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Some Thoughts on Constituency Representation:
26 years and still learning

David Kilgour
The Study of Parliament Group
House of Commons
9 December 2005

Ladies and Gentleman,


It is an honour to be with you as close observers of our brand of parliamentary democracy.


The organizers have asked me to speak specifically to several points:

-                     The realities of constituency work from an MP perspective

-                     Are the resources provided sufficient?

-                     Has the role changed since 1979?

-                     The importance of representing the views of constituents


Constituency Work


Principle #1 – Never Rest On Your Record


I used to tell people – only half jokingly – that if a MP did a good job for a constituent, for example, on an immigration matter, he/she would tell perhaps ten friends. On the other hand, if an MP did what was deemed defective work, the constituent would pass the word to everyone they knew - perhaps 100 or 200 or 300 constituents. This was always a good incentive for quality control.


Principle #2 – You Can Be a Victim of Past Success


There is a corollary: if you are perceived to have brought constituent x's wife into Canada expeditiously, say in six months, the word spreads quickly. Soon there are 20-30 newly married husbands or brides (and not all from your own constituency) in your office expecting a similar performance. The impression that an MP can wave a magic wand is a very sharp double-edged sword. I try to downplay expectations each time but too many disbelieve me.


Principle #3 – Represent Constituents Without Fear or Favour


Adopting this RCMP standard of facing each case "without fear or favour" is an important goal and a valuable service standard in the reputation of any MP, particularly at election time. The day a previous election opponent brought in a problem that to me was both a compliment and the time to be particularly diligent. Occasionally files do get lost, or letters are not answered and then all you can do is apologize and begin again. Constituents are mostly forgiving.


Principle #4 – Cut Your Losses With Those Very Few Who Are Scoundrels


That said, I should admit that sometimes you just can't win with particular individuals and you are better to just cut your losses. If, for example, you learn that beyond a doubt someone has intentionally mis-represented an important matter, I have made it clear that no one in the office will represent him further. One constituent who fell into this category has been trying to defeat me by supporting my opponents in both nominations and elections for many years.


Principle #5 – Never Give In If You Believe the Cause is Just


About 20 years ago, a non-constituent was referred to me by a respected member of his cultural community – the Polish community. After hearing his story, the situation appeared bizarre and both some members of the Polish community and the relevant officials, strongly suggested caution in trying to help him. In the end, I decided to help and it became at times total war with officialdom, including: the Immigration, Justice and Solicitor General departments, CSIS and successive Ministers of Immigration. Eventually, thanks to a series of tough minded and pro bono lawyers and some very determined staff in my office, Ryzard and Ella Paszkowski became Canadian citizens last year. If you are interested, the book I wrote about the case with the assistance of these staff, Betrayal, The Spy Canada Abandoned, is on my website ( I think I am forever on the dark side with CSIS after fighting them so hard for so long.


Principle #6 – Remember You Can Find Constituents Anywhere


A few years ago, while in New Delhi, accompanied by a knowledgeable assistant, he and I left the Canadian Mission only to observe a long immigration line-up outside. As we walked down the line, we were stopped by not one but two unrelated constituents. Fortunately, we were able to solve one of the problems even before we left Delhi. Some of you may have heard that the Delhi and Beijing immigration offices - our busiest to be sure – create more grief for MPs than the rest of the offices combined.


Principle #7 – An MP's Office is an Advocate of Last Resort for Constituents and is Not a Branch of any Department


This might seem obvious, but I have found it difficult to communicate to a number of assistants over the years. Understandably, it is easier for many to accept the version of events held by officials –especially someone you talk too frequently – than a constituent. You can't imagine how many cases my office has worked on where the official view was just plain wrong –factually or by interpretation of regulations or policy. Too many officials simply can't believe that their view – probably second or third hand – might be mistaken.


