The House: The meaning of Ruth Ellen Brosseau

What precisely is the problem here?

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.




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The House: The meaning of Ruth Ellen Brosseau

  1. Does Ruth-Ellen Brosseau deserve the fulminations of a baffled nation? No.

    Did anyone ever say politics was fair? Also, no.

    • Agreed.

      At first, I’ll admit, I was quite intrigued by all the ‘negative’ coverage of Brosseau, but really, she didn’t do anything wrong here… and from what I’ve read, she’s taking the necessary steps to represent her riding (ie. learning French).

      With Love and Gratitude,

      Jeremiah

  2. I’m apparently among the 17% of citizens who believe that individual MPs matter. But I won’t pick on Brosseau specifically, she’s merely one of many, many MPs who’s education, qualifications and skills can be listed on the back of a (cocktail) napkin (okay, one slight stab).

    Could this Brosseau
    brouhaha have any possible beneift? Perhaps it’ll make party brass spend more than a few passing seconds considering their crop of paper candidates.

    • One wouldn’t think it would force the hand of the party brass to spend more time considerign their crop of paper candidates. That is of course, unless the system of politics changes such that party leaders ascend to “powerful” offices through the majority of voters picking a party.

      One would think that this “blip” on the political map will soon fade away and there isn’t likely to be another instance of this again for some time (at least 4 more years, lol).

      With Love and Gratitude,

      Jeremiah

  3. ” …. when there’s an entire national political system to laugh and fume at.”

    It is not the system, it is people. I agreed with most of what you were saying, Wherry, which was shocking in itself but I think you have conclusion wrong.

    Westminster system produces most stable democracy humans have created so far, nothing wrong with the system. It is people and their actions that are the problem – parties which use place holders, MPs who allow themselves to be little more than trained monkeys, voters who don’t know who they are voting for … etc.

    • parties which use place holders, MPs who allow themselves to be little
      more than trained monkeys, voters who don’t know who they are voting
      for

      So, in other words, there’s nothing wrong with the Westminster system; the problem is with every single party and almost every single voter. Gotcha.

  4. The local candidate takes on more importance when there is the likelihood of becoming a cabinet minister, and thus wielding some power and influence over the government, even if it is just to provide advice to the Prime Minister.

    Even in opposition, the party leader cannot do everything him/herself and needs at least a few experienced and competent MPs.

    • I wonder, can anyone point to the last time a cabinet minister wielded some power and influence over the government?

      LOL

  5. Less than 5% vote for the local candidate so it doesn’t matter if they show up or not, nor what their qualifications are.

    In fact, in one election….can’t remember the year….the local candidates names were on the ballot, but not their party affiliation. Lots of voters complained because they had no idea who the local candidate was for their party…..the party names were restored for the next election

  6. Candidates who know they will win, at the very least, must compete among members of their own party for their party’s nomination. Generally speaking, the individual chosen by the party wins the seat because the vast majority of voters feel that party best represents them. When candidates are appointed, it’s generally because they have something on their CV that makes them desirable.

    Regardless of what I may think of Mr. Vellacott, or Mr. Trost, or Mr. Hillyer I don’t think the comparison is apt.

    The NDP stated several times prior to the writ that they were ‘election ready’. They have, post election, said that they fully expected a Quebec breakthrough and were preparing for it. Mr. Layton (and Mr. Mulcair) made a bald pitch to Quebeckers to support the NDP. The pitch involved voting for a party that not only understood their issues, but would provide effective representation and get results federally.

    While the voters of Berthier Meskinongé may not have done their due dilligence, they should be forgiven somewhat for trusting that the NDP – which put itself forward as a mature, serious, party that would best represent Quebec – was in fact running a serious candidate who had a connection to the riding.

    • On the subject of Mr. Hillyer, I’m surprised that we didn’t hear more about George Wythe University, the unaccredited Mormon college in Utah where Hillyer received an MA in Political Economy and has done PhD work in Constitutional Law. The university’s founder, Oliver DeMille, who speaks of Mr. Hillyer as one of his best students, was himself a student of Cleon Skousen, the Bircher whom Glenn Beck has done so much to popularize in the past year or so. Skousen seems to be very much required reading in that PhD program:

      http://www.gw.edu/_elements/userfiles/file/course_checklists/ph.d._course_checklist_and_readings.pdf.

      Certainly, I imagine at least some of the people who voted for Mr. Hillyer would have liked to know more about his political views, and how they were shaped by his time at George Wythe University. But in the end, a plurality of voters in Lethbridge were content to give Stephen Harper one more seat towards his majority, and weren’t too worried about who occupied that seat. Rather like the voters of Berthier-Meskinongé with Ms. Brosseau.

