Dr. Kelly Blidook, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Memorial University, has written a new book called Constituency Influence in Parliament: Countering the Centre, which is available for purchase from UBC Press here. This book “examines the rules and conduct of Private Members’ Business [PMB] to assess the complex relationship between constituency representation and policy proposals. In contrast with most literature on Canadian politics, Blidook resurrects the relevance of Canada’s Parliament by examining what MPs do, why they do it, and what effect it has.”
Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Blidook about his book via email in March and April 2013.
Alcantara: Why did you decide to write a book on this topic?
Blidook: Well, of course, it just began as a research project. I guess I decided to pursue the research project because I was interested in both (1) understanding all the things that MPs do that we pay little attention to (PMB being only one such thing, but kind of a big thing) and (2) whether there is actually a meaningful link between constituent and MP. I like Parliament, and I found a lot of the research on it simply didn’t tell me much about these things, so the end result – sort of by opportunity and by luck – came out of digging at it in my own way for awhile.
As far as turning it into a book goes … it seemed a shame after years of work to only have 5 people read about it, when it could be turned into a book with an academic press so that 20 people could read about it. Plus my parents like it better as a book.
Alcantara: It’s so true! Academics seem to prefer journal articles for some reason, but parents and friends (and the general public!) like books! I think our parents and friends, at least, like being able to search for our books on amazon.ca or in the bookstore. So how did you decide to approach this topic, both in terms of theory and method?
Blidook: I basically wanted to tell a comparative story about the Canadian case. I started collecting the data early in the project because I assumed it would be valuable to dig deeply into, and I was given the time and money to do so. It was both an inductive and deductive process – they usually are if they are presented as deductive. I did assume early on that, other things being equal, all elected members have similar motivations and, given similar electoral systems, there should be a relatively consistent behaviour.
So it became an institutional rational choice framework, within which I used a large-n quantitative approach to determine what MPs were doing and how much effect it had. But really, it was adding in the qualitative interviews that made the project both tolerable and readable. Talking to people really does wonders.
Sorry, I get pretty caught up in the whole “method” thing. I’m increasingly amazed by how the most important rules of methods are not “rules”, but are about communicating a convincing story to the most important audience.
Alcantara: So what did you find? Did MPs share similar motivations? If so, did they share similar motivations prior to coming to Parliament? Or did the institutional environment of Parliament force a convergence?
Blidook: Well, I can’t speak much to the pre-Parliament aspects. The work really deals with the House of Commons, our electoral system, and how they shape behaviour. But, yes, MPs tend to act in “predictable” ways, in that they pursue symbolic actions to represent localized interests when electoral factors are a primary concern, and they appear to pursue more policy-oriented actions when they are able to focus less on the next election (and as a side-note to the latter – those actions do appear to matter in terms of overall policy-making). So to answer your question directly, the SMP electoral system leads to behavioural patterns that we see in other systems as well. But when you say it like that in a single sentence it sounds boring — reading about that sentence as an entire book is … not … boring.
Alcantara: So it’s the electoral system rather than the other institutional forces relating to Parliament and parties that is determinative of MP behaviour?
Blidook: Oh, sure … I’m glad you got me to clarify because it’s obviously not so simple. My story is meant to offset the common narratives by pointing to things that have been missed about Parliament, which are either due to the size of our radar screen or the perspective we’ve been looking from. But of course – political parties, executive dominance, the confidence principle, etc. – those things are all extremely important and they appear to account for the vast majority of MP behaviour. But their importance has, I think, been overstated to the point where the common view of Parliament is one where individual MPs don’t matter. My story is about how they do matter. Those big factors we are all aware of are not the only factors, and the ‘trained seal’ is not the only form of behaviour.
Alcantara: In what ways can MPs have a meaningful influence? And how are they able to exert that influence? The common assumption, as you say, is that MPs are “trained seals” that only exercise any real independence at the constituency level. Is that assumption wrong? If so, where does that power come from?
Blidook: Well, last week an opposition MP got the House to pass a bill instituting transgender rights, while the Prime Minister voted against transgender rights. Think about that.
The power question is a great one that I’m starting to answer in a bit more detailed manner now than I did in the book. I honestly think a lot of researchers in Canada have not really tried to understand it. I hear people say things like “MPs only have power if their party leader (or the Prime Minister) gives it to them.” Political scientists will actually argue that MPs (1) lack power, and (2) exercise power. I completely disagree that those two statements are compatible. What I know of power suggests that people try to attain power, and exercise it only if they attain it. However, if someone wants to work “giving away power on whims” into a plausible theory of power, I’ll listen to what they come up with. I’ll probably have questions.
