Reasons PM Harper should delay parliament’s return

This post is for all those who have never been elected as a Member of Parliament, provincial, territorial or federal, or worked for one.  Believe me, there is no magic wand to go from election night to a functioning MP. Simply put, it can’t be done in less than two months (unless you already live in Ottawa or a provincial capital) and it would be wrong of Prime Minister Harper to expect newly elected MPs, whether NDP or Conservative, to do so quicker than that.  Sorry for the length, but it is a personal story.

On June 8th, 1995, election night in Ontario, I was involved in counting the votes as they came in from the scrutineers. It became obvious very quickly that the Ontario PCs, under its leader Mike Harris, were winning. And, just as obvious was the fact that my candidate — Tom Froese — would win the St. Catharines-Brock provincial seat for the PCs. The Brock part is Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Anyway, later that night at the celebration party, I offered to volunteer to help Froese out for a couple of weeks. Since I had been the campaign communications chair, he already knew me, so he said he would think about it.

Well, I didn’t hear anything from him for a few days but when he called, all he said was: “HELP.”  It was quite funny at the time and I remember laughing. But, it turned out to be no laughing matter. His phone at his old campaign office was ringing off the hook. All he could do was take down messages and tell his new constituents he would get back to them.

  • Meaning, Froese had no infrastructure in place at all, as is the case with all newly elected members of parliament – unlike those who are re-elected. Yet, the general public and media did not seem to realize that fact.

The problem was, the NDP MPP who was defeated still had access to her constituency office for two whole weeks — to shred every piece of paper in the place. Then, and only then, could Froese even visit that office to see if that is where he wanted to set up his Constituency Office.  

So, for those two weeks I worked as a volunteer and answered his phone. I also paid a visit to the Constituency office of long-time St. Catharines MPP, Jim Bradley. A Liberal, I have to tell you, he was one heck of a nice guy. No partisanship at all. He invited me to spend an entire day with his staff learning the ropes, a courtesy I have never forgotten.

At that point Froese had asked me to work for him. It was not something I had experience doing, nor something I had planned to do. But, I decided to reduce my university teaching load to part-time and became his Executive Assistant — a nearly four-year experience I treasure to this day.  I say nearly four years because I was Froese’s EA for three years and a contract communications consultant for part of the final year.  Burn out is a real problem in political jobs as anyone who has done it will agree.   

Anyway, if readers are keeping track, at that point it was already about three weeks past election day. Froese and I then had to leave the phone on voice mail (which ticked people off) and go hunting for a Constituency Office that would be right in the middle of the riding.

  • The former NDP MPP’s office had been broken in and all the locks broken so he didn’t even consider using that one. After about a week, he settled on one. However, it was an empty shell and leasehold improvements had to be made — which, as it turned out, meant waiting almost two months before we could move in.  A nice touch was when Froese invited me to help him decide on paint and rug colours and how the rooms would be divided. I mention that because, as I said at the outset, there is no magic wand to make it all happen.

Now, while all that was going on in the riding, Froese did not go near Queen’s Park because he did not yet have a legislative office. Remember, the NDP had been the government. So, they had to be moved out of the area where PC government members would be located. Even with the Conservative government in Ottawa, to go from 144 members to 168, it is going to be a huge logistics headache.

Pity the federal Liberals for example ( or not pity if that is the case), they are going to have dozens of former MPs shredding documents for this next two weeks and then having to vacate those 40+ offices to make room for new members. One thing you will never find, however, is NDP or Liberal MPs mixed in with Conservatives. Each will have their own area, with the governing party MPs closest to the action in the House of Commons.  

  • In the Ontario legislature, and this is fascinating, a single moving date is chosen by the public servants in charge of “member services,” usually several weeks after the election date. And, on that date, beginning very early in the morning, every single office is shifted. It is pandemonium but organized pandemonium and it gets done. Of course, in Ontario, there were only 130 at that time, compared to 308 in Ottawa.  

Then, several weeks after the election, Froese drove me to Toronto. We walked into his Queen’s Park office, which was on the third floor of the west wing, and what did we see. An empty desk in the middle of each of the three rooms. Apart from a telephone on each desk, that was it. Not so much as a paper clip. I had to sit down and order all the supplies that would be needed once Toronto staff were hired.

Now, we are at around week six. Of course, dozens of resumes had come in, some for Queen’s Park and some for the Constituency. I spent a week interviewing and answering the phones in between. Finally, after six weeks, the MPP did the final interviewing and two additional permanent staff were hired for the Constituency Office, as well as two for Queen’s Park. I circulated between the two offices and got very used to the GO Train.

