This Country

Roy MacGregor, The Globe and Mail

Thursday, September 29, 2005

No cure like travel for malaise about distant Parliament

Peter MacLeod has this weird dream.

It involves flatbed trucks, the highway, a House of Commons that can be erected and broken down as quickly as, say, the Rolling Stones touring stage, and hockey rinks across the country serving as the parliamentary galleries.

"I call it The Mobile Parliament," the 27-year-old PhD student says through a mouthful of burger.

"I want to see the Parliament of Canada rolling down the Trans-Canada Highway!"

While it has sometimes been suggested that Canada should have two separate sites where Parliament might sit -- say Ottawa and Calgary -- MacLeod thinks this only would pit Eastern Canada against the West. Rather than use multiple venues, as the European Parliament does, he'd prefer to see the Canadian Parliament sitting a half-dozen times a year in a "mobile" House of Commons. It could be easily set up in places like Gander, Summerside, Moncton, Truro, N.S., Trois-Rivières, Thunder Bay, Brandon, Saskatoon, Lethbridge, Alta., Prince George, Whitehorse. . . .

"There wouldn't be any empty seats," he says as he plucks from a plate of fries. "Not with the stands filled with citizens who want to see Parliament in action.

"You'd have better debate. You'd have better speechwriting. You'd have better policy. Do this, and don't worry so much about electoral reform or fixing the Senate."

MacLeod is not simply some wild-eyed nut with little or no sense of how this country is governed. At the moment, in fact, he may understand better than anyone, as he has just completed the first stage of his two-year study into the workings of Canada's constituency offices.

The former Action Canada fellow and current doctoral student at the London School of Economics recently handed in his initial report-- The Low Road to Democratic Reform: Constituency Offices, Public Service Provision and Citizen Engagement --to the Democratic Reform Secretariat of Ottawa's Privy Council Office, and will use his research to finish his thesis in political studies.

He believes, absolutely, that he has learned something about this country that Ottawa politicians need to know.

Driving a battered black Suzuki Sidekick and with a budget of only $7,400, MacLeod set out more than a year ago to learn about the world of constituency offices. He slept an average of four nights a week in his truck, trusted in free meals and managed to reach 97 riding offices from St. John's to Vancouver Island. He was thrown out of only one, in Ontario.

"Canada is a small country," he says, although the Suzuki's transmission would argue otherwise. "We have to get over our geography somehow. We all still act like it's still necessary to board a train in Halifax to get anywhere. Our sensibility is 50 years out of date with reality."

As warmly welcomed in Quebec as he was in Alberta, MacLeod is convinced that Canada is indeed a whole, not just some convenient, or inconvenient, wrapping for the various parts.

"The media and politicians make far too much about the regional differences," he says. "Maybe they do that for their own reasons. But my experience has been that Canadians are pretty much the same right across the country."

He found that constituency offices were a unique and sadly overlooked part of the Canadian political system, places that in most communities are considered "the bureau of last resort, the government's unofficial help desk."

The local offices date from 1968, when New Democrat Ed Broadbent opened one in Oshawa with the help of the auto workers' union. A few years later, Progressive Conservative Flora MacDonald opened one in Kingston. Her 1972 campaign slogan "Keep in touch!" remains, to MacLeod, one that all MPs should follow.

The offices are hardly perfect . Some are hard to find. Some are seen as partisan dens run by relatives of the elected officials. MacLeod found only two relatives of MPs in nearly 100 offices. For the most part, he found the operations helpful and efficient, run almost exclusively by women who are little interested in federal politics, vitally interested in community and willing to work long, difficult hours for a salary of less than $35,000.

"From these travels," MacLeod concluded in his first report, "one lesson is clear: In an age when all politics are personal, meaningful reforms to our democratic institutions require a clear understanding about how people experience politics."

To most Canadians, the young student says, Parliament is essentially an "illusion" of fanciful buildings in a faraway city where matters of no great significance take place. There is a huge "disconnect" between Canadians and their politicians that mystifies him. "How," he asks, "can such a fundamentally decent and generous country have such small politics?"

What he wants is for Parliament to evolve, to reconnect with citizens, to be willing to change and, increasingly, to "put a human face on government." In other words, get in touch as well as keep in touch.

Canada is changing, he says, and political institutions must change as well. The time has come, he says, for a new generation to "rekindle" the imagination of this country.
Otherwise . . . "God help us if, 20 years from now, we're still talking about medicare, NAFTA and softwood lumber."