Loat and MacMillan’s Reforms

… an Atlas resource page in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

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Concept description

In their 2015 book, Tragedy in the Commons, Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan produced a set of recommendations based on their interviews of former members of the Canadian House of Commons.

They develop recommendations that do not involve complex institutional or constitutional reform, but could be implemented immediately by political parties and individual Members of Parliament.

Recommendations to parties

Loat and MacMillan conclude that:

“[Political parties] represent something of a paradox in the Canadian political system: they appear to have few members, and very little legitimacy in the public eye. And yet, their influence in the public realm is immense and growing. Enabled by technology, social media and other direct communications technologies, and further aided by pollsters and a few slogans, parties are easily able to circumvent the connection between MPs and constituents. As power consolidates under the party leader and staff, MPs become increasingly powerless and the voters increasingly disenfranchised, making the misfortune of this behaviour all the more acute.”

The propose the following:

  • “… parties should post clear nomination processes online to indicate how one goes about becoming a candidate, and how a citizen can get involved in the process. It may seem an obvious thing for parties to do, but in a review of over thirteen hundred riding association websites undertaken by Samara in 2013, fewer than 1 percent gave information about how to become a candidate. Just over 6 percent included the names of the local party executive team, and less than 5 percent had information on meeting schedules.
  • “There is also a need for party leadership teams to improve the way they manage and lead in Parliament. The first priority is to convince parties to accord basic respect to MPs. What would that entail? Orientation procedures that assist new MPs in becoming productive more quickly after their arrival in Ottawa. Job descriptions clearly outlined and understood by the public, with responsibilities defined in a way that is conducive to feedback or recognition prior to the blunt review of the general election, and a culture in which achievement is tied to perceptible advancement. Leadership that encourages an understanding on the part of MPs of the need to focus their own energies where they can have the greatest effect.” (p. 226-27)
  • “One way to facilitate greater respect for the agency of MPs would be to require that they be allowed to serve out their full mandate in committee appointments. Greater tolerance for dissent would also make caucus more productive, since it would ease the pressure for consensus and allow better-informed policy to evolve from the wider diversity of views.” (p. 226)
  • “…  parties should conduct their business as transparently as we expect other public (and private) organizations to operate. They should report at least annually such basic data as the number of members and the number of donors (not just those over $200, as required by Elections Canada). Local party associations should also provide regular information on their activities, and how interested citizens might get involved.” (p. 226-27)
  • “Parties should also make clear how much money they spend on the core areas of responsibility, including policy research and development, membership engagement, polling and advertising.” (p. 227)
  • “Finally, parties should outline the decision-making processes for these key areas. Who, for instance, develops and authorizes their advertising campaigns? Why not require that negative ads be voiced over by the party leader, as Andrew Coyne has proposed, instead of some nefarious-sounding stranger? Or why not develop, as Susan Delacourt argues, standards for political advertising, or at minimum, require political parties to adhere to the code of Advertising Standards Canada, which forbids ads that attempt to demean or disparage? And when it comes to public policy, who decides what priorities should be pursued, and through what process? The purpose would not be not to prescribe dollar figures or the decisions that are ultimately made but merely to illuminate how they were made and with what considerations.”
Recommendations to MPs

Loat and MacMillan concluded that chief impetus for reform must be the MPs themselves:

“… we need elected officials who are willing to embrace their jobs, and describe why politics matters.” (p. 230)

“MPs also need to better understand and stand up for their roles. Less than five of the eighty MPs we interviewed, for example, saw their role at all in terms of the traditional Westminster definition, centred on the MPs’ task of holding the government to account. Instead, the MPs defined their jobs chiefly in terms of representing the views of constituents and those of the party, sometimes with specific reference to advancing legislation, although often in more vague, general terms.”  (p. 230)

“They also failed to take responsibility for the impetuous behaviour on display in the House of Commons. … Avoiding responsibility for the problems that plague life on the Hill was a constant in our interviews. MPs can blame the political parties. They can blame political staffers, their party leaders and the prime minister. They can blame the media and they can blame the culture of Ottawa. But at its root, any parliamentary problem exists because the Members of Parliament allow it to exist.” (p. 231)

Loat and MacMillan provide a “start on a bucket list for willing MPs”:

  • refuse party-drafted talking points in the House and in committees
  • take steps to reaffirm a place between constituents and Ottawa
  • clearly articulate a job description and how to prioritize its key responsibilities. (p. 232)

They say that, “as a start, these measures will help clarify each MP’s approach and enable citizens to know better what to expect from their elected representative” and they add two more recommendations:

  • “Help localize the decisions made in Ottawa in a minimally partisan way. For example, following each Speech from the Throne, MPs should make a point of outlining what it means for their constituency, bringing their own voice and perspective to what may appear to be an otherwise distant presentation.” (p. 232)
  • “And lastly, in the next election, each incumbent MP – as well as every candidate – should identify two or three pro-democracy commitments they’ll make if elected.” (p. 233)
Atlas topic, subject, and course

Electoral Systems and Democratic Reform (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Loat, Alison, and Michael MacMillan. 2014. Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy, pp. 217-235. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 15 August 2016.

Image: Samara, http://www.samaracanada.com/our-book, accessed 13 August 2016.