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.