There is nothing quite like the euphoria that a newly-elected MP feels after the grind of a nomination and then a demanding election campaign. What a privilege it is to be chosen by your constituents to serve them and our country. However, your life as an MP will likely be less glamorous than it might at first appear.
A mind of one’s own
I read a book recently called Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy and it is a cautionary tale. The authors interviewed 80 former MPs from all parties and asked them about their experiences. A common theme was the MPs’ frustration over the controlling influence exerted over them by their parties and leaders.
The message that I took away from the book is that while as a newly-elected MP you have obviously to be in basic agreement with your party’s policies and platforms, you also have a mind of your own. Ask yourself this question: What do I want to accomplish now that I have won? I believe that to maintain your integrity and self-respect you should pay close attention to being a good constituency MP, and you should also carve out a personal niche by becoming expert in at least one area of policy.
Good constituency MPs
Here are two specific examples about being present for your constituents. My former colleague Peter Stoffer, a Nova Scotia MP, once told me that he would make cold-calls from his Ottawa office to people at home in his riding. That gave him a good feel for the lives and challenges of his constituents, unfiltered by the media, pollsters or focus groups. It also paid off in other ways. Peter won his first election in 1997 by just a few votes but proceeded to win five more times until his defeat on October 19, 2015.
Richard Proctor from Saskatchewan was another good constituency MP. He is an early riser and each morning he changed the voice mail message on both his Parliament Hill and constituency telephones to indicate where he would be on that day and what he would be doing. He was also meticulous about promptly returning calls to constituents referred to him by his staff.
Choose good staff
You will want to take great care in choosing your staff members both in Ottawa and the riding. There is just too much work and complexity to handle everything on your own. I had wonderful staff and it was not uncommon for some grateful person or family to arrive at our riding office bearing a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates in thanks for a service which they had received.
Carve out a niche
As for MPs carving out areas of expertise, I can point to several examples. In the 1940s and 50s, Winnipeg MP Stanley Knowles made himself an expert on pensions and became a tireless advocate for the introduction of a Canada Pension Plan. Knowles also became an expert in parliamentary procedure and served as the CCF-NDP house leader for many years. In the 1970s and 80s, Conservative MP Douglas Roche paid special attention to international development and that led him to a focus on peace and security issues. He later served as Canada’s UN ambassador for disarmament from 1984-1989. In the 1990s, Liberal MP John Bryden became a knowledgeable advocate for improving the federal Access to Information Act and promoting a more open style of government.
Collaborate in committees
Interests such as these can be extended and honed by your work on parliamentary committees. This assumes, however, that the governing party does not neuter committees, as has happened frequently in recent years. I was the NDP environment critic and was fortunate to work with Liberal MP Charles Caccia, the committee chair, who had immersed himself in environmental issues and cared deeply about them.
I developed a great respect and fondness for Mr. Caccia and was so sorry that he died in 2008 before he could savour his retirement. I am not sure how often that kind of friendship and collaboration across party lines occurs today but I recommend it to you for both the quality of your experience and your ability to serve the common good.
This piece was published on October 26, 2015 in The Hill Times Rookie’s Guide to the 42nd Parliament. You can download it HERE.
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