      • I don’t disagree that Hillyer and other MPs should be subject to scrutiny. His BS degree from the international school of not-really-a-school raises serious questions. I just think they’re different questions.

        • Not all the questions would be the same, but certainly there should be questions asked about whether the Conservative Party took as much care over Mr. Hillyer’s nomination as they should have. Constitutional issues are, after all, kind of a big deal in Canada. Did Mr. Hillyer explain to the party how his rather unconventional training in American constitutional theory informs his understanding of the Canadian constitution? Did the party consider his views on the subject a plus or a minus?

          If the Conservatives were remiss in any way in screening their candidates in Lethbridge, that would after all be an even more serious problem than the NDP’s failure to do so in rural Quebec, given that the Tories were virtually certain of winning in Lethbridge.

  7. A bit of consistency in how you spell her name would help in showing her more respect than she’s had so far.

  8. It’s a good article as the problems are systemic rather than the fault of the NDP. However, as the NDP campaigned on an idea of Change, shouldn’t they at least be faulted for conducting themselves according to the status quo?

    If the NDP is willing to run parachute candidates without experience who will be expected to form close ranks with the party line, shouldn’t we call them out on it, for the hypocracy if nothing else?

    • That, I would have to admit, is the real bottom line.

  9. It remains fascinating to me that any group of voters would care so little about their MP. That bizarre MPs get elected and re-elected is also fascinating, but this is a bit more unusual, because it is obviously entirely possible if not plausible that the voters of Berthier-Maskinonge would have elected a cardboard cutout. If that’s not newsworthy and some cause for concern in the wider picture of Canadian democracy, then what is?

    • Agree. This post by Wherry veers dangerously close to “leave Britney alone!” territory… :)

      • I read it much more as a “missing the forest for the trees” story than a Chris Crocker imitation.

        Although I would pay good money to see Aaron do a Crocker imitation, I must admit.

      • LOL – lots :)

  10. “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?”

    For one, I would imagine that the ‘dozens of candidates’ had stepped foot in their constituencies. They also might have had enough media attention, and history, that people already knew what they stood for. I am sure there are a lot of differences.

    The REB instance does show the problem with Quebec voters, moreso than the problem with the current system. How many people can ‘follow the herd’ like that? How many people could vote for a candidate that they had no idea about? While many people ‘vote for the party’, they find out a bit of info about the candidate. If a candidate like this was put in by the liberals or the CPC, the party faithful would have ‘risen up’. (lol) This also shows the shallowness of the NDP support, and the shallowness of their talent pool.

    You have to remember that she doesn’t speak the language of the majority of her constituents, and she had never stepped foot in the riding before she won. This is very unusual.

    • Not necessarily, modster99. It’s just very very unusual for such a candidate to be elected. I bet if we went through historical records we’d find that it’s not so unusual after all.

    • Thank you for pointing out the elephants in the room that Aaron failed to mention. Aaron makes some good points in his piece, but he does overlook a couple of huge whoppers in connection with Brousseau’s candidacy. I watched that interview the day after the election between that reporter and Brousseau’s dad, and it bordered on the painful to watch — it was so obvious that Brousseau’s candidacy was a borderline sham.

  11. If this woman has any hit points left by the time Parliament resumes, she’ll certainly have earned a tonne of XP.

  12. She only got 40% of the vote… her election is no more valid than the Conservatives!

    I don’t like the powerlessness of MPs but I like the situation better than what you’d have under proportional representation where you only get a vote for a party and the members of government are then entirely decided by the party themselves. We still get to choose, and even the party leaders can lose.

    And if you think of our westminister system over time rather than for one election a different picture emerges maybe than the one that has some people fuming. It’s not really a system that allows minority rule as much as a system that typically allows the rule of alternating minorities. Over a few elections that probably represents a broader section of the country than you would see under a majoritarian proportional system, and in a more stable and accountable way, since only the ruling party wears its mistakes. So I don’t think the system is outdated or quirky (well, it is quirky) – I think it’s brilliant.

    • There are plenty of PR systems that allow direct voting for riding representatives.

      My personal favorite is the single transferable vote, wherein the voter rates the parties in terms of preference. The votes are counted and secondary choices included until one candidate has more than 50% support in the riding.

      Not only does it produce a riding representative, but it ensures that the MP has the collective support of the constituents, ie. no vote splitting.

      • I like the transferable vote, enough at least to be happy to see it tried. I guess it’s somewhat closer to a PR system but I’d still call it a version of westminister. In the Alberta tory leadership race they had a first and second choice option and everyone who supported the combatative top dogs picked the third place ‘nice guy’ as their second choice so he won. I’m sure it would be a great thing for civility because of that dynamic.

