June 29, 2011

Professional MPs Overseeing a House of Amateurs

By Kyle Crawford

Political commentators often note that Canada lacks a professional political class, and several have recently observed that Canada's Parliament is downright "amateur" compared to those in many other countries.

An analysis of the pre-parliamentary jobs held by the recently elected members of Parliament suggests this is the case: Only 20 per cent of MPs held a political job before being elected. Compare this to the United States, where more than 70 per cent of those in Congress worked in politics before, either as elected officials, party advisers, or staffers.

Canadian Parliament is made up of MPs who were previously doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, cooks, and many other things. While some worked as staffers or local or provincial politicians before, most did not. This means that Canada's MPs bring a much wider range of experiences to Parliament than we'd commonly assume.

However, Canada's MPs look much less amateur when we examine cabinet alone: Thirty-seven per cent of cabinet members pursued a career in politics before entering Parliament – slightly less than double the number for MPs as a whole.

While a U.S. comparison does not make sense here, as U.S. cabinets are not appointed from the ranks of elected representatives, looking to the U.K. and Australia suggests that Canada is still more “amateur” than our fellow parliamentary governments. In fact, 48 per cent of those in British Prime Minister David Cameron's cabinet came from careers in politics, and the same percentage holds true for Australia's cabinet.

That said, it is worth reflecting on whether the imbalance in political experience between the backbench and cabinet in Canada is a problem.

On one hand, it’s not surprising that MPs in cabinet require more political experience, considering they are expected to have a greater level of political acuity than other parliamentarians, and that they must manage sensitive files under greater scrutiny than the average backbencher.  

On the other hand, the skills acquired in other careers, such as management or communications, might serve an MP equally well in a cabinet position. Expertise in a particular field could be an asset to cabinet ministers dealing with certain portfolios. For example, a former physician could bring important front-line experience to a health portfolio.

That said, there are certainly many cabinet ministers whose political experiences line up well with their portfolios. Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty, for instance, served as finance minister when he was in the Ontario Legislature, and Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson used to practise law, and was a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada. 

In many cases, a cabinet position may be filled in such a way as to ensure regional or demographic representation, and experiences that align with a particular portfolio might simply not exist. Unlike in the U.S., where the president can fill roles with whomever he chooses, a Canadian prime minister almost always chooses from MPs who are elected.

While Canadian cabinets must always be composed of people possessing a delicate balance of skills, and considering regional and demographic representation, this analysis suggests that, when cabinet is chosen, political experience is valued very heavily – perhaps at the expense of other kinds of experience.

The concern that we are privileging one form of experience over another was also shared by MPs in Samara’s MP exit interviews. One MP-turned-cabinet-minister said, "There's a lot more talent sitting on the backbenches than sitting in the front row,” adding that those with a long partisan history are usually appointed to cabinet, “whether with the Liberals or the Conservatives."

Another former cabinet minister echoed a similar sentiment, saying, it was "most frustrating" to see "people recognized and rewarded that you know are less competent than other people" who were not appointed.

Several cabinet ministers expressed surprise when their appointments had little to do with their pre-parliamentary knowledge or interests. “When I was appointed to cabinet, [the policy area] came as a complete surprise to me. I didn't see it coming,” one MP said, adding that he had no background in the area.  

Another recounted receiving a call from the Prime Minister’s Office informing her that she’d received an appointment in the justice ministry: “I said, ‘Tell the prime minister to call me back, I didn’t finish law school.’” When the prime minister called, he told the MP that the department had too many lawyers, and that he needed “some practical politicians in there.”

It’s not clear that a cabinet whose members have a greater balance of pre-parliamentary experience would make for a better government. But it seems that a cabinet with greater numbers of career politicians may not always be in the public’s interest. Ministers have the responsibility to help oversee and direct the policies of their departments, and, while MPs who served as mayors, municipal councillors, provincial representatives, or political staffers bring valuable experience, cabinet appointments should also value the skills that an engineer, accountant, economist, or physician would bring to a portfolio.

Appointing a cabinet that leverages the diverse experiences of our parliamentarians in a more systematic way would address the concerns of many of the MPs to whom we spoke, and would create a more balanced and effective cabinet – one more suited to the public challenges our country faces.

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Comments (8) Permanent link to this post



Kirk Zurell

June 29, 2011 00:38 AM

I wonder if this is a long-term trend? Would these numbers have been similar, say, in the middle of the last century?


June 29, 2011 05:07 AM

Kirk, that's a great question and something we were curious about too. However, we haven't collected that data so it's difficult to say.  

However, the Parliament of Canada does have historical info on the careers of MPs if you'd like to explore.



June 30, 2011 01:35 AM

I came across a book today that does take a look at longer-term trends in parliamentary occupations, it is part of the democratic audit series. (www.amazon.com/.../0774810653)

The main finding was that significant changes in the occupations of elected representatives has occurred in both the House of Commons and provincial legislatures.

The largest change is that there are fewer farmers and fishermen among elected representatives today than in the past, which relates to a decrease in the number of farmers and fishermen among Canada's population (Docherty 39-40).

Hope this helps to answer your question Kirk!

Steve Barnes

July 1, 2011 01:56 AM

Really interesting stuff!

I just did some quick number-crunching to work out how Canada compares to another of our sister countries and one that is also considered to have a relatively 'amateur' parliament: New Zealand.

Currently, only 22 percent of New Zealand ministers list prior a political career in their bios, 63 percent have no previous political experience and 15 percent don't say (http://tinyurl.com/2nxwfh). The quirks of the New Zealand proportional representation system mean that not all ministers are members of the cabinet (4 ministers are members of smaller support parties. As ministers outside of cabinet they are not bound by collective responsibility in areas outside of their portfolio, leaving them able to be more effective critics of the larger governing party as required), but the proportion of cabinet ministers who had a previous political career was also small: 26 percent.

When I was doing my master's thesis on political socialization in New Zealand (researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/.../thesis.pdf I found that only 9 percent of MPs listed their LAST occupation as political (this is different to EVER having a political career and it should be noted that a handful of MPs have resigned during this term and been replaced by others). This may suggest that New Zealand MPs who have previous political careers are more likely to become ministers, just like Canada.

In my research I found that only 7 percent of MPs who were first elected at the last general election came directly from a political job. Will this mean that the class of 2008 will be less likely to become ministers as they progress in their political careers? Only time will tell...

Keep up the good work, Samara!

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Unlike in the U.S., where the president can fill roles with whomever he chooses, a Canadian prime minister almost always chooses from MPs who are elected.

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