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Book Reviews

Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy

by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan (eds.)

It is not difficult to get people, even former MPs, to agree that Canada’s democracy is broken. The challenge is getting people to agree on the nature of the problem and possible solutions. In Tragedy in the Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan – co-founders of Samara, a think-tank dedicated to increasing political participation – search desperately for solutions, but don’t spend as much time isolating the source of the problems.

Built around structured interviews with 80 former MPs from all parties, the book provides a glimpse into the complaints these men and women have with the jobs they left, by choice or otherwise. There is some grousing, but there is also real insight into what it is like to be an MP, a job that few in the general public know anything about. (It would be useful for Samara to share their questionnaire so others could aim to replicate this effort.)

Much of Tragedy in the Commons is focused on improving the effectiveness of MPs and coming up with a more defined job description. For the most part, though, Loat and MacMillan hew to very familiar concerns: for example, the party leaders have too much power and there need to be more free votes. But they also wonder if MPs spend too much time helping constituents navigate the federal bureaucracy. The authors posit that time would be better spent debating the nation’s key issues, though we are later told that the debate in the House of Commons – including and excluding Question Period – is largely vapid.

Given Loat’s background as a consultant and MacMillan’s business bona fides, this focus on fine-tuning the role of MPs is not unexpected, but it’s unclear whether the proposed fixes will make Canada’s democracy better, let alone make MPs better at their jobs. The problems Loat and MacMillan have identified may or may not be solvable by changing the role of MPs. But they will undoubtedly require the consideration of other more fundamental factors, sich as the effectiveness and fairness of the electoral system that sends these MPs to Ottawa (and, eventually, home again) and the influence of money and advertising on public opinion.