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The chamber of the House of Commons in Ottawa. (FRED CHARTRAND)
The chamber of the House of Commons in Ottawa. (FRED CHARTRAND)

Globe editorial

MPs: our inside outsiders Add to ...

With a few notable exceptions, most Canadian MPs did not grow up in political households, come from money or attend "the right" schools. A new study, based on interviews with 65 former MPs who served from 2004 to 2008, found that many parliamentarians fell into politics by accident, and self-identify as "outsiders."

This has both positive and negative consequences for Canadian democracy. While it is reassuring that these political outsiders feel the process is open to all, and that they are able to succeed, no matter their political pedigree, it raises troubling questions about the experience and ability of MPs to accomplish the business of governing.

Parliament is, of course, best served when it is broadly representative of the population and can draw together people from a host of backgrounds, concludes the report, published earlier this month by Samara, a Toronto non-profit organization that studies citizen engagement in democracy.

Samara found that few parliamentarians set out to be career politicians. The exception to the rule is someone such as MP Peter Milliken, the longest-serving Speaker in Canadian history, who dreamt of becoming an MP from a young age, and who recently announced his retirement.

Mr. Milliken subscribed to Hansard, the transcript of parliamentary debates, as an adolescent, and studied parliamentary procedure, even completing a university thesis on question period.

However, most parliamentarians spend years involved in their community, and pursuing other lines of work, before being recruited into politics. Their average age is 47, according to the study, and their backgrounds include have been a cook, journalist, teacher, consultant, trustee and priest.

The report may reflect a telling aspect of the Canadian character: a preference to present as an underdog, and to mask political ambition. Politicians no longer have an honourable reputation, and there is no advantage to declaring oneself to be a political insider.

However, this lack of a political class, or "farm team," isn't wholly welcome news. A lack of exposure to politics may leave MPs unprepared when they go to Ottawa. The role of an MP is to represent his or her constituents, sit on committees and fine-tune legislation, and scrutinize the government. MPs must appreciate the institution of Parliament in order to work within it. Ensuring the government is accountable doesn't mean shouting insults during Question Period. In the words of political scientist David Docherty, "If politicians hold politics in contempt, then how do you expect Canadians to feel?"

The study is the first time anyone has explored MPs' motivations in a systematic way, and should be used as a basis to further understand how the pathways to power really work. For all the welcome emphasis on outsiders, insiders such as Mr. Milliken, who understand the nature of the institution and its idiosyncrasies, are just as vital to Canadian democracy.

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