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Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada's Failing Democracy [Hardcover]

Alison Loat , Michael MacMillan
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 15 2014

In Tragedy in the Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, founders of the non-partisan think tank Samara, draw on an astonishing eighty exit interviews with former Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum to unearth surprising observations about the practice of politics in Canada.
Though Canada is at the top of international rankings of democracies, Canadians themselves increasingly don’t see politics as a way to solve society’s problems. Small wonder. In the news, they see grandstanding in the House of Commons and MPs pursuing agendas that don’t always make sense to the people who elected them.
But elected officials make critical choices about how this wildly diverse country functions today and how it will thrive in the future. They direct billions of dollars in public funding and craft the laws that have allowed Canada to lead the way internationally. Even with so much at stake, citizens—voters—are turning away. How did one of the world’s most functional democracies go so very wrong?
In Tragedy in the Commons, MPs describe arriving at their political careers almost by accident; few say they aspired to be in politics before it “happened” to them. In addition, almost without fail, each MP describes the tremendous influence of their political party: from the manipulation of the nomination process to enforced voting in the House and in committees, the unseen hand of the party dominates every aspect of the MP’s existence.
Loat and MacMillan ask: Just what do we want Members of Parliament to be doing? To whom are they accountable? And should parties be trusted with the enormous power they wield with such little oversight or citizen involvement?
With unprecedented access to the perspective and experience of Canada’s public leaders, Tragedy in the Commons concludes by offering solutions for improving the way politics works in Canada, and how all Canadians can reinvigorate a democracy that has lost its way, its purpose and the support of the public it is meant to serve.

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Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada's Failing Democracy + Winning Power: Canadian Campaigning in the Twenty-First Century + Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age
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“This important book draws on the personal experiences of former Members of Parliament to illustrate the growing central control of party leadership—in all major parties—and how this has distorted the democratic process. Offering useful suggestions to address the resulting alienation of voters from the political process, Tragedy in the Commons is mandatory reading for all MPs and Canadians.”
—Michael Wilson, former Minister of Finance and Canadian Ambassador to the United States
“Canadians’ participation in and respect for democracy are fundamental to maintaining a society of which we can be proud. Through the reflections of Members of Parliament, who have devoted themselves to public life, Loat and MacMillan give us insight into how far we have to travel, and how urgent is the cause.”                
— Amanda Lang, co-host of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange and author of The Power of Why
“In every tragedy there is hope. Members of Parliament go to Ottawa hoping and promising to make a difference; but as these riveting revelations show, high priorities get lost too easily in the widening chasm between constituents, party leaders and good conscience. Is it any wonder Canadians feel disengaged from their hard-won democracy? Loat and MacMillan hope that pulling back the curtain will re-engage Canadians enough to keep our House of Commons from becoming a ‘House of Cards.’”  
—Isabel Bassett, former Member of Provincial Parliament
Tragedy in the Commons is a thoughtful analysis of what is broken in our democracy and a must-read for anyone concerned about Canada’s politics. It’s also a cogent and urgent reminder that the struggle to make our Parliament and our politics work falls not only to politicians, but to us all.”
—Terry Fallis, author of The Best Laid Plans

About the Author

Alison Loat is a regular commentator on Canadian politics, a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a former consultant with McKinsey & Company. For her work as a co-founder of Canada25, she was recognized as a young leader by Maclean’s and the Public Policy Forum. She was also selected as one of the top 100 women in Canada by the Women’s Executive Network, and has received both the Gold and Diamond Jubilee Medals for her service to Canada. Loat is also an associate fellow and instructor at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonLoat.

Michael MacMillan is the CEO of the Canadian-based company Blue Ant Media. He was previously the executive chairman and CEO of Alliance Atlantis Communications. MacMillan co-founded the original Atlantis Films in 1978, which won an Oscar in 1984 for its short film Boys and Girls. A recipient of the Gold and Diamond Jubilee Medals for service to Canada, he is also a co-owner of Closson Chase, a vineyard and winery in Prince Edward County, Ontario.

Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan co-founded the think tank Samara in 2009. Visit to learn more. Follow Samara on Twitter @SamaraCDA.

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Customer Reviews

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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By Steven
Tragedy in the Commons is an expanded compilation of the MP Exit Interview report produced by Samara Canada which offers a distinct insider view to life in Canada’s Parliament through the eyes of former parliamentarians.

Through dozens of intense interviews the authors collected an image of the life for Canadian politicians in our national body. What Loat and MacMillan discover is in no way particularly flattering to our grand national institution and in fact hints a deep rot or dysfunction in Canadian democracy.

The title of the book is a direct allusion to the economic concept of the tragedy of the commons. To briefly summarize the idea, with a common good there is a benefit for all to preserve the resource for the future, but none of the stakeholders have the incentive to not exploit the resource to full advantage contrasted to his/her peers. As a result the resource is exploited to its complete ruination because the best interest of the individual is so completely at odds with the long-term interest of the collective.

This reference is emphasized by Loat and MacMillan. As they detail the litany of problems in the House of Commons, arguably building towards crisis, they refer to the simple fact that any one politician is powerless to influence the current political culture despite the fact that it serves their own interests. The forces of status quo keep Members of Parliament from obeying their own consciences and upholding their own rights.

Each chapter of the book addresses an area of political life that any MP must navigate: winning nominations, elections, conduct within the House of Commons, committee work, relations with their party and leadership, and even the basic understanding of what an MP is.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Anyone interested in Canadian politics, and many who are not, should read this book. It tells us much about what is wrong with how we are governed, though not everything.

The authors interviewed 80 former members of parliament to find out their experiences with the nomination process, getting elected, being introduced to the job, and what they sought to accomplish. It is pretty depressing. One gets the impression of chaos. One also gets the impression that the ex-MPs were not entirely truthful; for example they generally would not admit to being interested in the ‘job’, nor of participating in the daily ‘entertainment’ called question period.

Can a typical MP accomplish anything? Only rarely. They are becoming, like the record store, disintermediated, unnecessary except for their votes, as everything is determined in the leaders’ offices, whether government or opposition.

How did we get there? Some key events such as placing party names on the ballots, and the requirement that party leaders sign nominations are emphasized. These two things led to the tendency for people to vote for party leaders rather than candidates, and for MPs to be reluctant to defy their leaders.

Where lies the blame? Are there cures? The blame clearly lies with the MPs themselves, the media, and us. Michael Chong’s bill will help a little, if it becomes law.

Only two of the MPs mentioned the electoral system as a problem. This is perhaps the most important issue, though outside the scope of the book. With the present system about half the population gets an MP who they voted for. One can do very much better. The ideal is to have groups of like-minded people elect one of their group to represent them.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Democracy Under Attack in Canada? Sept. 10 2014
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Our federal parliamentary system promotes the myth that voters have the collective power to send to Ottawa people they have elected to act on their behalf when making laws that both promote and protect their best interests. While that might be the case theoretically, it is a vastly different world that meets these MPs when they take their respective seats in the House of Commons at the outset of each new session of parliament. Their elected position quickly becomes one that is a catch-all for Loaf and MacMillan, both savvy political analysts, who have composed this study to show what a challenging task it is to win and hold down a seat while being all things to all people: the government, party agenda, constituent needs, personal interests, and campaigning. Many of the MPs interviewed for this book are ones who feel overwhelmed by the colossal demands of a role that is often poorly defined, comes with little training and is often ignored by those in power as inconsequential to the real business of government. Those who survive and flourish as members of parliament are those who go out and do significant free-lancing in an effort to build up their political and public expertise so that they can be invited into cabinet. Those who buck the system by voting against the party on whipped votes pay the price of being denied plum promotions or being booted from caucus. While some personal initiatives do succeed, in the form of private member's bills, for the large part, the working life of a MP can be lonely, unfulfilled, and exhausting. No wonder many walk away from it with the excuse that they need to spend more time with family or there is a better job waiting in the private sector. Read more ›
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