3 min

Why ‘working for you’ is killing the system

“Popular rule is not democracy, Ani. It gives the people what they want, not what they need.”

This line comes from a deleted scene from Attack of the Clones of all films, where Padmé Amidala talks to Anakin about how she resisted the attempt by the people of Naboo to amend their constitution so that the term limits wouldn’t apply to her time as elected queen. And it resonates with me right now as I read this particular editorial about how politicians need to reach out to jaded voters, because actually no, they bloody well shouldn’t.

If anything, that’s part of the problem with the decline of Parliament right now: MPs spend all their time reaching out to voters and not enough time actually doing their jobs. You know, their jobs of holding the government to account, rather than playing ombudsman to their constituents’ civil service complaints and playing lawmaker as though they were American congressmen. And yet, said editorial points to a Manning Institute study that says three quarters of Canadians don’t believe that politicians share their views and are too busy furthering their careers or their party’s interests. I’m gathering that this includes the 40 percent of Canadians who couldn’t be bothered to vote or were “too busy,” because this seems reflective of the excuses we hear as to why people stay home.

We just went through an election where we were inundated with messages about making “Ottawa work for you,” which is a direct play into affirmational marketing, fuelling the “Ego Boom” that tells people that they are the centre of the universe, and that they deserve to be catered to because they’re so special — in politics as in merchandise. But this is part of the problem; we’re selling politics as MPs “working for us,” when that’s not their job at all. And thus enters once again our crisis in civic literacy.

It is an MP’s job to hold the government to account, and they do that by controlling the purse strings. This applies to government backbenchers as much as it does the opposition benches, but most MPs no longer recognize that as their role. In fact, it’s a role they’re gladly turning over to independent officers of Parliament, such as the auditor general and the parliamentary budget officer, both of whom have been sounding the alarm about the level of oversight that spending gets in Parliament these days.

In the last abbreviated sitting, a three-hour session in one committee passed $250 billion in spending without actually looking at what the hell they were rubber stamping. And while Joachim Wehner, a professor of public policy at the London School of Economics, moans that our system of spending approval is “archaic” and counterproductive, he seems to overlook the obvious.

If we were serious about spending oversight, it’s MPs who have the power to actually do it. The “deemed to” rule introduced in the '60s, whereby spending estimates are “deemed to” have been approved after a certain date, which is an affront to our system, could be revoked immediately by MPs if they had any intention of doing their jobs. They could spend their time going over the estimates, if they actually wanted to bother, except of course that math is hard and they want to play lawmaker instead. It’s not the system that’s broken, it’s the people we’ve elected to it who don’t know their own job descriptions, and voters who have expectations based upon wrong notions.

When we the electorate go to the polls, we should be asking ourselves, “Which of these candidates is going to stand up for my interests by holding the government to account?” just as much as they should weigh which party they would like to see in power. Of 308 MPs, there are only so many cabinet seats to go around, and it’s more likely that their MP will be holding to account rather than governing. But it’s not a calculation voters are making. Instead, they’re looking for a politician who will “work for them,” whatever that’s supposed to mean, though I gather it’s a narcissistic reflection that it’s their personal values that should be on display in the House of Commons, combined with the age-old tradition of bringing home the bacon.

Voters don’t know how Parliament works, what an MP’s job is or the mechanics of electoral politics, starting from the riding level and the nomination process. It’s this crisis of civic literacy that is forcing the wedge of disengagement with the political process and fuelling the call for gimmicky reforms to the system that won’t actually fix what’s broken. Having politicians contort themselves to fit the narcissism of the electorate won’t solve anything, nor will gimmicky “reforms.” The change has to come from the electorate.
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