NDP satellite offices and expanding the definition of “parliamentary” work

Thomas-Mulcair

After Thomas Mulcair’s too-cute-by-half appearance at the Procedure and House Affairs committee, and the other explanations offered by NDP MPs and “strategists” over the course of the week, it becomes clear that the definition of what constitutes “parliamentary work” is very much at the heart of the dispute around these “satellite offices.”  It’s a definition that has been creeping outward to encompass a great many things, and it’s what the NDP has been counting on to justify this move.

Throughout their defence of the creation of these “regional” offices was a reminder that it was NDP MP Ed Broadbent and Progressive Conservative MP Flora MacDonald that first opened up constituency offices, with outside aid, in 1968.  In the time since, these offices have seen the expansion of an MP’s perceived role from their actual duties of holding government to account by controlling the public purse and examining the estimates, to this kind of ombudsman role of helping people navigate the civil service.  Even there, this has led to some alarming developments, as there are constituency staffers who are now working full-time on immigration files and some of those staffers are claiming that the department won’t even look at some files until the MP’s office forwards it.  If that doesn’t raise a huge red flag about the state of the system and the likely repercussions, then you’re not paying enough attention.

The NDP have declared that they were being “creative” in the creation of these offices, and that they always followed the rules, despite some dispute in the back-and-forth between the Clerk of the Commons and the administration offices.  But setting that aside, the duties for which they ascribed that these “parliamentary” offices were doing sound pretty dubious at best.  At committee, Mulcair said that they were generating communications materials – particularly in French, where there was a need – and engaging in stakeholder relations.  On Power & Politics earlier in the week, Peter Julian cited the party’s “Roll Up the Red Carpet” campaign as an example of the “parliamentary” work that these offices were engaged in, as well as coordinating events.

The problem is that campaigns like “Roll Up the Red Carpet” have nothing to do with parliamentary business and instead are party activities that are focused primarily on data mining to fill in the party’s voter identification database.  That is absolutely not parliamentary business.  As for the creation and dissemination of press releases and coordinating media events, it points to the increasing level of centralization that the NDP has imposed upon their MPs – not unsurprisingly, given the “Orange Crush” and the fact that some fifty-eight MPs were plucked from obscurity who were completely untested, many of whom hadn’t even campaigned in the election.  That the caucus would have to put them on some kind of lockdown and take special measures with them initially until they could get up to speed was understandable – but that they need to maintain this heavy, centralizing hand three years later begins to make one question the actual autonomy of any of their MPs and their ability to speak for themselves.

Which brings us to “stakeholder relations.”  One of the things about the way our system of parliamentary democracy is supposed to work is the way in which there is a dialogue between the local grassroots riding associations and the parliamentary caucus.  The riding association is supposed to engage with the community, and bring forward the concerns that they have to the parliamentary party so that the appropriate critics or ministers can address them.  The role of the grassroots party is to act as that interlocutor.  There should be no need for additional “satellite offices” if there are robust enough riding associations, and if they don’t exist, then it should be incumbent upon the party to do that hard work on the ground to establish them.  And with that it mind, it seems like these satellite offices are trying to be a creative work-around for the lack of those riding associations in Quebec, where many of them were moribund as was reported on during and after the 2011 election, and to simply call the work “parliamentary,” as much of a stretch as that is.

The other excuse that Mulcair trotted out during his defence was that ministerial offices expanded in the regions and that the PMO got a budget increase while MP’s offices got a budget cut – which I do seem to recall all parties agreeing to as “common sense” during a time of fiscal restraint.  The big problem with that line of logic is that the Leader of the Official Opposition is not a minister, has no ministerial role, and correspondingly, is not awarded a ministerial budget or need for regional staff.  The role of the Leader of the Opposition is very much a parliamentary one – to be in Parliament to both hold the government to account, and to ensure that the Queen – by way of the Governor General – is presented with another option to form a government in the event that the current one can no longer maintain the confidence of the chamber.  Absolutely none of this has to do with “stakeholder relations” and “being on the ground” around the country.  It’s a conflation of the role with that of the party leader, and it’s pretty self-aggrandizing to equate that role with that of a minister of the Crown.

All of the clever ways of talking around the rules and trying to blame the other parties for being partisan aside – as though the NDP would never stoop to such lows themselves – we need a reality check when it comes to what an MP’s job is supposed to be. Attempts to claim a much more grandiose vision of said role may serve to justify this particular overreach, or to make MPs feel like they’re helping people, but it doesn’t change the reality of that job – one that most of them aren’t actually doing, to the detriment of our democratic system.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

Showing up for QP
Mandates and the names on the ballot
Make parliament more “efficient” for MPs
We don’t need MPs in short pants

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

 

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