Many Canadian politicians claim they ran for office quite by accident. What does this say about the state of political leadership in this country?
This month saw the release of The Accidental Citizen?, the introductory report from Canada’s first-ever series of exit interviews with former members of Parliament.
The title reflects the varied and often unexpected ways so many MPs described their journeys to public life. Its findings shine light on how one becomes an MP in Canada, and in doing so, may say more about our political culture than anything else.
While exit interviews are common in many organizations, where departing employees are asked to reflect on their service and provide advice with an eye to improving the organization’s performance and the experience of current and future employees, they have never been systematically done in one of the most important workplaces in the country – our Parliament.
Over the past several months, the team at Samara, a charitable organization that studies citizen engagement with democracy in Canada, travelled across the country and visited the homes and communities of 65 MPs who recently left public life. We asked them what brought them to politics, how they viewed their roles and spent their time, and what advice they had on strengthening our democracy.
The Accidental Citizen? focuses on the first part of those interviews, where the former parliamentarians discussed their motivations and paths to politics. It sets the stage for a series of reports still to come.
The most interesting finding was how many MPs indicated they ended up in politics by accident. This is not what we expected, and was revealed in several ways.
First, most MPs said they did not plan for a political life. Their backgrounds and motivations were varied, and nearly all said they were asked to run for office – a request they described as unexpected.
Second, most MPs defined themselves as being distinctly outside the established mainstream, despite deep involvement in the lives of their communities.
Finally, even the nomination process for a candidate’s political party seemed subject to chance. Few MPs described the nomination process consistently and most MPs were critical of some aspect of it. And these were the people who won, so one can only imagine what interviews with less successful candidates might reveal.
More than anything, these narratives may well be important observations on our political culture. Perhaps our politics attracts underdogs. Or maybe we, as citizens, feel more comfortable defining ourselves that way.
The narratives may also indicate that politics is something for which it’s inappropriate to admit ambition, even after the fact. If that’s the case, it’s no wonder that potential candidates don’t generally think about politics, and that they claim to stumble into political life accidentally. This says something about the state of political leadership in Canada.
The report provoked a number of questions for us, and we hope it does for you too. For example:
* Political class: Many MPs said they came to federal politics accidentally. While on the one hand, anyone can run for office, on the other, there’s no “farm team” in Canadian politics and many describe coming to Ottawa feeling unprepared. Should we do more to develop a professional political class?
* The nomination: Most MPs described the nomination process as confusing. Can we improve the way MPs are chosen?
* Wider participation: These MPs came from a wide variety of backgrounds, yet Parliament is older, more male, whiter, and more educated than the Canadian population. Is this a problem? If so, what could be done to engage a wider group of Canadians in our politics?
Samara’s goal is to encourage greater understanding of Canada’s public life, draw attention to the things that function well and contribute to a constructive discussion on what can be improved. After all, our politics are ultimately an articulations of how we, as Canadians, choose to live together, and are worth paying attention to.