In any event, hiring staff was a huge relief!  We worked in the temporary campaign office until the new office was ready — which we moved into in the middle of August. The Toronto staffers started around the same time.

In other words, it took slightly more than two months to have everything set up and ready to go.

  • So, please go easy on the NDP and all those new Conservative MPs. They really do need a couple of months to get organized. They have to find Constituency Offices, order furniture and accessories from government services (e.g., all furniture, down to end tables, credenzas and lamps, are stored somewhere) for both the Constituency and Legislative offices, as well as order office supplies for both.

They also have to interview and hire constituency and legislative staff and find personal accommodations for themselves in Ottawa, not an easy thing to do when your primary residence is in B.C. or Quebec.   And, of course, new Members of Parliament (for all parties) have to go to “member” school to learn how the House of Commons operates — no easy feat for anyone!

[…]

Endnote:  For those who check out the Tom Froese Wikipedia link, a little explanation about the June 1999 Ontario campaign. As many know, Mike Harris implemented the Fewer Policians Act in 1996, meaning that Froese’s riding of St. Catharines-Brock would disappear at the time of the next election.

So, when the 1999 writ was dropped, he had to run against his local colleague Jim Bradley, in the St. Catharines riding. It was during that election that the Ontario public sector unions asked people to vote “strategically.” As a result, the NDP vote totally collapsed.

As I had in 1995, I kept track on election night 1999 where the votes were going. So, I know, that without a doubt, had the NDP vote not gone to Bradley, Froese would actually have been re-elected. But, that was not to be and truth to tell, Bradley has done and continues to do an excellent job.

However, what I learned from that experience, is what it is like to lose an election with dignity, something federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff did not do. Froese did not simply telephone Bradley when it was clear he had lost. He actually went over to his campaign office and shook his hand and congratulated him in person on a well fought, clean campaign. They had been friends during their time in government, regardless of being on opposite sides of the legislature, and would continue to be.

Then, Froese moved on to the next chapter in his life — as did I and all the other staffers.

36 thoughts on “Reasons PM Harper should delay parliament’s return

  1. Yes, it was exciting Joanne. Stressful but a time of life I treasure. And, the best part is that Froese and I are still friends as are his sisters who I got to know during that nearly four years.

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  2. I am not in favor of parliament being closed up for longer than it has already..the election campaign plus at least two weeks more is enough…the business of Canada has to start churning again – all the other things will have to go on behind the scenes while parliament gets back to work.

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  3. NB Tory Gal — I would normally agree with you, but things can’t start churning again behind the scenes or in the HOC without the newly elected member receiving training on House procedures, having at least one staff member, an office and a working telephone. Simply can’t be done. And, if it was tried, the stress would be incredible. For example, something as simple as typing out a Member’s Statement to be read in the house. MPs don’t do that themselves and new staffers have to learn how to do it. For instance, each Member Statement is precisely 90 seconds long, not one word longer or their mikes are cut off. So, staff have to practice reading them and timing them. Things like that. There is just too much to learn and too much to do.

    This is not only about the NDP, there are more than a dozen new Conservative members.

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  4. Good post. The logistics of setting up any business takes time and a lot of effort,BUT,if Harper gives the newbies “a couple of months”,that will take us to the Summer holiday season,and Parliament isn’t going to sit in the only two months of decent vacation weather we have in this Country.

    So, we’d have to wait until at least mid-September. That’s along time for Canadian conservatives to wait for action on some of our pet grievances. We’ve gnashed our teeth for 20 years over the Long Gun Registry,and most of us gun owners would like to see it deep sixed immediately.

    I’d like to see at least a two week session of Parliament before the traditional long break for Summer, so call ’em back for June 6.

    We pay them very well,especially in the case of the Quebec NDP rookies who have no qualifications for this very important job, so if they have a rough time of it getting started out,so be it.

    They applied for the job,got it, now I’d like to see them get to work.

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  5. Sandy, I really enjoyed reading your post; fascinating stuff that most people would never be aware of. Thanks for sharing.

    I expect Mr. Harper will call the House back yet this month. My understanding is that they will want to at least get the Budget tabled and past into law.

    As for logistics, on election night I recall hearing it said that, the ‘movers’ will already be in action yet that night starting to move furniture and fixtures out of losing members offices! I found that rather incredible, and not even sure if it’s true … wish I could recall who said it (CBC or CTV or SunNews ???). Of course that doesn’t have any affect on the learning curve of the rookie MPs. If should be quite the interesting session, before and after the summer break.

