This spring witnessed a rare phenomenon in Canadian politics, a rebellion by backbench MPs against the Prime Minister’s Office.
Conservative MPs argued that Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not allow them to voice their constituents’ concerns; or as former Tory MP Brent Rathgeber put it, of treating them like “trained seals.” Yet some scholars argue that all parliamentarians are too restricted by party discipline in Canada.
“Trained seals is the metaphor that everybody uses, and it is apt,” says Maxwell Cameron, Director of the University of British Columbia’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI).
CSDI scholars believe that if representatives were trained for their jobs, they may be able to better balance party discipline with representing their constituents and reduce the public’s distrust of politicians. This summer, the Centre has launched the first Summer Institute for Future Legislators, an intensive series of Saturday workshops training political hopefuls in parliamentary procedure and rules, the process of passing legislation and the arts of political communication and managing relationships with the media and bureaucrats. The 50 or so aspiring politicians are being taught by a cross-partisan group of lecturers that includes former B.C. Premier Mike Harcourt, Chuck Strahl, former Liberal Cabinet minister Anne McLellan and Preston Manning.
The CSDI notes that unlike academic political science programs, the summer institute provides intensive mentoring and hands-on practice. Students are asked to simulate scrums and interviews, prepare reports, bills, and press releases, and work in committees.
“Nothing exists like this,” says Cameron. “This may in fact be a historical first, not only for Canada, but globally.”
Cameron and CSDI parliamentary expert Campbell Sharman argue that compared to other Westminster systems, the power of ordinary Canadian MPs has been eroded by the power of whips, the control of party leaders over nominations, the lack of free votes, and the limited scope of private members bills. Question Periods at both the federal and provincial levels, Cameron says, have “been reduced to theatrical and shambolic displays of partisan antics.”
“Our system is one of the most disciplined, one of the least flexible, one where the role of the ordinary parliamentarian is most limited,” he says. Politicians are not necessarily aware of the role they can play in improving Canadian democracy. As soon as a politician wins an election, “they will presume that they have mastered the game. In reality, they’re just beginning.”
It was Preston Manning who first proposed the program to CSDI. Manning says that until now politicians have prepped themselves primarily by attending short party-run introductory sessions. Yet at a time when there’s little room for error in politics, informal training is as important.
“The old idea was that you could learn all this stuff on the job. But today,” Manning says, “you make one mistake and it will be on YouTube within five minutes. Someone’s career can be ruined.”
Two of Canada’s most newly elected representatives say that they wish they’d had the opportunity to take a program like the one UBC is now offering.
David Eby unseated the Premier of British Columbia on May 14 th , but he jokes he is in distress over what to wear to practise politics.
“When do you wear a suit, and when do you not wear a suit?” he asks. “When do they want to see you in shorts and a t-shirt, and when are you supposed to look like a lawyer?”
For Andrew Weaver, a climate change expert who just became B.C.’s first Green Party MLA, the main worry is that he doesn’t have a comprehensive grasp of parliamentary procedure.
Weaver and Eby won’t have time to attend the program, however.
“Once people get [into the legislature], there’s just no time to prepare them for what they’re facing,” says Manning.
But CSDI hopes that the summer institute will eventually be a part of the training for many successful Canadians politicians.
“We feel like if you can capture people far enough upstream before they can be part of the party machinery, we have a better chance of socializing them into what the work of a legislature is,” says Cameron. “And consequently, if they’re elected, we hope that they can help to change the culture of politics.”
Special to The Globe and Mail