The cover to the book "Tragedy in the Commons"Title: Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy
Authors: Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan
Publisher: Random House Canada
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: I borrowed a copy from the library (but this is worth owning)

A few weeks ago, fantasy writer Mishell Baker came to Canada on a birthday trip. Like many speculative-fiction-adjacent people in Toronto and Ottawa who knew about her visit, I looked forward to meeting her and giving her a taste of Canadian hospitality.

My particular brand of said hospitality involved showing her the Toronto Reference Library. It also involved bombarding her with information about Canada’s parliamentary system and how it differs from the presidential system set up in the US.

Once I finished my educational blitz, I realized with a bit of pride that I actually knew quite a bit about Canada’s political system. But I also recognized later on that given the challenges the world is facing right now, “quite a bit” isn’t the same as “enough.”

Well, if you want to understand Canadian politics, who better to ask than Members of Parliament? And if you want the gritty, painful details that current politicians won’t tell you, who better to ask than former Members of Parliament?

That’s the idea behind Tragedy in the Commons. In 2011, Samara Canada, a civil society non-profit focused on increasing democratic engagement in Canada, interviewed dozens of MPs who had either retired or been voted out of office. What they have to say about how Canada’s federal government works, for good or ill, is extremely eye-opening.

A number of issues cropped up repeatedly during these exit interviews. Some aren’t that surprising, like the idea that most of these former MPs entered politics with reluctance. Our culture values power while simultaneously shaming people for openly wanting it; many politicians reconcile this problem by claiming that they had to be dragged into politics against their will.

Other issues are more unexpected, like the fact that many MPs “freelance” by choosing a political topic to turn into their niche, like prisons, employment insurance, or railway safety. On its face, such a development makes sense, but it also leads to politicians being territorial when others show an interest in “their” turf.

However, what I found most startling — and depressing — about the anecdotes collected in Tragedy in the Commons was that when these MPs entered office, they were given little support to do their job effectively. In fact, in many cases it felt like party politics actively conspired to keep them from exerting any real power. (Ok, maybe it’s not that surprising, but seeing how petty the party leaders seem to be is somewhat dispiriting.)

For example, here are some things I didn’t know until now:

  • When MPs enter office, they get little on-the-job training. No one is there to “onboard” them with lessons about parliamentary procedures or advice on hiring staff and setting up a constituency office.
  • There is no official job description for an MP. Some throw themselves into constituency work, while others deal more with policy, but the result is that there are no agreed-upon metrics for evaluating an MP’s performance.
  • MPs have almost no choice about what committees they are assigned to, and party leaders do not take an MP’s prior expertise into account when filling committee spots. For example, the late MP Andy Scott had plenty of experience in literacy and skills training, but he was initially assigned to a health committee rather than one for human resources.

I know that we should be wary of treating government bureaucracy like a business, but this lack of accountability surrounding how MPs do their job sounds ridiculous. It’s a waste of human potential.

So Canadian politics is dysfunctional. What’s surprising about that?

Well, nothing. But isn’t our apathy the problem? Democracy crumbles when citizens feel disenfranchised. Look at what’s happening in the US. If the stories in Tragedy in the Commons make us indignant, shouldn’t we take advantage of this indignation and actually use it to make government better?

Of course. These stories have value.

The value of Tragedy in the Commons lies not only in the anecdotes related by these former MPs but also in the context the book provides on how Canada differs from other parliamentary democracies. For instance, Canada appears to be the only one where party leaders are chosen by party members (ie: regular citizens who pay membership dues out of pocket) rather than Members of Parliament. Paradoxically, the fact that a party leader isn’t chosen by their fellow politicians gives them more power because it makes them harder to depose.

This in particular was one of the big puzzle pieces that the book put into place for me. When Stephen Harper was PM, I heard so many anecdotes about how he had centralized more political power in the Prime Minister’s Office than nearly any PM before him. Tragedy in the Commons is valuable in that it actually defines what such centralization within party leadership has entailed, such as greater control over caucuses and the ability to sign party candidate nomination papers.

Put plainly, the way Canada’s political structure is set up, the Prime Minister has an awful lot of power. While Harper had autocratic tendencies, he doesn’t hold a candle to what Trump is doing. Which means that unless we implement more checks and balances in Canada’s political system, we’re pretty screwed in the event that we elect a Trump-like demagogue to power.

Based on what I’ve read of the MPs in Tragedy in the Commons, I hope we’re up to the task. Canadian politicians interviewed in the book stated a deep distaste for political theatre, and a willingness to work together and focus on policy. It’s up to us as citizens to hold current occupants of the House of Commons accountable to these problems and give them support when they attempt to resist party machinations.