To many Canadians, Parliament often seems like a Wild West saloon, lacking both the comparative civility of British parliamentary discourse and the sober professionalism of the U.S. Congress. It turns out that crude public perception is underwritten by some cold facts: according to new data crunched by the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum, 32 per cent of Canadian MPs do not have a university degree. In the U.S., only four per cent of members of the House of Representatives do not have a university degree, and in the U.K. that figure is 28 per cent. The breakdown along party lines in Canada is even more striking. While only 15 per cent of Liberals are without a chunk of sheepskin on their office wall, 41 per cent of Conservatives and 37 per cent of NDP members do not have degrees.
Does this matter? John Godfrey, a now-retired Liberal MP for Don Valley West with three postgraduate degrees (not to mention a bunch of honorary doctorates), said that while he found the statistic “interesting,” the study “didn’t alarm [him] in any way.” He doesn’t think educational background should determine whether someone is fit for Parliament. Perhaps not. But given that you need a university degree to teach Grade 1 math or to be a social worker, it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that the people hired to make and examine our laws might benefit from a few years of higher learning.
At the very least, the relative paucity of degrees among MPs suggests that being a parliamentarian is not seen as a long-term career to which one might dedicate years of careful study. Indeed, the same study found the average tenure among members of our Commons is only seven years, compared with 11 in the U.S. and 10 in the U.K. All of which helps explain why question period often seems like amateur hour. It’s because it is.