John Turner made some telling points when he was interviewed recently about his political career. Some of his comments are worth following up and maybe it will lead to some discussion by current MPs from all parties.
Turner said, "Who wants to be a member of Parliament when the job isn't worth anything anymore?"
I will disagree in part with that comment. My experience, which bridges from Turner's time up to the present, is that there are just as many men and women who want to be MPs today as back in Turner's time. They approach political life in the same manner as those who have gone before them. They see public service as rewarding, want to serve their country and they genuinely want to help make Canada a better place to live in. This applies across the board and across party lines. The problem of course is that when they arrive in Ottawa, their idealism meets reality.
In their ridings they are little different from MPs in Turner's time. They work hard; they have a keen interest in solving constituent's problems and they play an important role in the political affairs of their region. Once they return to Ottawa, things change. The big difference today is the lack of independence and greater control exercised over MPs by their respective leader's offices, backroom strategists and political staff.
Control from the backrooms was always there, but never to the extent that it is now. Until the present generation of MPs, especially in the Conservative caucus, stand up to PMO (and other MPs to their respective leader's offices), not much will happen to improve their lot or that of MPs in general.
The government of the day as well as the Official Opposition has a key role to play in setting the tone in Parliament. This extends from Question Period to committees. If they both want to empower MPs and increase their effectiveness in the eyes of the public, they can make it happen. Unfortunately the government side wants complete message control, which means PMO exerts almost unlimited control over MPs -- what they do, what they say, how they vote, when they can be interviewed, right down to what they will say and how they will vote in committee. Until the Conservative caucus pushes back on PMO that will never change and unelected Conservative senators will have more freedom than their colleagues in the House.
Under Layton, there was a possibility that the Official Opposition would tone down some of the partisanship to make the House work, certainly in a more civil manner. Anyone watching Question Period today wouldn't be too optimistic about that happening.
Turner was also correct when he said that "We need a restoration of parliamentary decorum..." Perhaps he was reflecting on his own role in the decline of parliamentary decorum when he unleashed the Rat Pack on the Mulroney government in the 1980s. The exact same tactics were copied by the present day Conservatives when they were in Opposition and will most likely be by todays Official Opposition as well.
MPs on all sides need to unite, find a champion and spokesperson and insist that their role be reformed. Perhaps they need an independent, all party committee to look at where they are now, how they got there and what changes need to be made to restore and empower our MPs to be somebodies both on and off the Hill.
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