Disclosure: I was given an early copy of Tragedy in the Commons in order to help Samara Canada put together supplemental materials and I am a volunteer with the organization.
Tragedy in the Commons is an expanded compilation of the MP Exit Interview report produced by Samara Canada which offers a distinct insider view to life in Canada’s Parliament through the eyes of former parliamentarians.
Through dozens of intense interviews the authors collected an image of the life for Canadian politicians in our national body. What Loat and MacMillan discover is in no way particularly flattering to our grand national institution and in fact hints a deep rot or dysfunction in Canadian democracy.
The title of the book is a direct allusion to the economic concept of the tragedy of the commons. To briefly summarize the idea, with a common good there is a benefit for all to preserve the resource for the future, but none of the stakeholders have the incentive to not exploit the resource to full advantage contrasted to his/her peers. As a result the resource is exploited to its complete ruination because the best interest of the individual is so completely at odds with the long-term interest of the collective.
This reference is emphasized by Loat and MacMillan. As they detail the litany of problems in the House of Commons, arguably building towards crisis, they refer to the simple fact that any one politician is powerless to influence the current political culture despite the fact that it serves their own interests. The forces of status quo keep Members of Parliament from obeying their own consciences and upholding their own rights.
Each chapter of the book addresses an area of political life that any MP must navigate: winning nominations, elections, conduct within the House of Commons, committee work, relations with their party and leadership, and even the basic understanding of what an MP is. The MPs interviewed are drawn from all political parties, from government, from opposition, and come from many different walks of life.
I experienced a number of strong emotions while reading this book. The two that stand out the most is a profound anger and sadness. Anger stemmed from both my normal frustration at our calcified House of Commons, but also the seemingly futile efforts of good men and women toiling away with little recognition. For example, Gary Meratsy (LPC – Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, SK) a strong MP who represented his community well and left the House of Commons after a very short career because he felt he could make a bigger difference in the private sector. The authors paint a picture of well-meaning public servants thwarted time and time again by party leadership and the gamesmanship of politics. Current practices do not foster good governance or oversight, such as the treatment of committee memberships, but serve to centralize power.
The book is a shocking revelation to the true nature of our democracy. Despite their best wishes and efforts MPs are relegated increasingly ceremonial roles, and according to the authors, must eke out some specialist area of expertise or pet project to occupy themselves when not dealing with the routine business of aiding constituents in dealing with our federal bureaucracy. But while many MPs embrace this role Loat and MacMillan point out that gaining access to government services through political connections would be called corruption elsewhere in the world and that these pet projects are really only symptoms of MPs’ inability to influence the governing of the nation.
The chief criticism, it seems to me, that the authors level at our political system is that our political culture no longer supports the idea of politicians or public service and that our servants in the form of MPs no longer actually understand their duty. It is a frightening revelation that offers stark reminder of the erosion of democratic life.
The Tragedy in the Commons should be mandatory reading for any person interested in running in 2015’s federal election, or perhaps any office in the provincial legislatures. There is something fundamentally wrong with our politics and government. Who better to learn about it than from those who served within it at its heart? Sadly, the conclusions that Samara’s founders point to suggest that the crisis is interconnected with several independent problems with no simple or easy solution. MacMillan and Loat offer some suggestions in their concluding chapter as to what might be done to ensure a trust is created for Canada’s Commons, but as the title indicates, the tragedy is that abuse of the commons is nearly inevitable as there will always be those who will exploit it for their short-term gain over the mindful stewards.