The House: The meaning of Ruth Ellen Brosseau

What precisely is the problem here?

Content image

We return to our periodic series on the House of Commons. This time to consider the case of Ruth Ellen Brosseau.

For the record, in the election just completed 22,403 eligible voters in the riding of Berthier-Maskinonge marked a ballot in favour of Ruth Ellen Brosseau. Those 22,403 votes were more than any of the other five eligible candidates in that riding received. As a result, Ms. Brosseau, like the other 307 individuals who officially registered as candidates and subsequently received the highest number of votes in their respective ridings, is lawfully entitled to take a seat in the House of Commons.

That much is fairly indisputable.

So what precisely is the problem here?

The 22,403 people who voted for her did not have to do so. As it seems she did absolutely no campaigning on her own behalf, it can be argued that she didn’t even ask for their support. Aside from a name on a ballot and a website, she made no public appeal. Her absenteeism—or at least her mid-campaign trip to Las Vegas—was public knowledge before May 2. If the registered voters of Berthier-Maskinonge did not wish to send her to Ottawa as their federal representative, they had five other options. If they were so intent on voting for the NDP, they at least knew full well—or should have known full well—the choice they were making.

To put this another way: what, for the sake of argument, is the difference between Ruth Ellen Brosseau and the dozens of candidates who avoided public debates or media interviews during this election?

Ms. Brosseau willingly put her name forward as the NDP candidate in a riding the NDP has never won. Her predecessor in Berthier-Maskinonge finished fourth—19,000 votes behind the winner—and spent just $1,358 on his campaign. Ms. Brosseau had, at the outset, almost no reasonable prospect of winning and, as noted, did nothing to improve her chances. One imagines that if the NDP had seen some reasonable expectation of victory in the riding, it would have found a more obviously qualified and committed candidate. And there seems to be some agreement that all parties allocate their candidates and resources depending on their chances of victory in particular ridings—ie. the major parties do not mount full (or at least equal) campaigns in all 308 ridings, but focus instead on the ridings they think they have the best chances of winning. Whether or not there are any candidates who failed even to visit their respective ridings, there are surely more than a few who mounted half-hearted or inadequate campaigns. The only difference is that Ms. Brosseau, quite inadvertently, won.

Is that better or worse than the various candidates who, counting on a riding’s traditional support for a particular party, avoided public forums and the like, comfortable in the knowledge that they would likely win anyway? Which is preferable: not bothering because you expect to lose or not bothering because you expect to win? Which more offensively mocks our democratic process?

At the very least, it’s a debatable distinction. Ultimately, Ms. Brosseau is simply getting more attention right now because her situation seems so particularly ridiculous. It is indisputably comic and it would make a fine book—if Terry Fallis hadn’t already sort of written it.

But consider Ms. Brosseau’s story from one more angle: What is the difference between a placeholder candidate who inadvertently wins office and a conscious candidate who campaigns to become a placeholder MP? Is Ms. Brosseau really that much different from the other names that appear on the ballot or is she just the most glaring manifestation of a system that has rendered the actual individuals running for office almost entirely irrelevant?

The Westminster system is probably supposed to force a certain degree of tension on the voter. Do you vote for the party, the leader or the local candidate? Often times these three may line up well enough, but what if you like one party’s local candidate, while preferring another party’s platform or leader? What if you really like a party leader, but find the local candidate unacceptable? In a perfect situation, these might be the sort of questions you’d have to confront at the ballot, but in the present situation, it almost only makes sense to vote for the party leader or platform. Indeed, that’s exactly what 22,403 voters in Berthier-Maskinonge—presuming that Ms. Brosseau doesn’t have any family in the riding—just did.

You can debate to a certain degree just how powerless the modern MP is or by what real or imagined measure that power is so restrained. There are, indisputably, some great and honourable men and women who occupy the House of Commons and do admirable, honourable work. But it’s difficult to get around the overarching idea—perception?—that the MP exists to fill a seat in the House of Commons as an outlet for a party leader’s power. For sure, no party leader can remain in power without keeping his caucus reasonably happy. No doubt, the party system demands a certain degree of discipline and sacrifice for the sake of the “team.” But how many at this point—both within the political class and among the general public—view the individual MP as much more than a placeholder in the House and a conduit to the outside world for the party’s preferred messages and views? How many MPs view themselves as anything more?

(When Ekos asked some months ago for respondents to identify the most important criteria for voting, 17 percent identified the local candidate. I’d guess it’s really even lower than that. And when you consider how deferential candidates must be to the party line and leader, you could even debate whether the “local candidate” possesses a distinction worth noting.)

Whether that powerlessness is real or imagined—whether a product of apathy, cynicism or careful study—the MP has become a very small figure in our democracy. You could expend thousands of words sorting out the public, press and parliamentary pressures that have so reduced the idea of the MP, but whatever the cause, it seems the reality is made fairly unavoidable by the election of Ruth Ellen Brosseau. Whatever balance the ballot is supposed to compel, the choice is fairly simple now: find the party you prefer and put an X beside whatever name happens to be there.

All of which is simply to suggest that laughing and fuming in Ms. Brosseau’s direction is perhaps a bit unjust when there’s an entire national political system to laugh and fume at.