June 13, 2010

Introducing The Accidental Citizen?

By Alison Loat

We are pleased to share the introductory report of Canada's first-ever series of exit interviews with former Members of Parliament.

It's called The Accidental Citizen?, and it sets the stage for a larger series of publications that will share the stories of the MPs who participated in the exit interviews. The title reflects the varied, and often unexpected, ways so many MPs described their journeys to public life.  For example:

  • Most MPs said they did not plan for a political life.  Their backgrounds and motivations were varied and, contrary to stereotypes, MPs are not just lawyers and political scientists.
  • Nearly all said they were asked to run for office - a request they described as unexpected.
  • Most defined themselves as being outside the established mainstream, despite deep community involvement. Most described coming to Parliament feeling like an outsider.
  • The nomination process was a black box: confusing and untransparent. Many MPs described the experience negatively, and they were the ones who were successful.

It is surprising that those who described themselves as "outsiders" were so intimately involved in their communities, and that so many of these MPs claimed not to have actively considered public life before running.

More than anything, these narratives may be telling observations on our political culture. Perhaps our politics attracts underdogs, or maybe we, as citizens, feel more comfortable defining ourselves that way. They may also suggest that politics is something for which it's inappropriate to admit ambition, even after the fact. If that is the case, it's no wonder that people don't always think about politics, or claim to stumble into it so accidentally. If that is so, it's quite a comment on the state of political leadership in Canada.

You can learn more about the project here.  We hope you will read the report, and pass it on to others who are interested in political leadership or public policy, here or abroad. 

We also hope you'll share your overall reactions below, as well as your comments on a few of the questions the report raised for us, including questions on:

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June 15, 2010 19:39 PM

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June 15, 2010 23:40 PM

I generally enjoyed this report. Here are two ways I think it could have been better.

1. Mixing quantitative analysis with your qualitative results. Is your sample representative of the current or historical sets of MPs? How do their claims match up against quantitative studies of the same issues? Your conclusion page, in particular, makes some very sweeping claims that should be backed up with, or at least compared to, data.

2. Showing a little more skepticism in documenting the MPs self-narratives. At some points you do acknowledge how MPs may feel pressure to describe themselves in certain ways, but I'd like to see some stronger pushback, such as "All the MPs describe themselves as outsiders, yet a large portion had two university degrees, meaning they came from the highest educated part of the population." Or, excerpts from how MPs themselves handled this kind of questioning ("You say you never thought of having a political career, but you were president of your students' union -- how do you reconcile that?").

Alison Loat

June 16, 2010 00:59 AM

Thanks so much for your comment.  

1. On research methods: I've pasted a link below where I've explained a bit about mixing quantitative and qualitative research.   Above all, I'd be delighted if young researchers were provoked by some of these questions and were willing to look into them more.


It's also worth noting that there is a significant amount of "survey fatigue" among MPs (and lots of other people too), and our partners at the Cdn Association of Former Parliamentarians, who introduced us to the MPs originally, were much more excited about the approach we took.

2. On your outsider comment: The reason we titled this "The Accidental Citizen?" - with the question mark - is because we think a few of the narratives warrant some reflection.

Both "the ask" and "the outsider" - two very dominant themes in the interviews - say, I think,more about our political culture than anything else. Whether they were asked or not, whether they felt like outsiders or not.... we'll never know for sure, but it is how so many of the MPs told their stories. I'll quote from our report on this point, because I think your comment may ultimately be at the heart of all this:

"In essence, from this narrative a clear paradox emerges. It is ironic that those who consistently describe themselves as outsiders have, in fact, been intimately involved in the lives of their communities. More than anything, this is perhaps best viewed as an observation on our political culture. Perhaps our politics attract the underdogs or people from outside the mainstream, or maybe it’s more that we, as citizens, feel more comfortable defining ourselves that way.

This paradox may also highlight the fact that politics has become something for which it’s inappropriate and even uncouth to acknowledge interest or ambition, even after the fact. If that is, in fact, the case, it’s no wonder that people don’t consider public life, or claim to stumble into it so accidentally."

Seo service

March 21, 2012 09:00 AM

One of the most eagerly anticipated exercises in Canadian civics research has been released. Entitled The Accidental Citizen, it’s a report on a series of exit interviews with former MPs, and was conducted by Michael MacMillan and Alison Loat at Samara. Alison was on The Current this morning, you can stream or podcast it from the CBC site if you missed it.

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