On their worst behaviour

Journalists know that many people act differently when they’re being interviewed, especially on camera Here’s the eye-brow raising part: When in front of the bright lights, politicians aren’t on their best, as you might guess, but their nastiest.

According to a recently-released study from Samara, a charitable organization that studies citizen engagement with Canadian democracy, many MPs are red-faced about their public displays and insist it’s not the real deal:

“MPs claimed to be embarrassed by the public displays of politics in the House of Commons, saying  they misrepresented their work. Many blamed this behaviour for contributing to a growing sense of political disbelief among Canadians. They were frustrated with the public performance of the parties, and said it led them to pruse their goals elsewhere, away from the public and media gaze.”

The study, dubbed “It’s My Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered”, is the third in a series exploring political leadership in Canada. For the study, Samara interviewed 65 former Parliamentarians (with an average of 10 years experience) who recently left public office.

“The MPs told us that the politics most commonly seen by the public — that which took place on the floor of the House of Commons — did little to advance anything constructive,” write the report’s authors. This, they add, presents some serious questions for Canadian democracy, and, more importantly for the media, our ability to engage with it.

“After all,” reads the report, “how are Canadians to observe and understand the work of their elected representatives — to say nothing of their ability to hold them accountable — if all the ‘real work’ is done away from the public gaze? And if the MPs were so embarrassed by the behaviour on display in the House of Commons, why didn’t they do something about it?”

In other words, if they know the camera is on them, and the record button is switched on, and that the average Canadian is frustrated with bull-dog behaviour, why do politicians still act like they’re foaming at the mouth?

Well, first off, they don’t see themselves as the problem: those interviewed distanced themselves from their colleagues and their profession.

“The second reason why MPs did so little to change a political culture they so routinely criticized is that there were few incentives to do so,” adds the report. “The animosity on display during Question Period is so entrenched in party behaviour that it persists, despite the damage it does to individuals and to the wider public good.”

Instead, politicians save the civil behaviour for committee proceedings — which are usually public, but rarely covered by the media — and caucus meetings, which are private. Admittedly, caucus meetings can sometimes fall prey to the same media behaviour filter.

According to one MP interviewed by Samara:

“You discuss, and discuss, and discuss, but there’s no consensus. But the leader has to leave the for the media scrum … and so he would say, ‘We’re going to make a consensus on this, this, and this. All agreed?’ We didn’t have the time to discuss it. And that’s consensus.”

But committee meetings, say MPs, can become a bastion of “collegiality and constructive debate.” And politicians fully recognize that’s because the media isn’t there to pay attention.

According to another MP who was interviewed:

“You televise a committee and you get the same nonsense; you don’t get the usual members of the committee. Parties substitute their hitters to come into the committee when it’s a televised committee, as opposed to the people who are there normally, doing the work.”

Kind of reminds one of the age-old question: If a tree falls …