Principle # 8 – Keep Your Sense of Humour Close at Hand


Some years ago, I answered the office phone in Edmonton to find the local manager of a government department on the line seeking my assistant. Somehow I couldn't resist asking her if she ever exercised her discretion in favour of an applicant. Her answer was clear, "Yes, but never in favour of one of your constituents".  My sense of humour was sorely tested!


Finally on whether MPs have sufficient resources for effective constituency work I need to add Principle  # 9 (which maybe should be upgrade to Principle #1)  Find and Support Good Staff.


With the global budget allotted, I usually have 2 persons in Edmonton and 3 person years in Ottawa. It is a long way from the 1960's when MPs shred an office on the Hill with a secretary. Those MPs from high immigration ridings, like mine, now spend approximately 80% of constituency office time on immigration matters. In fairness, I must add that the processing of such cases is now slower and more unreasonable than at any time since 1979. Some days, are worse than others…as when a spousal sponsorship case was refused on the grounds that there were not enough photos taken at the wedding.


Building an office team with a combination of backgrounds, knowledge and skills can be the key to success. It is not an easy task for Edmonton staff and parliament staff to understand each other's environment and needs so they can successfully balance the load which shifts depending on various priorities. Over all the years, in addition to very dedicated permanent staff, I have been lucky to have short term contributions from some excellent interns from various university and specialized programs and also dedicated volunteers, often local university students seeking experience. Coordinating and managing this diverse work load and constant influx of personnel has required an executive assistant who combined the talents of ring master and den mother. It also helps to have an understanding family who can pitch in where necessary.


Representing Constituents in Parliament, Caucus and Committees


My website is replete with speeches and articles on aspects of this issue, including two books which deal in part with the representation of MPs from "Outer Canada". If you enter "MP representation" on the search engine, you get sixteen entries.


Here are a few points to consider:


1.      The party whip is rarely the best judge of opinion in your riding


It is often said that in Canada if the Prime Minister in a majority government likes something it can become a statute within weeks or months although it is really bad public policy. Among those deployed to persuade recalcitrant government MPs and Senators to turn a PM's whim into legislation are:

-                     the PMO

-                     his caucus liaisons

-                     the Chief and regional whips

-                     caucus colleagues

-                     some tame columnists and editorial writers

-                     the party faithful in the province and riding

-                     an ambitious MP or Senator hoping to rise in the party or be chosen to travel

-                     perhaps his or her spouse or children


This is a too-little-studied phenomenon, but I've seen it practised under both Liberal and Conservative Prime Ministers. It is also, in my view, a major reason why so many Canadians today tell pollsters that MPs quickly forget who elected them. The discontent here is probably a major reason why only 60% of Canadians bothered to vote in 2004.


Probably most of you think our model of Executive Democracy is superior to what the current Canadian Ambassador to the United States recently said is a House of Representatives full of Carolyn Parrishes. There are certainly flaws in the congressional system – and we know them all, including the cost to be elected _ but that should not blind us to closing the democratic deficit in our own model. Weakening party discipline, for example, as was done in the UK House of Commons decades ago, would not ruin our system of government. The late Eugene Forsey reminded us that before 1900 our government ministers could vote against bills without losing their seat at the cabinet table or their self-espect. It might even help to rebuild confidence in the institution from a sceptical electorate.



2.         Never Forget Who Elects You


This is really a restatement of the first point. Over 26 years I have worked hard with questionnaires, summer door knocking and town hall meetings to find out where the electorate of the riding really stood on issues – not just superficially but in some depth.


On the principle of C-38, for example, door knocking, phone calls, surveys convinced me that probably two-thirds of residents were opposed. The negative response was so uniform across gender, age, culture and religious communities that I became persuaded long before the bill reached the final vote that anyone taking a different view would be defeated whenever the election came. Fortunately, my personal judgement was on the side of the majority.


In conclusion, may I say that it has been an enormous honour to represent the constituents in the south eastern part of Edmonton for so long and I have enjoyed almost every moment of it.

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