Fiddling While Rome Burns? Not so fast Mr. Martin

Lawrence Martin complains that Canadian political scientists are not speaking out on the malaise that affects our democracy (“Canadian Political Scholars Fiddle While Rome Burns”, Globe and Mail, June 4, 2013).  He quotes political scientists who share his lament for our profession.  It is true that as political science becomes more narrow, technical, and abstract it loses relevance to the practice of democratic politics.  But there are also powerful forces that push us in the direction of public engagement.

Like many political scientists, I am not happy with the state of parliamentary democracy in Canada today.  We all lament the excesses of party discipline, the toxic levels of partisanship, the media focus on negative attacks, and the failure of many parliamentarians to live up to the ideals of the institution they serve. But laments are not enough.

That is why UBC brought political scientists and practitioners together to create a Summer Institute for Future Legislators (watch a superb W5 documentary on our boot camp here).  We are actually training aspiring politicians in the art and craft of parliamentary practices. In developing this program we take inspiration from a series of books published by UBC press from the Canadian Democratic Audit (which Mr. Martin does not mention).  Indeed, we assign David Docherty’s book from that series, Legislatures.  We also draw on the work of Samara on the role of parliament, a project that mobilized the knowledge of many political scientists.

We agree with Samara’s main finding: we need to empower ordinary MPs.  For a constitution to work well, MPs must find their voice and reassert their authority – over the bureaucracy, over parties, and even, from time to time, over the Prime Minister’s office.  Brett Rathgeber is no maverick.  He is doing what MPs were elected to do.

Of course, as a political scientist I am under no illusions that my discipline can produce better legislators.  Aristotle famously said that politics is a practice, and practice demands experience.  Few political scientists have real world experience in politics.  No amount of peer reviewed research can replace the knowledge, experience, and judgment of an able practitioner.  That is why our summer institute seeks to bridge academic reflection and practical experience.  Preston Manning, Mike Harcourt, Anne McLellan and many others have volunteered their time to help us create a new generation of democratic leaders.

It is true that this takes the university into uncharted territory, and not all political scientists have an appetite for that challenge.  Some will continue to focus all their efforts on abstract research while leaving to others the task of translating their knowledge into practice.  But to suggest that we’re all fiddling while Rome burns is to miss at least part of the action.