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College Quarterly
Winter 2014 - Volume 17 Number 1
Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy
Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan
Toronto: Random House Canada, 2014
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Although everyone’s life is determined or at least circumscribed by economic control and by political authority, it is one of the huge achievements of “late capitalism” that the people who suffer most at the hands the various ruling classes also display a remarkable indifference toward both economics and politics. Despite dramatic displays of dissent often described as outbreaks of “populism” and notwithstanding occasionally disturbing instances of religious intolerance and racism, the tendency in most liberal democracies is to defer―albeit sullenly―to existent powers and to deflect resentments to manageable levels of domestic violence, substance abuse and professional sports enthusiasms where political concerns can be privatized and enacted without giving life to larger public consideration.

The potency of the combined strength of private corporations and the state are understood and accepted (or at least endured) as the dominant factors in social life. Though there is scepticism about their role, some corporations are said to be “too big to fail” and their leaders “too rich to jail.” Likewise, there is a kind of intellectual and emotional malaise that contributes to the “democratic deficit” as citizens express disillusionment and frustration with their elected leaders, all the while declining to engage in redemptive public dissent. So, while the majority of people congratulate themselves on their commitment to democracy, active public participation is sometimes discouraging and is, in fact, discouraged by precisely those institutions that might sensibly be thought to support it. For example, the Government of Canada has been attempting to prevent the country’s Chief Electoral Officer from discussing democracy in public (Maher, 2014, February 11); moreover, it is actively seeking to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters by insisting on new “voter identification” rules (Maher, 2014, February 10). Such measures may not sink to the level of unconstitutional voter suppression, but there can be little doubt that the prospect of robust debate brings no joy to the hearts and minds of elected officials eager to keep their positions and reluctant to have too many open conversations about what is done behind closed doors. So, political campaigns are reduced to image-tampering and slogan-mongering and everyone agrees that the heat of the race precludes serious discussion or serious issues.

Apathy is not limited to the aspirant members of the middle class who show up in college classrooms and are likely to disdain political participation. Even as they try to fend off debt, balance home, work and school, and endure the habitual anxieties that come with striving for academic success, one of the best ways to ensure low enrolment in, for example, liberal arts courses is to locate them in the categories of Economics or Political Science. Similar topics―material wealth and governmental authority―can be discussed at length in courses in Sociology, Anthropology, History or even Philosophy and Psychology without permanent harm being done to any of the participants; yet, the mere labels of politics and economics elicit rolled eyes and yawns of boredom from many young people. Lost on them is the apparent discontinuity between their sincere concerns about economic security, social injustice at home, poverty and war abroad and environmental degradation everywhere on the one hand and their manifest refusal to learn about the institutions, structures, processes and strategies that might actually accomplish desired reform on the other. They do not entirely lack the “idealism of youth,” but they are not inclined to work within established systems to turn their progressive values into reality.

Comparing contemporary college students to those of previous generations, it is easy to overestimate the enthusiasm and effectiveness of their predecessors a half-century ago, when at least a noisy minority of young people were nothing if not ready to criticize and confront the “establishment.” I must be quick to add that the evidence of the “democratic deficit” as measured in voting statistics is not confined to people between the ages of 18 and 24; nevertheless, as the rates of voter turn-out uniformly show, alienation, apathy or even anomie (call it what you will) is deepest among young people―especially among poor and marginalized young people who should have the most to gain from active civic engagement even at the minimal level of stuffing a piece of paper in a ballot box. It is, therefore, the greatest victory of the powerful over the powerless to persuade the ruled that it’s a waste of time to vote the rulers out of office. By conceding that “you can’t fight City Hall,” it follows that City Hall wins without a fight.

There is, it must be said, no dearth of competent and concerned citizens who are eager to encourage the simple act of voting. For example, together with a local newspaper editor, leaders of various community and cultural organizations and a college teacher or two, I am currently engaged in a project which has, as its modest goal, increasing voter turn-out in my town’s forthcoming municipal election to a whopping 50%. Try as we might, however, I will not be surprised if we will fail―or, rather, if the community fails itself. That will be a shame, for, unlike political scientists and other revisionist democrats of fifty or sixty years ago, I do not see lethargy and indifference as measures of contentment, nor do I fear that voting rates of 60%, 70% or 80% betoken public outrage and discontent, the breakdown of law and order and a return to the political extremism that led to various totalitarianisms in the twentieth century.

Political democracy, I believe, is or ought to be not an onerous burden nor an exercise in self-interested calculation; instead, I think of politics as an invitation to civility and community solidarity. My opinion, I readily admit, is not popular and may even be what cynics call “idealistic.” I make no apology.

There are others like myself who are discomfited. A few of them have gathered together under the name of The Samara Foundation and are engaged in a bustling little industry, the expressed purpose of which is to poke and prod people until they finally awaken to their democratic duties. In the process, they have made an impact on local television, where their most prominent member, Alison Loat, has been a frequently featured guest on political chat shows. Samara bills itself as a non-partisan charitable organization that works to improve political participation in Canada. Samara conducts research, publishes reports, and assists educators in teaching about Canadian democracy. Tragedy in the Commons is its most recent publishing venture.

