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What's an MP's job? They dunno

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Doctor, priest, teacher, ambassador, social worker, spokesperson, lobbyist and guard dog: these are just a few of the terms former MPs used to describe the role of a parliamentarian.

When our organization, Samara, conducted exit interviews with 65 former members of Parliament, many of them long-time veterans of federal politics, we found very little consistency in how MPs define the core purpose of their job.

This raises the question: What, exactly, is the job of those 308 employees of the Canadian people who sit in the House of Commons?

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In his bestselling book, Why Don't Employees Do What They're Supposed To Do and What To Do About It, Ferdinand Fournies asked 25,000 supervisors and managers why they thought employees struggled to perform as expected. The No. 1 reason? The employees lacked a clear sense of what they were supposed to do.

The same could be said of Canada's MPs. Our interviews revealed a lack of clear and common sense of purpose, and deep contradictions in what the MPs believed they were hired to do.

"The first purpose is to serve one's constituents," said one MP when asked to reflect on his role.

"People elect you to be in Parliament. They don't elect you to schmooze in the constituency," said another, adding that he feared constituency work had become "a kind of substitute for real input and activity."

In describing the role of an MP, our interviewees variously emphasized party loyalty, national imperatives, personal priorities and constituency responsibilities. Oddly, only a few MPs mentioned holding government to account for the expenditures of tax dollars, a role political scientists identify as among Parliament's most critical functions.

When these former MPs reflected on their time in Ottawa, even years after the fact, many said this lack of clarity in their role made for a difficult transition into public life.

It also contributed to confusion, conflict and a relentless focus on short-term goals, particularly on the next election. Of course, these are the very qualities of contemporary Canadian politics that alienate so many citizens and lead them to disengage from politics altogether.

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As Mr. Fournies suggests, when employees don't do what is expected of them, there is a good chance they don't understand what those expectations are. So it's hardly surprising that MPs, who hold vague or conflicting ideas about their role, often disappoint voters.

Earlier this fall, Nik Nanos, a pollster who closely monitors the pulse of the citizenry, described a "fundamental disconnect" between the everyday lives of Canadians and their elected representatives.

"Canadians look at what happens in the House of Commons, and they don't see themselves," he said.

With that in mind, it's time to consider giving our MPs a proper job description. Being an MP is a critical job in our democracy, and there needs to be some consistency in our collective understanding of its key components, responsibilities and expectations.

While detailing the requirements of this multifaceted job will not be an easy task, it could be one step toward repairing the disconnect Mr. Nanos describes. And it is the responsibility of the Canadian citizenry to define the job of our elected representatives.

After all, if the employer - in this case, the Canadian voter - doesn't give its employees in Ottawa a clear sense of what's expected of them on the job, who's really to blame when that job doesn't get done?

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Alison Loat is the co-founder of the non-profit organization Samara, which studies citizen engagement with Canada's democracy. Their latest MP exit interview report, Welcome to Parliament: A Job With No Description, is available at

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