In 2013, I was interviewed by Victor Enns of Rhubarb magazine about what lay behind my decision in the 1990s to run for political office. I posted the first part of that interview on this site recently. In the interview Victor also asked me about what it was like to serve as an NDP MP in the House of Commons. Here is part two of our conversation.
Rhubarb: What did you learn from your campaigns? Where you able to bring the issues of social justice into the campaigns?
Gruending: I learned that I could work as a member of a team of fine people during campaigns, some of them paid but most of them volunteers who believed in the philosophy of the New Democratic Party. I found that I was good at canvassing and that I enjoyed it, meeting people on their doorstep and making a connection, even if it was a brief one. I have always been a hard worker but I really enjoyed the mental and physical challenge of going all out in a campaign. In the elections I contested, and in the lead up to those campaigns, I always knocked on between 20,000 and 30,000 doors. I also learned that I had the discipline to be civil to people who disagreed with me, especially on the doorstep. Most people were quite decent, even if they weren’t going to vote for you, but now and then people could be angry and rude.
I was able to bring issues of social justice into my campaigns because there is a good amount of that in the NDP policy and platforms to begin with. The CCF-NDP had a reputation for many years as providing a conscience in Canadian politics.
Rhubarb: How much leeway is there in a party discipline to take those positions and bring them into the election process? How were you perceived by your constituents, and the party executive?
Gruending: Everybody who runs for election under a party banner in contemporary Canada has to agree with the party’s policy and platform – perhaps not every word of it, but most of it. You campaign on policy that the party has created after much deliberation – at least that is the case in the NDP. Some people criticize this but it makes sense. There is some room, but not that much, for going your own way in the House of Commons on certain votes. My leader was Alexa McDonough, who is a wonderful person, and she was respectful of differences, as long as you did not use them to embarrass or attack the party or your caucus colleagues.
Alexa appointed me as the NDP critic for the environment and for international development and that gave me scope to do and say things that mattered to me. I should say that we had only about 20 MPs at the time so one could take on a lot of responsibility very quickly as an opposition critic. If you are an MP in the governing party, the action is concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office and the cabinet, and as a backbencher you are mostly on the outside looking in. On the other hand, MPs on the governing side say that they have at least some input into government decisions rather than having always to play the role of critic as we did in the opposition. For a democratic political system to work you obviously need a Prime Minister, cabinet and governing machinery, but you also need a vibrant opposition. That’s how the system works.
You ask about the relationship with the party executive and constituents. I had really good relationships with people in the party at both the local and federal levels. I was especially fond of some of our older members who had been there with people such as Tommy Douglas or M.J. Coldwell. As for constituents: I like people and being around them. If you don’t, politics is the wrong profession for you. I was, however, defeated after one term so obviously a lot of my constituents did not vote for me. I tried not to take this personally because our party as a whole did not do well in the election of 2000.
Rhubarb: Where you surprised by anything in your service as an MP? Where did you find job satisfaction, what were the things that you liked most, and what did you find most difficult?
Gruending: I know from my experience as a journalist and from reading that I have done that debates in the House of Commons used to matter. They don’t matter that much anymore. The importance of Parliament has been undermined in a whole number of ways. For example, free trade agreements removed power from elected representatives and transferred them to unelected tribunals. With our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the courts have assumed some influence that once resided with politicians. In addition, the power in our political system is really centralized in the office of the prime minister and his or her advisors. That has become much more pronounced under [Stephen Harper] the current prime minister.
When John A. Macdonald or Laurier spoke on important issues, the galleries in the House of Commons would be filled. Now they are not and even most MPs don’t show up. There are only a handful of MPs in the House of Commons at any time of the day other than Question Period. In the current setting, most MPs will tell you that what is most satisfying to them is the work they do on behalf of their constituents — immigrants who want to bring families or relatives to Canada or people having problems with the bureaucracy with their pensions or Employment Insurance. Those are important things to do but the role of an elected person should be about more than that.
A good life
Rhubarb: Will you run again?
Gruending: No I won’t. I ran four times and won only once. I used to pitch a lot of baseball when I was younger and as a pitcher winning one game and losing three is not good enough. Had I won more often, I would have been pleased to serve for longer, but I just felt it was time to get back to other things that I love to do. I have published more books since I left politics and I now write a blog as well. I also work full time for a labour organization so I have a pretty busy life – and a satisfying one.
Note: This interview was published in 2013 when I was employed by the Canadian Labour Congress. I am now retired from that position and spend most of my time writing. Rhubarb magazine has ceased publication.