the group be protected from a few individuals seeking short-term gains? This is certainly a question Canadians might ask themselves around election time, when candidates seem more focused on trashing one another than articulating a coherent political vision. But the real tragedy that Loat and MacMillan describe is that, once the dust of electoral mud-slinging has settled, our politicians appear to feel as alienated from our political system as we do. And if they’re not invested in nurturing our democratic institutions, how can ordinary citizens be?
The title may seem alarmist to some readers; an audience at the Ottawa Writers Festival took issue with the characterization of Canada’s democracy as “failing.”
Tragedy in the Commons is a useful, warts-and-all primer on the Canadian political system. It reveals some of the psychological elements at work in Canadian political culture and, by focusing on the experiences of MPs, uncovers subtle, underlying causes of dysfunction. The portraits are not always riveting, but they are often surprisingly relatable in their banality. Like their constituents, MPs are romanced by their political parties during campaigns, but once in office, successful candidates are left to their own devices, without a clear job description or any consistent system of orientation for the newly elected. Many feel like pawns of their parties and cope by finding alternative ways to make themselves useful, such as greasing the wheels of government bureaucracy on behalf of local constituents or taking on pet issues in which to become self-styled experts.
One unexpected trend that emerged from the interviews was a tendency among the vast majority of MPs to describe themselves as political “outsiders.” The authors were fascinated by how consistently their interviewees, unprompted, expressed surprise at being approached about running for office and denied that they had had sincere political ambitions of their own, although most had been active in their communities in some type of leadership role. It is this “outsider narrative” that, to Loat and MacMillan, suggests a strong and pervasive disdain for the political process. What does it say about our attitude toward democracy that political office is either thrust solely upon the unwilling or is too deviant an aspiration to admit?
“They came back, over and over,” says Loat, “To ‘question period is terrible,’ as if they weren’t there. ‘I never planned to run,’ even though they were active in their communities. Part of what we are trying to do is send a message to people who are in politics that you can’t always be looking from the outside in. You have a responsibility to uphold the quality of our politics.”
The book is often repetitive, suggesting that perhaps the authors needed to stretch their material to book length, and the repetitiveness at times muddies the shape of their argument. Tragedy also falls into a common trap for political books of stating and restating problems, while solutions are less well elaborated and defended. Nonetheless, readers might be heartened to discover that the authors and their interviewees propose no vast structural changes to the political system, but rather minor tweaks to create greater transparency in party operation and Parliamentary bureaucracy and to develop a greater sense of accountability on the part of individual MPs.
Tragedy in the Commons is perhaps best read in the context of Samara’s other activities, which include a broad range of programs to reveal the inner workings of our political system and engage citizens in political conversations. According to Loat and MacMillan, this is quite simply the work required to keep a democracy healthy and vibrant.
“I sometimes use the metaphor of the human body,” says MacMillan. “If you don’t eat properly, if you don’t exercise, your body will fall apart. Complex systems inherently need constant attention.”
Samara’s goal is to provide ways for citizens to tend to their democracy and to make sure that their elected representatives are doing the same. Tragedy in the Commons provides a starting point.