National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

Do MPs really want to “represent” their constituents in Ottawa?

Michael Chong says the main goal of his Reform Act is to restore MPs’ ability to represent their constituents in the House of Commons. While there’s been lots of debate over whether the bill can reverse thirty years of centralization, everyone seems to take for granted that, if it did, MPs’ could just reclaim this traditional role.

I disagree. Over the last 30 years policymaking has changed in ways that have all but eclipsed this role for good-and not just because of centralization.

Not so long ago, cabinet ministers relied on a complex system of relationships to help them identify issues and make policy. The caucus, the party, the riding associations and, ultimately, the MPs’ networks in their communities were all critical links in this chain.

MPs were important because they carried information and ideas to and from Ottawa. When this worked well, the people and organizations in their ridings had a link into the policy process and felt more connected to it.

The centralizing trend Chong now wants to reverse has undermined this system. While a number of factors were at play-especially globalization-the rise of public opinion research was the most important.

Polls, focus groups and surveys offered the cabinet a faster, more rigorous way of identifying trends, issues and solutions. The more ministers relied on it, the less important MPs became. Their role went from brokering solutions for the community to ” selling” solutions for the party.

Thirty years later, control over the party’s message has been centralized to the point where everyone in caucus is expected to follow the same script. As political parties now gear up to move from polling to data-mining, a whole new chapter in this story is about to unfold.

I applaud Chong’s effort to stop it in its tracks by breaking the iron grip of the PMO, as well as other leader’s offices. If he succeeds, the role of committees could be rejuvenated-more on this shortly-but as for reviving MPs’ traditional role as representatives: it is misplaced.

Consider what this involves. Sometimes “representing” means people in the riding have views on national issues that they want raised in Ottawa. At other times, it means they have local concerns they want raised in Ottawa. Let’s start with the first.

The national policy environment is very different from 30 years ago. We now know that issues like climate change, gang violence or healthcare reform are far more complex than previously thought, usually cutting across a number of policy fields at once.

Solutions therefore require a more comprehensive or “holistic” approach-what policymakers call a “strategy”-rather than just a particular program or law. This is transforming the policy process in two ways.

First, an effective strategy to address issues like climate change or gang violence requires a multi-stakeholder approach. This usually involves a number of departments from different governments, as well as key members of the business and NGO communities.

Getting buy-in from all these players is complicated. The process must engage governments, stakeholders, communities and even citizens, align them around common goals, and then mobilize them behind a single plan. “Engagement” is thus a rapidly expanding area of government interest and experimentation.

Second, partners won’t waste their time on strategies that are whimsical or ineffective. They must be convinced they will work, which means they must be based on evidence. Over the last two decades, an impressive range of tools and systems have been developed to measure and improve such strategies. The challenge now is to support them with high-quality data and analytical tools. Without these, measurement amounts to little more than guesswork.

Governments are a critical stage in this new approach. Future success will require some major steps, including a new willingness on the part of ministers to view their role more as stewards of the process than commanders-in-chief. In practice, this means cabinet-and the PMO-must be willing to relax its grip on policy and allow the participants to use the process to find creative solutions to issues-a strategy that they are willing to unite behind.

Parliamentary committees could play a very significant role in the evolution of policymaking. They could provide oversight, analysis and advice in the development of both strategies and the new processes that will produce them. They could ensure these processes are transparent, accountable, inclusive and evidence-based. They could also explore how social media tools could be used to create new opportunities for large-scale engagement, especially where communities and citizens are involved.

Nevertheless, if MPs could do much good work here this is not about representing their constituents’ policy views to Ottawa. Rather, in this model, the public’s views on major issues increasingly will be gathered and discussed through the processes, not from their MPs.

Well…what about local concerns? Don’t MP’s still have a role advocating for constituency projects, such as a new bridge or hospital or hosting a major event, such as the Pan-Am Games?

There will always be a role for MPs here, but we can only hope it is very different in the future from what it was in the past. Notoriously, the politics around local projects has been one of the worst patronage troughs. A “good MP” was someone who knew how to work the system and bring home the bacon.

If MPs such as Chong succeed in wresting control away from the centre, hopefully, it is not so that they can revive this kind of politics. On the contrary, the way ahead must focus on strengthening transparency, accountability and role of evidence in such decisions.

So, while I believe Chong’s goal of rebalancing power in the Commons is an excellent one, the old system in which MPs were important policy brokers between their ridings and Ottawa is gone. There will always be some role for MPs as representatives, but if they really want to be players in Parliament, they should take the advice of the Great One and skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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