From my point of view, there are only a handful of online public affairs blogs which rival Judy Rebick’s <>. If I were ever to do anything worthy of note, an endorsement from that source would, as they say, make my day. Samara can therefore be proud. Of Tragedy in the Commons, rabble says that it’s “an important book that aims to salvage a system that seems destined to remain as it is: broken.”

The breakdown comes in the form of a divide between the issues that Canadians care about and the activities that occur on Parliament Hill. The gap is, of course, promoted by the mass media, which never tire of assuring themselves and the political leadership that this or that issue doesn’t have “traction” or “legs” enough to interest a distracted electorate. When, as happens more and more often, governments behave in a constitutionally dubious manner, the provocations are explained as arcane, complicated, technical and therefore of limited interest unless, of course, someone can be accused of possible financial malfeasance.

Similarly, when honoured democratic traditions are thwarted or some dedicated public servant is humiliated for bringing embarrassing facts to light, the common retort is that Canadians will forget about it in a week or two and that the authorities need not be concerned. In taking over at least a part of the educative function from the media and, of course, from elementary and secondary schools which have pretty much abandoned the teaching of Canadian history and civics except as an occasionally recommended option, Samara is plainly performing a public service.

In making a fuss, not about particular issues, but about the political process in general, Samara delivers research reports that are available online at <http://www/>. In their book, as in their other productions, the authors allow little sugar coating. Our erstwhile reporters managed to win interviews with eighty exiting Members of Parliament and to ask them about their perceptions as they departed the corridors of power (whether or not they ever seemed to exercise any influence on their own). The questions that Loat and MacMillan ask are neither particularly profound nor especially penetrating. That, however, is pretty much as it should be in a work such as this. It isn’t all about the author/interviewers or even about the controversial issues that separate the partisans from one another. It’s about the lived experience of being an M.P.

Loat and MacMillan do, however, have an agenda, though it is well-veiled and difficult to parse. They are not happy and they are not interested in making others happy with the state of democratic life in Canada. As rabble nicely captured it: “the book is a real downer. If the authors of this book intended to inspire hope in our political future, they’ve failed miserably. However, if the authors are simply hoping to alert us to the sorry state of our democracy, then kudos to them.”

As for the Samara agenda, there is a disturbingly undemocratic sub-text. An enduring theme in Samara’s narrative is that Members of Parliament are ill-prepared for their work. Most enter politics for noble causes. They are not, generally speaking, the avaricious, power-hungry connivers that the electorate chooses to see when it can be tempted to take an interest. Some are undoubtedly narcissistic and more than one psychologist has speculated that a peculiar type of sociopathy is inherent in the mere desire to enter public life. An all-consuming egotism, self-righteous disregard for the opinions of others and a willingness to sacrifice long-held principles for short-term advantages certainly help in some cases―especially among those who deem themselves predestined for leadership. Nonetheless, Tragedy in the Commons paints a different picture. It reveals that good-hearted women and men run for public office because they genuinely want to serve the public. The “tragedy” is that, when they arrive on Parliament Hill, they are disoriented, confused, manipulated and bullied into being what former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously called a “bunch of nobodies.”

Rather than reconceptualize politics in a way that empowers the electors and the elected alike, however, Loat and MacMillan seem more interested is reconceiving parliament as a “business” in which each representative must be provided with a “job description” and instructed about how to perform their tasks efficiently and effectively. I understand that a kind of orientation program and an annotated organization chart might make the government run more smoothly and I can certainly appreciate the palpable disgust that is expressed about Question Period, a rival for the old television series, “The Goon Show.” But there are problems.

The kind of reforms recommended by Samara turn Parliament from a tragedy to a comedy (in the very best sense of the term) sound appealing. Loosening up party discipline, providing closer connections between MPs and their constituents, wresting power away from the Prime Minister’s Office and so on are very attractive proposals. Even the extended use of technology in providing voters with instantaneous reports on their Member’s voting record, spending, etc. seems reasonable in terms of contributing to transparency and accountability.

I am, however, less convinced that changing the floor plan and seating arrangements so that party members are dispersed and compelled to be civil to their neighbouring rivals matters much. And, I am quite sure that turning Parliament into a travelling road show so that it meets in various places and gets closer to the people is not about to help the cause

Overall, I become sceptical when anyone mentions making politics more businesslike and worries excessively about matters of rudeness and incivility. It’s not that I am content with matters as they stand; but, it’s the rights of parliament that need to be protected before we spend too much time decentralizing the process. Underlying the Samara approach, I detect a corporate preference for the appearance of civility, silkiness, control and cost-effectiveness; politics, however, cannot be like that. It is about conflict and contrast. This doesn’t mean that principled opponents cannot respect the rules of parliamentary procedure and the constitution that stands behind them; in fact, parliament cannot (as we have recently seen) function if the core principles of democracy are regularly flaunted. On the other hand, as long as structural cleavages exist separating people on issues of ideology and interest, I fear that changes that work to promote cooperation may have unanticipated anti-democratic effects.


Maher, S. (2014, February 10). Fair Elections Act’s change to ‘vouching’ for voters without ID could be unconstitutional, critics say. Retrieved February 10, 2014 from

Maher, S. (2014, February 11). Pierre Poilievre backs down on provision that critics said muzzled chief electoral officer. Retrieved February 11, 2014 from

Howard A. Doughty teaches Political Economy and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at