So with that on the table, I’d say MPs exercise the amount of power that they actually have, and this amount is due primarily to the institutional structure, and their individual abilities to maximize that power. When MPs are supressed on one issue, they speak out on another. When an MP threatens to cross the floor, the leader often makes some concession to get them not to. If a group of MPs show they are uncomfortable, the party leader needs to decide whether to do something to keep those MPs happy or risk them doing something that could hurt the party or leader.
Sure, the power of each individual is quite small, but we’ve been treating it as though it is negligible for a long time, and there is unmistakable evidence that it isn’t negligible. So I think we need to stop describing power in simplistic and vague ways, and start looking at it closely, theorizing about it carefully, and determining more effectively who has it and how much.
This has been a long answer, I’m sorry. The last part I wanted to speak to was the specific form of power that the book talks about on policy impacts. MPs used to have very little opportunity to pass Private Members’ Business due to limits on the number of votable items and committee vetting, but over the Mulroney and Chrétien years MPs pushed for changes to the rules, and by the end of Chrétien’s PMship, each MP had an equal opportunity to have his/her item debated via a lottery and every item was made votable by default. This ultimately meant a lot of issues and policies could end up on the House floor and be voted upon, whereas in the past those items had to clear a lot of hurdles. That is a significant institutional change, and one that the executive had to take notice of because it would be charged with carrying out statutes that were passed. It had, I argue, some very significant ramifications. So basically we saw small rule changes that had notable implications for power distribution. MPs gained a small amount of it.
Alcantara: I agree with you on the power issue. Sometimes, it seems, we tend to gloss over concepts in favour of getting right to the presentation of our cool new theory, method, or result, yet I’ve always believed that concepts are the foundation on which all research rests. Bad concepts, usually means bad research, regardless of one’s theory, method, or results.
On the issue of MP power, isn’t it very much a fluid thing, though? Much depends, doesn’t it, on the personality of party leaders, rather than institutional structures? In the case of votable items and committee vetting for instance, it sounds like institutions are less important compared to the agency of MPs and leaders?
Blidook: It is certainly fluid, and it has fluctuated over time. Of course, this interview has taken place over a couple weeks now, and a few events over that period – the transgender rights vote, the committee deeming the abortion motion unvotable, the MPs complaining about being muzzled – have caused me to have a slightly different view of the power distribution than when we started. Power is in play in all these decisions, and it usually comes down to individuals making choices that could have longer term effects. Different leaders will, of course, make different decisions and be more of less successful based upon how those play out.
In turn, the institutions provide incentives and limitations. Realistically, agency affects intuitions and vice versa, and the distinction between both is blurry. But the point is that nobody holds a limitless, or a constant, amount of power. The amount of power anybody does hold is facilitated by past decisions and the institutional structures that have resulted. As long as we keep a SMP electoral system, and as long as parties don’t figure out how to run nameless, faceless avatars as their local candidates (though I’ve heard this concept might already be at an advanced stage behind the scenes), then MPs will have connections to small geographic regions that they depend upon for electoral survival.
That will inevitably have an effect on their behaviours. And as long as MPs have an element of freedom to express themselves or pursue policies in venues like PMB and SO31s member statements (this freedom has changed a good deal in the recent past), then those are venues where they will pursue individual interests. If those “safety valves” get plugged up or closed off, you’ll see the pressure released through other means, because the design creates it. Where and when it happens though will be the result of leaders and individuals doing things their own way.
Alcantara: Sounds like an interesting book! What are you working on next?
Blidook: I’m glad you think so – obviously I like it, but I’ve probably lost a bit of perspective in that area. The next book project is a broader look at power distribution – I guess I’ve already been talking about it in this interview a bit. The idea behind it is what I call “Party Creep” – which has two meanings. First, despite the ever changing balance of power between individuals and parties, parties have clearly crept into domains that were not theirs to begin with. This is partly due to individuals innovating to determine what they can accomplish in parliament, at which point parties – which are better equipped to attain and exercise that power – begin to capitalize on that innovation. Second, the fact that parties have done so is kind of creepy – or ‘cause for concern’. I was thinking of a “Goosebumps” themed cover when I first came up with it, but with zombies being popular right now, I can’t think of a better parallel than hoards of MPs with dark eyes closing in on a lone living MP who just wants to give his/her own personal SO31 statement. “Brains! Brains!” Anyway, maybe I should write it before I get too excited about a cover.
It was great to get to chat about all this. I really appreciate the opportunity. Thanks so much Chris.