  13. Some informations are wrong :

    The candidate who finished 2nd at the election (Guy Andre) missed first place by +/- 5800 votes, not 19 000 …. I can affirm that this same candidate surely spent more than 1358$ on campaign Finally if you wrote ”avoided public debates and forums” including Mr Andre, that’s also false. http://www.ch2ofm.com

    • Wherry was referring to her NDP predecessor from the previous 2008 election, André Chauvette, not Guy Andre.

      Although I just about spit out my coffee when I saw that the 2006 candidate, Anne-Marie Aubert, spent just $5 on her campaign. Who would go through the hassle to claim $5 from Elections Canada? :D

  14. .
    If Layton doesn’t quickly state the NAME of the ‘staffer’ that altered Brosseau’s resumé to ‘graduate’, they will be in exactly the same position as the Conservatives over the Oda affair.

    I accept the error, and expect with so many young people there’s going to be an initial rave-party quality in the NDP over the next few months.

    But I demand an immediate show of good faith.

    WHO was the staffer, Jack? No nonsense, now.
    .

    • As usual, Jack and the NDP get a free pass when they do something slimy. Apparently it’s because we all want to have a beer with Jack, or something like that.

      • ‘Twas ever thus.

        Conservative voters understand this, generally. Which leads to events like this last election, where lefties were jumping up and down over the contempt motion, and righties just shrugged.

    • Really? Mis-interpreting “I studied….” as “I have a diplomia in …” is the same as knowingly doctoring a document to remove thousands in funds from a non-profit? Are you sure about that?

      • That’s not what I wrote. I said the situation. In fact, I said, exactly the same situation.
         
        In fact, Bev Oda owned up as the de facto author of the change. We don’t really need to know her staffer’s name. What Oda did appears to be an extremely sloppy way of handling non-public documents, but she’s put her sins behind her. The NDP, for some strange reason, has been able to fly this strange anomaly under the radar. The bloggers don’t care, the journalists don’t care. Nobody seems to notice, but friends I’ve discussed this with see the problem very clearly.
         
        Until I have the name of the (NDP-claimed) staffer, the suspicion will lie with Brosseau herself. To be really, really blunt.

        I also implied this is a serious way to start and the conservatives will file this ‘painting over a crack’ away for a rainy day.
        .

  15. I agree with Aaron, which is pretty rare. I’d like to see the staffer that altered her qualifications named and punished. That is the only area where I have a problem with what has happened.

  16. Wherry, this is by far the best defence, sort of, that I’ve read of this whole affair. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I can’t wait to see what happens with the NDP’s newest caucus. I’ll go out on a limb and say that I anticipate Ms. Brosseau to be a much scrappier candidate than people are expecting her to turn out to be. And I bet she keeps her riding in 2015.

    Such a thing could never happen in the USA, which makes me love our loony Westminster system all the more. It hardly ever happens, but when it does it’s absolutely wonderful. But I’m a hopeless parliamentary romantic.

  17. Fantomatique élue … fantomatique diplôme !

    «Elle est diplômée en publicité, communication et marketing intégré du collège St. Lawrence de Kingston. » (information publiée sur site officiel du NPD: http://www.npd.ca)

    On sait maintenant (10 mai 2011) que Madame Ruth Ellen Brosseau n’est pas détentrice de ce diplôme. La mention du fantomatique diplôme a été retirée du site officiel du NPD !

    Yves Claudé
    ycsocio[@]yahoo.ca

  18. Curious Aaron, why the issue of the possibly many fraudulent signatures on her nominations papers escaped your analysis here when asking what’s the problem with her election. Would you have ignored that issue if we were talking about Conservative MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau? I doubt it.

    That is the only potential legitimate objection to be raised about her election, and I would argue that is a party issue, not a personal issue. On the rest of this analysis of Ms. Brosseau’s election I think you’re pretty much right on.

    I’m curious how much loyalty she’s going to show to a party which has had such a large hand in destroying her reputation. From where I sit, she’s done almost nothing wrong, but is being crucified because of how poorly the NDP has handled her candidacy. It is the party that screwed up her nomination papers. It’s the party that, not being able to find anyone local, reached out to her to be a cannon fodder candidate, and probably told her not to worry about campaigning, just so they could have a 308 candidate slate. It’s the party that misrepresented her having a diploma when she doesn’t (though she does I suppose bear some small responsibility for not verifying her bio entry). It’s the party that is keeping her hidden, out of her new riding, and away from media scrutiny. They are making horrible decisions on her behalf that are making her the butt of jokes. I hope she tears a strip off them.

