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In the House of Commons, partisanship rears its ugly head

A sculptured face with snakes for hair is hit by morning light inside the House of Commons foyer entrance on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 24, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

If you ask the people elected to represent you, they will say the biggest obstacles to political engagement are the organisms created to engage the average Canadian in the democratic process - political parties themselves.

"Exit interviews" with 65 former members of Parliament found astonishing accord on what's wrong with Canada's government: Almost to a person, they felt stymied by their parties' machinations - from partisan gamesmanship to opaque candidate nomination processes to the seemingly arbitrary allocation of plum seats in the House of Commons, office space on Parliament Hill and positions on key committees.

"A lot of what we complain about in politics - from the way debates are structured to citizens being engaged to who gets to run and who's selected as the leader … these are all things in the control of political parties," said Alison Loat, executive director of Samara Canada, the research body that conducted the interviews.

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"It might well be time to ask if we want to revitalize them."

A report released last week based on the interviews found MPs from across the country and the political spectrum - government and opposition, cabinet members and backbenchers - are dissatisfied and, frankly, as embarrassed as the general public, by a political system hobbled by their own parties. Samara chair Michael Macmillan compared them to "hockey fans who go to watch the Maple Leafs with paper bags over their heads."

Randy White remembers that feeling. As House leader for the Tories under a Liberal majority, "I saw it first-hand.

"I constantly had to try to find ways to get our people to believe that they were taken seriously … that the system worked."

And he's the first to admit his success was limited.

"Question Period is still offensive to most people watching it. It's rowdy. The answers are just practically as bad as the questions."

Meanwhile, he said, the painstaking process of whipping a party's vote "creates a lot of members in the House of Commons who really don't know what they're voting on." Stand outside the chambers just before a vote, he suggested, and quiz members on what they think of various amendments to the bill they're about to vote on. "If there are three people who can tell you, I'd be surprised."

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"It's just so partisan. … It makes a mockery of the process," he said. "The individual member of Parliament is hardly recognizable any more."

Former Liberal MP Jean Augustine remembers showing up as a House rookie and struggling to familiarize herself with the party's positions on softwood lumber and boneless beef.

She appreciated the need to play by team rules, she said, but missed "the freedom to vote with one's conscience."

In addition to concerns about party structure, interviews published in last week's Samara report indicate the most open parts of government - especially the much-maligned chaos of Question Period - were the most useless and perfunctory. The real work, the ex-MPs insisted, was what went on when no one was looking.

If the democratic obstacles are obvious, however, potential solutions are elusive. Asked to come up with ways to fix the aspects of federal politics they found most frustrating, outgoing politicians offered words of advice for the newbies succeeding them, but little in terms of suggestions for dramatic change to a system they admit they find alienating and counterproductive.

"Eliminating partisanship from politics is not an easy thing," Mr. White admitted. "And it's a worldwide problem."

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Assuming political parties don't have a sudden change of heart and take it on themselves to play nice, options to enforcing dramatic reform are limited: There isn't much legislation governing party machinations right now. Despite getting a large portion of their funding from tax dollars, political parties are independent entities that are in many ways opaque, even by their own members' standards.

"To a significant degree," Carleton University political scientist William Cross wrote in his 2004 book on Canada's party system, "parties are responsible for what voters are most dissatisfied with in their politics."

Prof. Cross included four proposals to shake things up: Open up the candidate nominations process to include non-party members; lean more heavily on grassroots members for policy development; reform campaign financing to make parties less dependent on the public purse, limiting spending on leadership candidates while continuing to provide public funds for policy-making; and consider proportional representation as an incentive for parties to "campaign vigorously in all parts of the country," making it more difficult for them to write off entire regions and focus their efforts on tiny slices of the geographic electorate.

But some argue Canada's party's aren't all that broken - and that trying to regulate them or restrict their partisan functions would constrict a system predicated on political freedom. The whole point of a free political system, said University of Toronto doctoral candidate Pauline Beange, is to be competitive - and partisan.

"Where party systems are suppressed is characteristic not of democracies but of autocracies and totalitarian governments," she said. "If you accept the premise people want to get on with the rest of their lives and don't want to spend all their time dealing with politics, then the party system is great because it provides cues to the public."

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