MPs are impotent nobodies — and keep it that way

The first time a cabinet minister confided that he found the media to be an essential go-to source to keep abreast of what was going on inside his government, l figured he was pulling my leg. The year was 1989.

The first time a cabinet minister confided that he found the media to be an essential go-to source to keep abreast of what was going on inside his government, l figured he was pulling my leg.

The year was 1989.

I’d been a parliamentary correspondent for only a few years.

Based on that limited experience, I very much imagined the flow of government information on Parliament Hill as a one-way process — from those who were in the know, because they were in power, to those in the media whose job it was to pry knowledge out of politicians.

But when Lucien Bouchard’s office called Le Devoir’s bureau a few weeks later to get a better handle on how Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was spearheading the Meech Lake file, I realized that process probably was something entirely different.

Bouchard was Mulroney’s lead Quebec minister. The notion that he would not be fully in the constitutional loop was mind-boggling.

In that story , you may find a clue as to the pressures on Bouchard that led him to abandon the Tory party to join — and lead the separatist Partis Quebecois.

Given the partisan nature of politics, it should come as no surprise that MPs often operate within silos on Parliament Hill.

That some of the most hermetic of those silos are built within each party and within the government is more counterintuitive.

And the inside knowledge that used to leak through to the parliamentary media has been reduced to a trickle, at least by standards of the 1980s and early 1990s.

With every mandate, information flows a little less freely — at the cost to the depth of the national conversation.

One of the consequences is a political class that is increasingly alienated from the system within which it toils.

That powerlessness pervades the findings published on Wednesday by Samara, an organization devoted to promoting citizen engagement within Canadian democracy.

As part of its research, Samara conducted exit interviews with 65 retiring MPs — ranging from former prime minister Paul Martin to ex-members of the former Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois.

The report makes for sobering reading for anyone who aspires to sit in the House of Commons.

Pierre Trudeau once famously described MPs as nobodies once they stepped away from the parliamentary precinct. But now many of them feel like nobodies on the Hill itself.

The report describes an environment into which MPs basically go blind, with no practical job definition, little hope of sustained guidance and no roadmap as to the way forward.

Time does not necessarily improve matters.

Many of the veteran parliamentarians who looked back on their political experience felt their best work was done outside the system.

In any other professional area, those findings would be grounds for serious corrective measures.

But in this case helplessness, it seems, has simply turned into self-imposed impotence.

And while many lamented the poisoned atmosphere of question period and the shrinking relevance of parliamentary committees, few seemed to think it might have been their responsibility to do something about it.

“When the very people who serve in Parliament degrade the role and the way the work is conducted, without a concentrated effort to improve it, is it any wonder citizens are cynical?” the report finds.

Monday, the 2011 class of MPs will settle in the Commons for the first four-year mandate in a decade.

It will be their loss if they do not use that time to expend more energy than their predecessors on challenging a system that is turning them into drones.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.