Two classes of constituent
Posted: February 17, 2010. John Baglow
A group of his constituents representing a local branch of KAIROS wanted a meeting with him to discuss the government’s de-funding and smearing of their organization. This was the result:
On Nov. 30, 2009, the Government of Canada announced it would no longer financially support international development projects of KAIROS, the coalition of 11 national churches and religious organizations working for social justice.
Parksville-Qualicum KAIROS requested a meeting with our Member of Parliament, James Lunney, to discuss the matter. We were not able to secure a meeting, and finally, in a telephone call on Feb.1, Lunney advised that he would not meet with our group because, he claimed, we disagreed with all of his and his government’s actions. [emphasis added]
Lunney isn’t the first MP who has behaved in this arrogant fashion. Readers may recall that the vacuous Liberal Tom Wappel pioneered the technique back in 2001, refusing to help a disabled war veteran because the man hadn’t voted for him in the previous election.
This raises a couple of fundamental questions that go well beyond partisan politics — or should. To what degree is the MP from your riding “your” MP? And how do MPs “represent” you — even if you did vote for them?
Under our creaky, undemocratic “first-past-the-post” electoral system, most representatives these days end up going to Ottawa with the support of only a minority of the voters. In the last federal election, 192 Members of Parliament of all political stripes went to Ottawa with the backing of fewer than 50% of their voting constituents. In Gatineau, just across the river from me, Richard Nadeau of the BQ received less than 30% voter support. In Nunavut, the now-Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq found herself in Ottawa with just over one-third of the vote.
We have even had majority governments in Canada for whom fewer people voted than for the opposition (e.g., the current government of New Brunswick) — truly a “democratic deficit,” if there ever was one.
But no matter whether an MP wins a minority or a majority of the popular vote, the ballots of those who voted for someone other than the winner are effectively wasted. In the 2008 federal election, more than half of the Canadians who turned up to vote — over seven million out of the 13.8 million who cast their ballots — had no effect whatsoever on the composition of Parliament.
Recent referenda in Canada (in BC, PEI and Ontario) have failed to change the system, for a host of reasons. It may be a while before we get another crack at achieving proportional representation (PR) in this country, one of only a handful of nations retaining a pure “first-past-the-post” system. We’re well behind the times, democratically speaking: how often are we reminded that a mere 40% of the vote puts a party into “majority government territory?”
On the other hand, no matter what PR system is used, the results are that the composition of the legislature more closely resembles the political composition of the electorate. That is what democracy looks like.
In our heart of hearts we know that James Lunney and Tom Wappel were merely being honest about the system as it currently stands. The folks who voted for them are the ones who count. It’s their loyalty that needs to be maintained. If that can be done, the interests of the others are of little or no consequence — even if they happen to be in the majority.
Most MPs, of course, are more tactful. They will at least maintain appearances, meet politely with their constituents, hear them out, perhaps offer them coffee or tea, but rarely a commitment. Unless the visitors control a decisive bloc of votes that can make a difference in a swing riding, they might as well save their breath and help organize the grassroots for the next election. And then the whole dreary routine can begin anew.
But even if you actually voted for your MP, as a minority of Canadians did, remember: party loyalty comes first, and that loyalty can be rigidly enforced. Your MPs are “yours” if you voted for them, but only relatively speaking: the central party office can and does overrule the wishes of constituents all the time. Free votes in the House of Commons are rare. Yet in a truly representative legislature, every substantive vote should be a free vote. Constituents should call the shots: their representatives should be accountable only to them.
Shouldn’t they? Why not ask your MP?
John Baglow, a former Executive Vice-President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, is a writer, researcher and consultant living in Ottawa. A member of the New Democratic Party, Baglow writes occasionally for the online magazines Straight Goods and The Mark. He has been blogging as “Dr.Dawg” since 2005, and has lived to regret it more than once.
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