Book Review: Tragedy in the Commons By Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan

By Dennis Gruending

From The Catalyst, Summer 2015

Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy 
By Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan
Vintage Canada, 2015

Reviewed by Dennis Gruending

Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan run a think tank called Samara, dedicated to increasing the level of political participation in Canada. That’s a steep hill to climb. Turnout for the federal election in 2011 was 61 per cent. Prior to 1993, turnout usually varied between 70 and 80 per cent. Canada is free and democratic when compared to many other countries, but opinion polls exhibit a deep dissatisfaction with our politics and politicians.

The authors decided that former MPs would be the best people to ask about what might be done to improve Canadian politics. They interviewed 80 former MPs, representing all five parties, who had served between 2004 and 2011. Many poured out their frustrations in two-to-three hour interviews.

Oddly and unconvincingly, most identified themselves as outsiders who had never intended to run for office but were reluctantly convinced to do so. A second common theme was their frustration over the controlling influence exerted by their parties and leaders, beginning with their nominations and proceeding to their time in Parliament.

The authors indicate, however, that when they asked MPs what could be done to change the practice of politics for the better most responded with “mere tweaks.” Only a few suggested any institutional reforms and just two recommended electoral reform or proportional representation. It would have been interesting to know how MPs believe they might best work for the necessary change on issues such as poverty, climate change, and the rights of Indigenous peoples. Yet there is virtually no mention of that by the MPs, at least none that is recorded in this book.

There are social movements and community leaders pushing our lawmakers to work for justice, equity, and a planet that can be sustained. Perhaps it is they who should be asked what can be done to change politics for the better.

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