Voters Choosing Alienation: The election of Ruth Ellen Brosseau

Commentary, Politics, Marco Navarro-Genie


The bizarre election of Ruth Ellen Brosseau serves to remind us that voting for party labels instead of candidates further separates voters from elected representatives.
Much has been said lately about Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the new Honourable Member of Parliament representing the Quebec constituency of Berthier-Maskinongé North of Montreal. Not ever having set foot in the riding before or during the election, she won with a convincing plurality, some six thousand votes ahead of the Bloc Quebecois incumbent. 
There have been charges that signatures obtained for Brosseau’s nomination were falsified. Commentators have drawn attention to her age and inexperience, and to her inability to function in French, the language of 98 per cent of her constituents. The latest gaffe is the inaccurate claim that Brosseau is a college graduate.
Brosseau first gained notoriety for her absence, having taken a Las Vegas vacation while the campaign was in full swing. Candidates are typically expected to campaign and work hard earning the trust of those they seek to represent before taking office. Asking for their trust after the contest is somewhat innovative.
But even though the NDP appealed to renewal and claimed to be the cure for Ottawa’s ills, Brosseau’s situation is an example of much that can be wrong in the overlap between party politics and constituent representation. Brosseau’s absenteeism helps illustrate the significant problem of how voting for party labels undermines the individual voices of the elected by giving party leaders more power.
There is precedent for candidates in Canada being elected in absentia, so Brosseau’s absence is not in itself the problem.  In the 1873 federal election, for example, the controversial Metis leader Louis Riel was elected to the House of Commons even though he was in Montana fleeing Canadian authorities. Voters knew who Riel was, however, which somehow made up for his absence. 
Brosseau’s case is different. She was absent and unknown. Before the news of her trip to Las Vegas broke out, only a handful of people had ever heard of her outside a small circle of New Democrats. Her victory is not the result of ties to the community or hard campaign work. 
MPs owe their electoral fortunes to their connection to voters or to their party’s and leader’s popularity, or both. The vote for Brosseau came as a result of Jack Layton’s popularity. In choosing to vote for Brosseau, many voters were not just voting for an unknown outsider. They were choosing to vote for someone with no demonstrable allegiance to them.
While Brosseau legally owes her newfound position to the Berthier-Maskinongé electors, she is in practical terms indebted to the party brass and leader. Her debt separates her further from voters and diminishes the power of her constituents to the benefit of party bosses.
In so doing, even though NDP voters in Berthier-Maskinongé want change and a stronger voice, they voted for a weakened representative, undermining their own political voice in the process.  
This is not to diminish Brosseau’s abilities. In fairness, she has displayed none and one can’t count on assumptions either way. She may well turn out to be a model parliamentarian. But it seems highly unlikely that she will stand up for the good people of Berthier-Maskinongé if their interests suddenly conflicted with the designs of Thomas Mulcair or Jack Layton, for example.
Even when Brosseau will no longer need to be flanked by Mulcair and learns all that she needs to learn about the constituency, its people, and their overall concerns, she will still be indebted to the party and its leaders for raising her from her service industry job at an Ottawa university campus to her parliamentary status.
In that sense, Brosseau’s election is not different from the way in which most MPs get to the House, you might say. Most voters these days vote for party label, without scrutinizing the candidate or taking the time to find out who they are and what they’re made of.  In Alberta we are familiar with that situation. Nothing new there.
True. But the plurality of the people of Berthier-Maskinongé willingly embraced a ghost candidate who chose to be distant from them. And from the ashes of that mutual indifference, an unknown has been born to national notoriety.
Brosseau’s victory in absentia is therefore worse than the garden-variety apathy because it exposes electors who accept being alienated from those they elect. Her victory challenges the notion that Quebec NDP MPs will be able to practice politics differently.