Saturday, 2 April 2011

MPs and Constituency Service in Canada

It is well known that we Canadians do not generally think highly of our politicians. And, watching coverage of this election campaign and the shenanigans of Parliament's daily Question Period, it's easy to understand why that's the case.

But the bravado and conflict that make up coverage of election campaigns and the day-to-day workings of Parliament obscure another type of important work that Canadian MPs perform: constituency service. Politicians maintain constituency offices and staff so that they can respond to requests for help on a range of issues. In urban ridings, for example, MPs and their staff respond to many requests for assistance on immigration and citizenship issues; for example, one Toronto MP has a staff member who works full-time on these issues. Other MPs provide assistance navigating government regulations, on taxes, for example. You might have even turned to MPs and their staff for assistance in the past.

MPs put a lot of effort into this "social worker" function of their job because, while they're not sure that doing so helps them get re-elected, they are sure that failing to help out constituents can hurt when they run for office again. But that's not the only reason that MPs put so much effort into helping constituents. In his book Mr. Smith Goes to Ottawa, David Docherty reported from interviews that MPs put effort into service because they think that this is the most rewarding aspect of the job. In other words, MPs like to help people in need (more than they like sitting in the House of Commons yelling at each other), and they put alot of effort into doing so.

When MPs and their staff focus on a particular problem, they can make a real difference in the lives of ordinary Canadians. Anecdotes always help drive these points home. Mitchel Raphael has an exceptionally persuasive account (it's only a paragraph long), starring Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan with Conservative Jason Kenney in a supporting role.

It's tough to dislike all politicians after reading accounts like this. This is especially true when you consider that less dramatic but similar scenarios play out every single day in riding offices across Canada. Maybe in this campaign it's time for us to spend less time paying attention to Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff double-dog-daring one another to debates, and more attention to the candidates in our ridings that are going to be playing important service roles after the election (and the debates) are over.

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