The Purpose of a Parliamentarian
Rick’s rant touches on an issue that in my mind is frequently problematic and that issue is do we really know what the actual role or purpose of our parliamentarians are? This becomes an issue on election day where voters ignore their local representative options because they are more interested in who might be leader of a potential government. Perhaps they think their MP is only worth a vote (predetermined by the leader and party whip) on any given issue and not much use beyond that. Perhaps they think an MP is good for local and personal issues dealt with through their constituency office like passport renewals, for example.
Essentially, few know what the actual job description is of a parliamentarian including the parliamentarians as laid out in an excellent report by the organization Samara. If there is so little understanding of what the position actually means, it’s unlikely any real expectations will be attached to it or the person holding the nondescript responsibilities of that office.
The Mandate of a Parliamentarian
It is equally unclear who the parliamentarian should represent in office. Should they toe the party line at all times since that is the banner they ran under and more often than not is the reason they were elected? Many voters select candidates based on what party they run for or even who their party leader is in place of supporting the individual themselves because of their individual qualities.
Should they represent the views of their constituents and consult them on an issue by issue basis since they represent the voters who elected them into office? The voters arguably send representatives to parliament who they believe will convey their concerns and interests to government.And even those who didn’t vote for the eventual winner expect that person to represent all the voters of their specified jurisdiction whether those voters voted for her/him or not.
Should they represent their own views, throwing the concerns of the party and the constituents aside in favour of their own beliefs and positions on the issues since the party selected them as their candidate and the voters voted for them as their representative? That both the party and the voters selected them with the understanding that they believe that parliamentarian will make good and appropriate decisions in the House of Commons.
All of these positions are valid and held by electors across the country, individually or in combination. So it remains unclear what a parliamentarian does, is expected to do, or who they are even expected to represent in parliament.
Parliamentarians: A Definition
I am of the opinion that a parliamentarian represents themselves first, their constituents second and their party (if they have one) third. Ultimately parliamentarians are selected by parties to run for office (unless they run as independents) and likely run under a party banner because they agree with the general principles of that party. This is why toeing the party line is not important for policy reasons because parliamentarians often do this by default since it is why they were attracted to their party in the first place.
Parliamentarians are selected by their constituents either because of their own personal views or the positions of their party (a party they ran for because of similar ideological positioning). While it is unlikely to agree with everything your parliamentarian supports, voters will select a parliamentarian who they feel best represents their own views (whether as an individual or because of the banner he/she runs under). The parliamentarian is responsible for surveying their constituents for concerns on various issues and to address those concerns but ultimately the individual has been elected to deal with those issues based on their own knowledge, experience and beliefs. The citizens, if not impressed by the course the parliamentarian takes, can elect someone else during the next election when the mandate they gave to the current parliamentarian is up.
The parliamentarian must act based on what they feel is the right course of action after consulting with their constituents because ultimately they were elected to make those decisions. They can be voted out for the decisions they make and while they must try to be inclusive and respectful of all the voices they represent, they are representatives in a representative democracy and must come to a decision they feel is the right course for their constituents and the country. Their constituents must be heard but ultimately we do not have a system of direct democracy and it is the responsibility of the parliamentarian to weigh the concerns of their constituents and then take the best course of action.
A Parliament for the 21st Century
A few years ago former parliamentarian made the suggestion that video-conferencing during caucus and committee meetings as well as votes cast from outside of parliament would help increase the participation of women in politics as geography was a major issue when considering to run. This is also the case for much of the country’s parliamentarians whose ridings are not a short drive from parliament.
In this time of technological advancement and increased used of such practices of video-conferencing in the corporate world, there is no reason for not adopting such technologies in parliament. It is not unreasonable to think that parliamentarians who are in their ridings more often might have a better relationship with their constituents.
There was a time in Canadian history where parliamentarians never spent more than six months out of the year in parliament. Not because they weren’t hard at work but because their work is not just within the walls of parliament but within the borders of their riding (cost and time were also key factors). Constituency work is largely done by staff with no input or effort from the parliamentarian themselves despite this being a key component of the job.
While our ability to travel great distances in shorter time periods has increased exponentially since parliament first opened, other technologies have gone even farther and there is no real reason to require the physical presence of parliamentarians in the House. Parliamentarians can easily get their parliamentary work done from their ridings, whereas their constituency work is much harder to deliver on from Ottawa while away from their large number of constituents. While some work likely must still be done at Parliament, parliamentarians do not need to be there as often as they are. Sound bites from Question Period are just not that important.
If our parliamentarians can’t hide out in Ottawa behind party messaging and stay in their ridings more often than not, perhaps they might be more accountable to their constituents. Perhaps then with the politicians out of parliament it can once again become a tool to teach children about our democracy, instead of learning inventive ways to insult others and get away with it.