Human dignity, multiparty democracy and the rule of law are ultimately indivisible in today’s world. Central to the functioning of Canadian democracy is the body we are here to explore this morning – the House of Commons.
Self government through fair and free elections is an aspiration shared by most people across the world; impressive progress towards it has been made in recent decades. Representatives from 120 nations, including 73 parliamentarians and about 200 leaders from NGOs, met in parallel meetings in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in late 2003. We were reminded there that representative democracies in many forms were that year more prevalent than ever before in history-with an estimated 130 democracies functioning among about 200 sovereign countries. This compared with less than about sixty as recently as the 1970s.
There was general agreement among delegates that unemployment, poverty and bad governance were among the factors weakening democratic governance.
The recommendations by the parliamentarians present were blunt: 1- legislators must play a vigorous role in overseeing the executive branch; 2-women and minorities must be encouraged to play larger roles in parliaments; 3-free and independent media are essential to providing substantive information to voters; and 4-there should be better links between parliaments and their national civil societies.
Representative democracy seems indispensable for a peaceful and prosperous world. As we experience a serious world economic turmoil today, you might agree with me that our new challenges are to a great extent the result of weakened governance, i.e., compromises on oversight, financial regulation and accountability that contravened basic accountability principles. As a result, democracies around the world today face new pressures.
Permit me to offer some suggestions on how 307 members of our House of Commons can represent effectively the approximately one hundred thousand constituents each of them represents.
Principle #1 – Represent All Constituents Without Fear or Favour
Adopting this traditional 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.
#2 – Never Give In If You Believe a Cause is Just
Years ago, a non-constituent was referred by a respected member of his cultural community – the Polish community. Eventually, thanks to a series of tough-minded, pro bono lawyers and some very determined staff in my office, Ryzard and Ella became Canadian citizens and are today doing well. The book I wrote about the case with the assistance of these staff, Betrayal, The Spy Canada Abandoned, is uploaded on my website (www.David-Kilgour.com).
#3 – An MP is an advocate of last resort for constituents and his/her office is not a branch of any government department
This might seem obvious, but I found this difficult to communicate to some assistants over the years. It is somehow easier to accept the version of events held by officials than a constituent. In many cases my office has worked on, the official view was just plain wrong –factually or by interpretation of regulations or policy. Many officials simply can't believe that their view – possibly second or third hand – might be mistaken.
# 4 – Keep Your Sense of Humour Close at Hand
Some years ago, I answered the constituency office phone in Edmonton to find the local manager of a government department on the line seeking my assistant. 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)". One’s sense of humour is sorely tested quite often!
#5 – 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 300 constituents. This was always a good incentive for quality control.
# 6 (which should be upgraded to Principle #1) Find and Support Good Staff.
Building an office team with a combination of backgrounds, knowledge and skills can be the key to success. It is not easy for constituency and Parliament Hill staff to understand each other's environment and needs so they can successfully balance the load, which shifts depending on various priorities. In addition to very dedicated permanent staff, I was lucky to have 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 required an office manager in Cynthia Guibord 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
Here are two points to consider:
1. Your party whip is rarely the best judge of opinion in your riding
It is often said that in Canada if a prime minister in a majority government likes something it can become a statute within weeks or months even though it is really bad public policy. Among those deployed to persuade recalcitrant government MPs and Senators to turn a prime minister’s idea into legislation are:
- the prime minister’s office (PMO) and the Whip,
- caucus colleagues,
- other party faithful, and
- ambitious MPs or senators hoping to rise in the party.
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 nowadays tell pollsters that MPs quickly forget who elected them.
Probably most of you think our model of parliamentary democracy is superior to American congressional system. There are certainly flaws in that system, including the cost to be elected--but that should not blind us to closing the democratic deficit in our own governance. Weakening party discipline, for example, as was done in the UK House of Commons decades ago, would improve 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 skeptical electorate.
2. Never Forget Who Elects You
This is really a restatement of the first point.
In conclusion, may I say that it was an enormous honour to represent the residents of the southeast part of Edmonton for almost 27 years and I enjoyed almost every moment of it. I’d urge all of you to consider serving in the House as well.