This Country

Roy MacGregor, The Globe and Mail

Thursday, September 30, 2004

The human face of politics doesn't look like your MP, but like your MP's assistant.

'Behind every successful member of parliament, it seems, is a great constituency assistant…'

This morning in Halifax, a 26-year-old doctoral candidate from the prestigious London School of Economics will get into his Suzuki Sidekick and head out along the coastline toward the town of Bridgewater.

Once there, Peter MacLeod will enter the constituency office of Gerald Keddy, Conservative member of Parliament for the federal riding of Southshore-St. Margaret's, and here he will begin once of the most intriguing studies of Canadian democracy in action ever undertaken.

He calls it The Constituency Project - that's why the door of the Sidekick has been freshly painted with - and he will spend the next two years looking into what works and what does not work in Canadian democracy at the most grassroots level.

One day it will be a PhD thesis; today it is merely the first stop on what should be a fascinating journey.

At the moment, MacLeod is on a payphone from outside the legislature in Fredericton. He has taken a "pitstop" in the long drive from Queen's University in Kingston, where he studied before heading off to the LSE, and at times he has to shout over the passing traffic. But the gist of his plan is simple enough: He will look at Canada's so-called "democratic deficit" from the bottom up whit Prime Minister Paul Martin, with all his parliamentary reforms tries from the top down.

MacLeod will visit 100 constituency offices from St. John's to Victoria.

He will interview constituency workers, talk to ordinary citizens who come through the doors, measure, photograph and even locate the offices according to what position of prominence, or lack of prominence, they hold in the community.

"MPs used to be located on Main Street," he says. "They used to be so much more visible. But they started drifting, just like Main Street drifted, and now they're out in strip malls and they're no longer very inviting."

As for the remaining 208 constituencies, MacLeod is hoping to engage senior high school classes and first year university courses to help him finish the job. They can use his website not only to follow his progress but also for guidance on how to do their own checks on national politics from "the local end."

MacLeod is passionate when it comes to fighting "voter apathy" in this country, so he is careful to applaud the Prime Minister's initiatives in Parliament. His only caution is that politicians at "the upper end" have to realize there is much more to meaningful reform than just a "tune-up" of the House of Commons.

"Constituency offices aren't the whole answer, either," he says, "but at least this another way of looking at the "governance gap.'"

MacLeod actually began his early research during the June election campaign, visiting four ridings in Newfoundland. "It was a fantastic experience," he says. "I was just bowled over by the commitment"

"Behind every successful member of Parliament, it seems, is a great constituency assistant - a man or woman working at the local level making sure the telephone gets answered and the concerns get addressed."

During those first days of research, MacLeod quickly came to realize that a part of politics rarely studied is often where the strongest connections are made - where, in fact, the general cynicism towards politics is often non-existent.

"We do polls where people say that health care is in crisis," MacLeod says, "but when we ask about their last trip to see their doctor they say the service was really pretty good. Well it's something the same with politicians. People say all politicians are corrupt and then we ask them about their own MP and they say he - or she - is just great."

It was in Newfoundland he fully realized the significance of the constituency office to the local community. He happened to ask a woman who had long been a constituency assistant if she sometimes found it "frustrating" work.

"It was amazing, MacLeod says, "her eyes suddenly welled up and she started talking about how people always think they only have their cushy jobs through some connection or something, but how it's such a really hard, hard thing to do. People look at you as their court of last resort.

"It doesn't matter if it's a federal issue or not, you're expected to sort it out. It might be a kid who can't pay off his student loan, or a couple about to lose their house, they call you up and they think you're all powerful and can fix anything. May you can't, but you try. And she said she couldn't imagine working anywhere else."

Nor, at the moment, can this PhD candidate imagine studying anything else. To those who question "What's the point of Parliament?" he hopes to show that "politics is about a lot more than Parliament".

He has his assignment, his vehicle, his website and 5,000 kilometres to go. "Send in your Canadian Tire money," he says to anyone who might be listening. "I can use it for gas."