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  6. Thanks Dave. The movers wouldn’t be starting yet. Every parliament in Canada has two weeks to clean up their constituency and legislative offices. Personal belongings, photos, pictures on the walls, book shelves full of books, and so on, have to be boxed and taken home. Also, most find this hard to believe, but all files and paper (even Cabinet Ministers if the party in power changes) must be shred. When we left our offices in 1999, two weeks after the election defeat, there was only the government owned furniture and accessories left. If the incoming member does not want that office, they public service does not move that furniture to the their new office. They move it to storage at Queen’s Park. The member has to go to that warehouse and chose all new stuff. Crazy but that is how it is done. Even sofas are chosen. If there aren’t any descent ones, it is the public service that buys new ones. It’s all about accountability. Every single item has a number and when the office is shut down, every single item must be checked off or the outgoing member is charged on his severance, which is usually six months pay.

    So, to make a long story short, there is always the two-week interim period. I noticed that was also the case when David Miller moved out of Toronto City Hall.
    When Ford arrived, the office had only a desk, chair and some shelves. Since people like to choose their own colours, etc., I guess that is not surprising.

    The problem with returning too soon is that some could say, rightly, that democracy suffered because some rep by population wasn’t in effect, because the new NDP members had not yet been trained on HOC procedures. It is a slippery slope and not just about efficiency and getting back to work quickly. If the PM pushes it and his new MPs are not ready, he may not have the majority votes he needs to pass his budget.

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  7. Apparently the schedule as it sits now is May 30th. Hard to believe they could do even a minor cabinet shuffle in time for that but I’m not sure the executive has to be completely in place for parliament to sit.

    What you bring up is something not a lot of people understand. The constituency office is a very key part of an MP’s job. These pylons in Quebec now have to run one and that means hiring staff, managing a budget and dealing with their constituents. Some of these people are just out of high school!

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  8. I too appreciate your post and position but let me play the devil’s advocate.

    If I spent 5 weeks applying for a job (campaigning) was hired (elected) for a job that paid 152,000. a year + the perks+ the bonuses, would I get 2 months to organize my life before I had to show up for work or would I be expected to be there when my new job started?

    Just sayin’……

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  9. Ontario Girl — Thanks for that information. That is nearly three weeks. Two weeks and four days to be precise — a Thursday. Which means, the huge office shuffle may be on the Friday, May 20th. Which would give everyone ten days to get organized, at least in Ottawa, even if it means staying in a hotel for the short term.

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  10. James — I hadn’t even thought of the budget. Including rent (which is capped at a certain amount) and salaries, it was a couple hundred thousand dollars. Plus, there were restrictions on the number of staff you could hire and how much they could be paid. The young members are certainly going to need close supervision or the mud will hit the fan in a year’s time when the numbers come out.

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  11. While I didn’t mention it in my post, the 1995 Ontario election was on June 8th. I remember clearly that the legislature was recalled on Monday, September 22nd. First, the MPPs all swore their oaths, the Cabinet was sworn in, and then the house sat in the afternoon. So, that was three and a half months in all.

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  12. i’m guessing that if you can read and have critical analysis skills you can do the job of an mp. there have been more than enough people sent to ottawa who don’t know their as- from a hole in the ground. how hard can it be.

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  13. Old White Guy — With a budget of a half million dollars and approx 100,000 constituents to help, you would be surprised how hard it can be. And, no Bec, this is not like applying for a job and simply showing up. There’s a lot more too it than that. And, that is the point of my post. I have never revealed the personal details before, not even my bosses name, but I though it long past time because, like Old White Guy, there is no real understanding of what is involved.

    At the Constituency level, for example, MPPs or MPs are like community ombudsman or social workers. It is very involved. Files for hundreds of people struggling with the red tape of the bureaucracy. But, I loved it nonetheless. But, how hard can it be. Very. Which means, those young NDPrs have a tall learning curve ahead of them. But, with patience and mentors, they can do it. We, the people, just need to give them a chance. And, I would like to think Conservatives will do that, unlike if the situation was the reverse.

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  14. When you have to deal with needy constituents, and some very nasty ones too it can be very hard. Believe me. What you do in the legislature and on committees is easy compared with constituency work. I’m sure Sandy will back me up on that.

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  15. I thought I heard the PM say he hoped to get back to work and pass the budget before breaking for the summer.

    One would assume that means they’ll have perhaps the rest of this month and that’s it.

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  16. Ed, I will back you up 100%. Truthfully, I am amazed that anyone would run for public office. It is a completely thankless job. People say you don’t work hard. People say you are not worth the wages you are paid. And, people say they are not worth a pension, yadda, yadda, yadda. Then, when its over, its good riddance.

