On the Job with a Member of Parliament
Members of Parliament describe their role in a variety of ways.
"I am first and foremost a representative of the people and accountable to those who elected me," one MP says. Others may see themselves as working for the common good of all Canadians, or perhaps primarily as a law-maker, and still others emphasize their role as government watchdog or a player in partisan politics.
In fact, an MP has many job descriptions, including legislator, negotiator, ombudsman, policy analyst, public speaker, and diplomat.
To perform these duties, Members carve a well-worn trail from the House of Commons Chamber to caucus and committee rooms, and parliamentary and constituency offices.
In the Chamber
Under the eye of the television camera, MPs take their seats in the House of Commons.
For debates in the House, Members draw on the opinions of their constituents, caucus, parliamentary researchers, special-interest groups and regional interests, as well as their own personal convictions. House debates therefore reflect diverse Canadian views. Most debates lead to a vote, whereby MPs vote for or against bills, or to amend them.When Members speak in the House, they have an opportunity to present their constituents’ views. During the daily 45-minute Question Period, MPs can question Cabinet Ministers about government actions, programs and policies. The 15 minutes preceding Question Period are reserved for statements, in which Members can draw attention to subjects of special importance.
During Private Members’ Business, MPs can introduce their own bills and motions, thereby bringing issues to the attention of their colleagues and the public. (Most bills considered in the House are, however, government bills introduced by Ministers.) Private Members’ bills that have become law have addressed a variety of issues. Such initiatives have included: a Users’ Fee Act; an amendment to the Criminal Code’s hate propaganda section to include sexual orientation in the definition of identifiable groups; and Acts to establish Holocaust Memorial Day and a Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medal, to introduce a National Organ Donor Week and to recognize hockey and lacrosse as the national sports of Canada. In addition to the Chamber, MPs’ duties require them to be in committee rooms, parliamentary offices and their constituencies.
Some of MPs’ parliamentary work is done in committee, where they study and amend bills, and examine departmental spending plans (known as Estimates) and other important issues. Committee work requires that Members be familiar with a wide variety of complex issues and hear from experts, including government officials, affected individuals, special-interest groups, business people, academics, and professionals such as lawyers, accountants and economists. There are about 20 permanent or "standing" committees, as well as special and legislative committees set up to consider specific issues and bills. Committees might sit from 6 to 40 hours per week and many travel across the country to hear witnesses. Through committee work, MPs can study issues and legislation in greater detail than is possible in the Chamber. Many Members sit on more than one committee.
Caucus meetings are another part of an MP’s routine. Each party’s national caucus meets weekly in private when the House is in session. MPs (with their colleagues from the Senate) attend to share their constituents’ views, plan parliamentary strategy and help develop caucus positions on subjects being debated in the House. Attendance at caucus meetings is considered so important that the House does not sit on Wednesday mornings to allow these meetings to take place. The regional caucuses of some parties also meet regularly.
The Parliamentary Office
An MP’s typical day includes meetings with the news media, constituents and interest groups. Members receive a budget to hire staff to address constituents’ questions and problems, and to provide research assistance. A mountain of correspondence and telephone messages can pile up in the MP’s parliamentary office in the Nation’s Capital. One Member says she follows up on these matters "before and after the House, especially in the evening when things are quieter and there are fewer interruptions."
The Constituency Office
MPs act as ombudsmen for their constituents, helping them to get visas or passports, or to solve problems concerning immigration, employment insurance, pensions or income tax.
Some Members from large or densely populated constituencies have more than one office. Their time in the constituency gives them a chance to hear their constituents’ ideas and plans and to help with their problems.
Work in the constituency also involves social and political obligations. MPs must attend various activities, from celebrations and funerals to community meetings and opening ceremonies. They usually take the opportunity to speak to local news media while in the constituency as well.
"You have to love people and have an iron constitution to effectively meet the demands of the constituency office," one veteran MP confessed.
In the midst of all this activity, MPs try to find time for themselves and their families. Many maintain a residence in the Nation’s Capital in addition to one in the constituency that elected them. For MPs from British Columbia or Newfoundland, for example, the distance between the parliamentary office and their home in the constituency is long, perhaps involving several plane connections and hours in a car. The time MPs spend travelling from one place to another, added to an already full schedule, leaves them very little personal time.
From an MP’s Perspective
In their work, Members must make decisions on national issues, meet many people with many concerns and study complex subjects. "You have to believe you can improve the country’s situation," one MP says. "If I have settled a problem for my constituents, I feel useful, I feel I have accomplished something important."