Archive for March, 2019

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. #canpoli
March 3, 2019

I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, I was neck deep in partisan politics. I was a staff member for the Office of the Chief Opposition Whip on Parliament Hill and an active party member.

I lucked out getting the job. I’d only just finished my degree in economics and was eager to get to work. The office was epic, right below the Peace Tower in the Centre Block. It was prime, middle of the action location. I loved it. At least for awhile.

I saw all the drama on the Hill in the form of protests (which aren’t new or unusual, by the way) and all the drama in the House (which everyone can see CPAC if so inclined).

Every MPs office had TVs and we’d watch Question Period and follow the debates all day long. The proceedings were (and continue to be) a spectator sport complete with cheers, sneers and the occasional expletive.  

I was so happy to be back on the Hill having served as a Parliamentary Page some years earlier. I learned I wasn’t the only one. The Hill is full of young, optimistic, well meaning and easily influenced youth. It was also a very volatile place. It was exciting but there were warning signs, at least for me.

It didn’t take long for me to come to the conclusion that working on the partisanship side of politics was a much different world. Parliamentary Pages were insulated from partisanship. We weren’t even allowed into MPs’ offices. Our job was to deliver water, carry messages, answer calls in the lobby and run for the occasional sandwich from the amazing cafeteria. Next time you see me, snap your fingers (which MPs would do to get our attention) and I will fight the urge to bring you a glass of water. No word of a lie.

The language in my MP’s day to day business, on the other hand, was unlike that of the House itself. Nobody seemed to have a name (whereas Pages needed to memorize the names and ridings of every single MP). Everyone had a position (the leader) and a duty (the research office). Even places didn’t have names, just acronyms (PMO, OLO). It was weird at best and disturbing at worst.

And then there were the war stories. Some I believed, others, were more likely urban legends.

When one Government was brutally defeated, (all parties know the trials of defeat) the rumour was that the Opposition took it upon themselves to have the gold leaf adorned ceiling in their office (the OLO) office repainted beige for the new occupants. Poor Parliament Hill painter – he likely didn’t even get a choice – Parliament Hill was a village and the village, with cooks and cleaners, barbers and stationers, upholsters and bus drivers, was more or less controlled by the rulers of the day. It was also rumoured that the night of that defeat, there were so many documents shredded that the fire department had to be called.

In fact, I knew there would be a change in government in the 2015 election, not because of the polls, but because someone on the Hill posted a photo on Twitter of a shredding truck parked outside the PMO  (Prime Minister Harper’s Office). It was a tell tale sign. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Back then, my boss secured a coveted lobby pass  (the tiny room outside the House of Commons) for me because I was his research assistant and as Whip, he needed to be in the House most of the time (the Whip is in charge of getting people in to vote). I’m still amazed to what lengths smart, experienced people will go to screw up a process over which they have no control. Opposition is not the easiest place in which to spend your time.

I, however, loved spending time in the Opposition lobby where as a Page, I had been assigned phone duty (there were many calls). And being the receptionist on shift, I witnessed first hand how effective MPs deal with their constituents. The longest serving MP on the Opposition bench at the time (who was still there when I worked for the Opposition Whip) had insisted that his constituents phone him directly. And, in pre-cell phone times, I directed those calls.

I listened in, not that I had a choice (it is really quite a small space), when he took those calls. He would help them through challenges (mostly passport, immigration, and unemployment claim issues which are still likely the source of most concerns for constituents) and he was always straight-up and honest about the answer. I even recall a few times when he said, “Look, if we were in Government, I could help you. But we aren’t. So work on that for me next time, will you please?” For me, that was a lesson in humility and honesty.

I often miss those days. I would certainly give a great deal for a day in the Opposition lobby given recent events though I doubt the phones ring as often. It’s more likely that MPs are on their smart phones tweeting their disgust with the benches opposite rather than speaking to constituents directly whilst sitting in uncomfortable green leather chairs. (Quick aside, all the upholstery in the House of Commons was green and all the upholstery in the Senate was red. It’s a brilliant design solution if you ask me).

I do wonder if those days are gone forever. Despite everything, the partisanship, the games, the tactics and the nonsense, there was a singular determination to serve constituents. Every letter was answered. Every call was logged. Even letters to Ministers were answered within 30 days. The MP for whom I worked, had days upon days dedicated to private appointments with constituents who would patiently sit outside the door waiting for their turn to have a meaningful conversation with their elected representative.

Last week, when I heard the Clerk of the Privy Council tell the House of Commons Justice Committee that he was worried for his country, I worried too. Have we forgotten what our job is on the Hill?

We are in trouble. And our only way out is to find humility, honesty and to address the difficult calls no matter from whom they come. Please, if you’re so inclined, watch the social media feeds of your elected representatives. I don’t care who you voted or who you intend to support next time around, but if you call or write your MP, regardless of party affiliation, and you don’t get an answer, know that when it comes to politics (and I say this as an elected municipal councillor) sometimes what we don’t say says more than what we do.  

I suppose we all have to ask ourselves, as I have done often these last few weeks, what are MPs doing in the lobby outside the doors of the House of Commons these days? I would hope the answer is that they are speaking directly to those who elected them. But for some reason, I don’t think that’s the case. And I cannot know, because I no longer have the privilege of serving those who have the privilege of serving.

But make no mistake, serving is a privilege, and we forget that at our peril. And if I don’t take your call when you dial my number (250 833 5554), it’s likely because I’m watching Question Period. But I promise, I’ll get back to you because it is a privilege and I will never forget that.