    Really guys, it is very stressful work. The problem is that MPPs, MLA’s or MPs can work 24/7 but if someone does not see them working, they think they are slacking off. They can’t win. I loved my experience but I was in the background. I could never have taken the constant flack that my boss did. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

    Some of the comments here are proof of that.

    No wonder Laureen Harper shed a few tears on Monday night.

    So, let’s not forget our humanity. There will always be winners and losers and believe me, its much better to win. But, don’t be unkind to the losers. They are human beings. They have to adjust to their loss, mourn it and then move on. I say that because I have noticed some Conservatives being snarky and, unlike progressives, I don’t think that is necessary or indicative of what we are really like.

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  17. That’s what I have heard too Liz J. I guess those who just won will just have to do the best they can. The main thing is that there be enough Conservatives present to pass the budget.

    I just thought I would explain what has to happen behind the scenes. It’s huge!

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  18. Absolutely the wrong idea. Politics is about both performance AND establishing grounds for future success. This is the perfect time to really highlight the uselessness and incapacity of the NDP which should now be a prime Conservative goal. Why-ever would you want to allow them to establish a foundation in Ottawa ? And those relatively few new Conservative members will just have to take one for the team in the interests of ‘politics’. I’m sure they would be completely understanding.
    The PM stated more than once that he intended to get things running QUICKLY. Quickly does not translate to months from now.

    Delay is a bad bad idea. Both tactically and strategically.

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  19. OK,Back to work.With or without the NDP crew there are quite a few bills that can be passed without votes and other things that can be accomplished.Getting a speaker,finding a new residence for the PM.But the world does not stop because of Canada and an election,and the worlds business has to be taken care of.So train the NDP on the job and lets get going.Any problems with offices or places to stay will be sorted out I am sure by the thousands of employees that are hired to do this sort of thing.Has anyone heard
    any rumours on where the Prime Minister is going to stay during the renovations to sussex drive residence.

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  20. Dougf has got to be a progressive to have forgotten the humanity I spoke of. Taking time to allow new members to get set up has nothing to do with strategy. It is just reality and part of the democratic process.

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  21. The 2008 election was held on Oct. 14 of that year and the budgetary update presented on Nov. 27. Why was it possible for parliament to return quickly then but not now? Are you suggesting the PM should make allowances for the larger number of new MPs elected on Monday?

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  22. Anne in swON — In 2008, most of the MPs were re-elected, meaning they already had their constituency offices and personal lodging arrangements in place. It is very different this time.

    For those who suggest running rough shod over the new members, think about that carefully. It’s about accountability to the electorate. Not only Conservatives got elected and, neither the PM nor we should forget that. Visualize it. How would it look for a House of Commons to be primarily the Conservative caucus and a few re-elected opposition members? Bully pulpit comes to mind. Not a very positive picture to start off.

    And, remember, I am a Conservative voter and supporter.

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  23. I am sure that those defeated conservatives will suggest all newly elected conservatives hire their experienced staff. Can’t wait to see Holland on moving day, wonder if he will leave stuff behind.
    By suggesting an early recall, it has made Jack come out and say he needs time to get his mps up to the job.
    Can’t elected mps use their campaign offices as their constituency office till they get set up in Ottawa. At least they will know they will be there for at least 4 yrs.

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  24. Sandy, I intended no criticism of your reason for holding off on the date for parliament’s return. The “bully pulpit” picture answers my question. Thanks for that.

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  25. No, campaign offices cannot ever be used. Expenses for those offices must be claimed to Elections Canada and all those end on voting day. We got lucky because the fellow who had rented Froese the campaign office removed all the signs and simply didn’t charge him anything for the extra time.

    As for staff, it is very rare, although not impossible, for staff from one party to work for another. It’s a question of loyalty and trust. And, as far as all those losing their jobs, it’s not automatic. Each member gets to choose. They may have had one or more volunteers on their campaign team that they want to hire. There is no movement for sure in the riding offices. New members, new staff. Just the way it is. Not a job with any job security that is for sure. But, then neither is the job of politician. In Ontario, we worked for a department that was called “Member Services,” not actually the public service. I imagine it is similar in Ottawa. However, a political staffer is considered enough of an insider that they can apply for inside public service jobs — and often get them that way.

    So, no easy route to getting it all done for any of the newbies.

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  26. Yes, read that Mary T. But, there are other rules that apply as well. As long as we give attribution and don’t use more than 500 words, we are not breaking copyright unless the feds change the copyright law. Attribution is the key of course. Other than that, its certainly not piracy or plagiarism. Not something I am going to worry about since I rarely link to a CBC source anyway. Now, I’ll have even less reason to do so. 😉

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