Two NDP MPs from Windsor have told their
local paper that while they’re not getting any new MPs in the region from the
seat redistribution, what they really need is more constituency staff because
of the huge workloads that they’re under. And immediately my warning lights
went off, because this is indicative of one of the biggest problems that we
face in the way our democracy is working right now.
Because most MPs don’t know their own job
description – which is, of course, to hold the government to account by
scrutinizing the estimates and keeping a hold on the purse strings of the
nation – they wind up focusing a lot on constituency work, which has tended
to mean taking on a kind of ombudsman role for public services in their constituencies, and
it’s a lot of helping people with EI paperwork or immigration files.
Some MPs have gone so far as to hire full-time staffers just to deal with
immigration case files, which is actually alarming. And MPs tend to fall all over themselves to provide
this kind of service, because they know it’s what gets them reelected.
Indeed, if you look at the latest Samara
study on democratic engagement, it was found that a lot of people have tuned out
of democracy and stopped voting because they had negative experiences with
their local officials. But take a closer look at some of those experiences: the
woman who didn’t get help in finding a daycare space, the guy who wanted the
speed bump put on his road, and so on. A lot of the stories listed were people
trying to get elected officials to give them instant gratification for their
problems, even if it was not the politicians' job or jurisdiction. Add to that the
confusion between bureaucracy and politicians themselves – a perceived bad
experience with bureaucrats turns them off voting, for example. That this
conflation exists is problematic, and the sources are numerous.
And so we find ourselves in a particularly
vicious circle – MPs don’t do their jobs of holding the government to account
because they’re busy trying to provide services they’re not
actually supposed to do, while voters who don’t get their way in navigating the
system turn off from voting, which makes those MPs spend even more time on
constituency business. Staff budgets, already tight, are not used on
experts who know parliamentary procedure or policy areas. (Try to get a lawyer,
even in the Library of Parliament’s division that helps to draft bills, for the
salary they pay. Think again). Meanwhile, the estimates get a cursory glance
and are passed without any real oversight. MPs then expect the auditor general to
catch the spending problems that should have been caught in the estimates
process – you know, before the money has been spent and not after. And on and
on it goes.
This is why we need to address the problem
of our lack of civic literacy. The more our political class panders to the
civically illiterate, the worse the whole system gets. People expect
politicians to do the things that they should be going through the bureaucracy
to do; political staff spend their time dealing with constituency work and not
oversight; and when political staffers don’t come through in a manner that meets
the exacting expectations of those citizens, they disengage and fall to clichéd
abuses about “corruption,” and politicians being in it only for themselves, or
all of that noise. But how many of those people actually know what a politician
does, what the job of the bureaucracy is, or their own responsibilities when it
comes to engaging? My guess is vanishingly few these days.
That’s not to say that things are perfect
now. There are problems with the way the bureaucracy engages with the public, which
one could probably trace to the growth of the civil service in the '50s, to the
more complex and horizontal power structures that exist today, to the way that the
public service, constantly being dumped on by the general public and by
superiors under pressure, has become demoralized. None of these problems have
easy solutions. And perhaps we do need more ombudsmen-type positions for people
who are having genuine (as opposed to perceived) problems with the bureaucracy to turn to, but the fundamental lack of civic literacy nevertheless
underscores the problem.
Simply giving MPs more political staff to do
jobs that aren’t theirs to begin with cannot be the answer, and will
in fact only make an already bad situation worse.