Lawyers dominate politics, but not one running in Mondays byelections

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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Monday's federal byelections will choose four new members of Parliament from a list of candidates that includes three farmers, four municipal politicians, a principal, a plumber, and an engineer - but not a single lawyer, a profession that dominates Canadian politics.
Since Confederation, 1009 lawyers have sat in the House of Commons, nearly twice as many as politicians from any other profession, according to data collected by the Parliament.
Fifteen of Canada's 22 prime ministers have practised law. Stephen Harper, an economist, is the country's first non-lawyer leader since 1980.
But jurists do not just dominate Canadian politics, there is a preponderance of lawyers in the governments of most democratic countries, according to an Economist analysis of data from 5,000 international politicians.
It also found that law, followed by business, is the most common background for politicians worldwide.
University of Ottawa professor of law Adam Dodek says the findings are not surprising because lawyers have a strong foundation in the rule of law, a founding democratic principle.
"The essence of being a lawyer is to be a problem-solver, a communicator, and an advocate. And those three essential qualities are also what would serve you well as a politician," he says.
But Dodek warns concentrating power in the hands of lawyers, or any group, makes for a shaky democracy.
"I don't think it's good for any one profession to dominate politics the way that law has dominated Canadian politics since Confederation," he says.
Trevor Harrison, a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, says the adversarial mentality and theatrics of courtrooms fosters partisanship in the House.
"(Lawyers) know how to perform, they're used to being on stage that way, where they're arguing a particular point."
In the current government, lawyers are slightly outnumbered by business people, 72 to 51, and these two professions make up nearly half the seats in the House.
"There's a small, cliquey group of usually business people and lawyers who open doors for themselves," Harrison says. "They open doors for each other, so the same group keeps walking through."
Elite groups isolate themselves from the public, which fosters a dangerous tendency toward group think, he says.
"You've got people from certain backgrounds who tend to look at the world from that vantage point and then they sit around and verify what each other already thinks they know."
Harrison says political representation is a reflection of the dominant sectors of society in any era."But lawyers are the constant there, they've always been disproportionately represented."
Farmers have played a prominent role in politics, reaching their height during the Depression, but have steadily been replaced by business people since the 1960s.
Historically, farmers are the second most represented group in Parliament, with 596 MPs.
But as the number of farmers has declined, from 54 during the Depression to 21 at present, so too has their representation in Parliament, Harrison says.
Meanwhile, the number of politicians with business backgrounds surpassed farmers in the 1960s, rising to the top spot in the 1984 Mulroney government.
Business skills transfer readily into political skills, Harrison says. Business people are often high profile and have connections to influential groups, resulting in a disproportionate number of business people who take office.
NDP candidate and blueberry farmer Mark Austin, who is running Monday in a Nova Scotia riding, says adding more farmers to government would create a healthier democracy.
"(Farming) is not a living made only on words, so I think there's a trust factor there, because there's an awful lot of people who don't make their living from words, as lawyers do."
He says farmers take a collaborative, not an adversarial approach to collective challenges.
"Our political process is defined and dominated by legal personalities and legal mentalities," he says. "We need people who are grounded."
An Oct. 2 Canadian Parliamentary Review article issued a plea for more scientists and engineers, with technical expertise and solutions-oriented world views, to enter politics.
"While the House of Commons agenda is overwhelmed by science and technology crises, scientists and engineers are practically absent from this institution," it said.
Only 92 engineers in history have become MPs, approximately two to three per cent of total members of Parliament.
Ken Beck Lee, who retired after 40 years as an engineer, hopes to raise the number of engineers turned MPs sitting in the House up to ten after a by-election in B.C. Monday.
Lee has no experience in politics, and joined the Liberal party only when he decided to run.
"I think Canadians should elect more people, rather than just talkers, the doers," Lee says. "We elect so many career politicians they start politicking from high school and they never have a real job."
Career politicians who try to pander to voters are more indecisive and "wishy-washy", than engineers, who relay their scientific opinions, Lee says.
"(Engineers) are much more solution-oriented," he said, citing his technical views on wind power and the disappearance of salmon.
Harrison says the diversity of candidates in Monday's election is welcome because increasing the number of farmers, nurses, doctors, psychologists, teachers and engineers, would bring more diverse knowledge and different perspectives to debates in the House.

Organizations: House of Commons, University of Ottawa, University of Lethbridge NDP

Geographic location: Canada, Nova Scotia, B.C.

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