    • That’s a good point about the party’s role in this. However, we aren’t privy to whatever private communications have taken place between the party and Ms. Brousseau, so who knows exactly where the needle should be on the blame gauge.

  19. It seems that the voters in Kingston may have bucked the trend and voted for the candidate:
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/rookie-mps-physicist-financial-consultant-green-advocate-father-and-new-liberal-mp/article2017647/

    I voted for a candidate who didn’t have any chance of winning. She is fluently bilingual, has extensive experience in environmental work, has two (actual, not made up!) degrees from university, and an MPs salary would be a pay cut for her. She spent the entire election period campaigning full time, every day. She cancelled her preplanned trip abroad. She ran because she knows her experience and values could affect positive change in the local community, and beyond, if she were elected.

    I think if more people voted for the candidate we could have a great Parliament, with many people who are worth far more than the six figure salary they are paid. I also think that ignoring local candidates and focussing completely on the party and its leader will continue to lead to an erosion in the quality of MPs.

  20. “…Is Ms. Brosseau…just the most glaring manifestation of a system that has rendered the actual individuals running for office almost entirely irrelevant?…”

    That probably hits the nail right there.

    I think a lot of us still like to believe that we have a system based on riding representation and holding our MPs to account. Instead, cases like this make us face reality: There really are only a couple choices for any single individual in a Canadian election.

    Thirty-three million Canadians ruled by the party hierarchies led by less than half a dozen people.

    In a sense, much of the real “democracy” is within the parties, not outside, since during elections they seem to spend most of their time trying to influence votes with intentionally misleading tactics and strategies, rather than discussing real issues or things of importance.

  21. Aaron, you do your profession proud. While most are feeding on the sensational side of the story, some to the point of irrational hysteria, you are commenting on the deeper implications of her election. Nice job!

    PS – Still hating the new comment section. Die die die!


  22. no party leader can remain in power without keeping his caucus reasonably happy”

    Was this directed at Jack Layton? :O

  23. Even if the constituents of Berthier Maskinonge decided to elect a lamppost, that would not diminish the responsibility fo the NDP for putting forward an inanimate object. Reduced as the role of the local MP may be, he or she still remains an important link between the hulking machinery of the federal government and the individuals in a riding A bankbencher, particularly in opposition may be a mere cipher in the House, but the best do exhausting and valuable work on “constituency ” matters.

    I have no problem with the NDP putting forward a place holder. But a decent respect for our institutions would require that even such a person at least have been to the riding, be aware of a few of the issues there, and be able to speak the language of the vast majority of her electors. If the NDP and Mr. Layton were as honourable as they profess to be, they would urge her to resign and take their chances on a by-election. Admittedly there is no bright line here in terms of legitimacy, but surely we can all agree that Ms. Brousseau falls below even the fuzziest line.

  24. Of course she will be an NDP vote in the House, one of 102. That’s fairly easy to understand. What we do not know yet is whether she is astute enough to make her riding want her back next time.

  25. “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”

    IMHO they are completely irrelevant, when it comes to voting they are the means to an end.

    • I’m not sure I fully agree.Individual MPs may not be able to make splashy speeches in the house or alawys vote the way they’d like because of party discipline, but they certainly can make a difference in their communties, supporting local initiatives, helping constituents deal with problems, lobbying the leader and the party on issues that matter in their riding. A backbencher can still be a good MP, and do a good job representing their community without being a member of cabinet or government.

  26.  And this is why I didn’t vote… 
     
    My vote doesn’t really matter except in a very general sense.  The party gets elected based on general direction.  Say if I don’t like 20 of the PC’s points, well I need to take the good with the bad just as cable tells me I need to take on 30 crappy channels for 1 good one.  I get no say over any of their policies such as Insite except from a general direction every 4 years.  It would be nice to see some type of election system where they put major items up as well like I see in the states this way we feel like part of the process.
     
    If I “fire” an MP like my “democratic rights” give they still get a pension plan for the rest of their lives and in al reality they are not feeling any consequences (yes I know they have to be there for 5 years or something).  Plus they decide their own wages.
     
    Parties control their MPs as shown time and time again with votes.  I never have heard an MP talk about the upcoming votes, etc.  You could say to be proactive, but in all reality people don’t know where to start and they count on this.
     
    Its almost an illusion of democracy.  Politicians now know how to deal with the system and play it to their advantage.  They hire psychologists (now does that sound democratic or more manipulative). We need an evolution of the system or else we are stuck with getting an arbitrary vote every 4 years in which we can only alter the general direction.  When the system gets better then you’ll see the disillusioned become part of the process.  But don’t count on that cause this would make the politicians accoutnable and who would ever want to put themselves in that position.
     

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