Chretien – On The Party MP – Theory vs. Reality

Jean Chretien wrote his first political biography in 1985. It is an interesting book with interesting insights into the political process as he understood it in 1985. He foresaw the erosion of the relevance of individual MPs in the context of party politics.


“Parliament has lost some of its relevance because the media have made elections more presidential than parliamentary. The classic notion of a parliamentary election is that 282 individuals are elected to represent their ridings. In theory, the people of Shawinigan vote for Jean Chretien, who just happens to be a Liberal. Tomorrow, I could become a Tory or an independent or a Communist and I would not have to resign my seat. Again, in theory, elected individuals gather in an assembly, select a speaker as a referee, and form alliances according to policies. Gradually a cabinet and a prime minister emerge. That is the traditional British system, which began when the nobles used to come together to resolve the problems of the nation.

More and more, however, perhaps because of the nature of the media and Canada’s proximity to the American presidential system, elections are fought among party leaders. In a sweep such as the Tory victory in 1984, good members are swept out with the same broom as bad ones, while bad ones are carried on the coattails of the victorious party. So the work, personality, and intelligence of MPs counts less and less in the riding campaigns. In my judgment no more than 50 MPs make a personal difference in the outcome of their elections. The rest tend to rely on the appeal of their leader and the luck of belonging to the winning party. The risk is that MPs will become ore marginal, more expendable, and at the mercy of the leadership. Certainly fewer back-benchers will be prepared to give their leaders frank advice or tell them to go to hell if they know they can be replaced.

There is a danger for our system because we don’t have the same checks and balances that are built into the American presidency. I prefer Canada’s parliamentary system, but I see a problem in its evolution if too many people become dependent on the will and popularity of the leaders. That is happening largely because the personalities of a few people have usurped the normal political debate in the media.”

Chretien – Straight From The Heart – page 44 –