Parliament Hill’s new faces can’t let Ottawa’s mandarins set the agenda.
Dear new MPs,
Congratulations on being elected! You have every right to be excited. As a fellow Canadian who is hoping that the House can be changed, I’m excited too. You are the largest group of young MPs to hit the House in a long time. You’re also mostly from the same province (Quebec) and of the same party (NDP). So you have a lot in common, which means you can act collectively. Don’t be afraid to use that power. This is especially important because, as exciting as everything is, things are stacked against you. Remember: Ottawa has worked itself into a nice groove around how MPs are supposed to behave and how the House is supposed to work. Everything will be pushing you into that mould.
First, you’ll arrive in Ottawa (or maybe you already have) and you’ll partake in the one-day (half-day?) new-MP orientation. Don’t expect much. If you want a real orientation, find Maclean’s columnist Aaron Wherry. Read his article on why the House is broken, or watch this video of him. This is the orientation you really need.
The first real test will come when you set up your office. The test will happen so quickly and so subtly you won’t even notice it. It will go something like this: As an MP, you will want to use a Mac or an Android phone. A friendly member of the parliamentary IT staff will deferentially but sternly tell you that, for reasons of security and compatibility, this isn’t possible. There’ll be a moment of awkwardness and then, the next thing you know, you’ll be sitting in your office using an HP desktop computer with Windows 7, and thinking, “I’m so lucky to have been set up this quickly … ”
Stop. Stop right there.
The real lesson that you will have learned there is that – when it comes to taking “advice” from parliamentary staff – you will do as you’re told. You will have learned that you are young enough, pliant enough, and naïve enough that you should follow their lead.
But remember: You are the elected officials. They are the staff. It’s their job to meet your needs, not the other way around. If you are going to reshape Parliament, making it more open, more democratic, and more accessible to a broader group of possible MPs, you cannot learn the first lesson they will try to teach you: compliance.
Sadly, it isn’t just the staff that will try to prod you into the gentle groove of what an MP is “supposed” to be like. One of your biggest obstacles will be your party elders. They will dangle a big carrot in front of you: the opportunity to be in government, and the opportunity to be in cabinet. In exchange, they, too, will want compliance. You must read from the party line; sit on this committee, not that committee; ask these questions in the House, but don’t ask that one. Be a good MP.
Stop. Stop right there.
Don’t believe it. Maybe you will have an opportunity to be in government, or even in cabinet. (Granted, even if you do, even these positions are so controlled by the Prime Minister’s Office that they have varying degrees of autonomy.) But the reality is, it isn’t likely that this will happen. Few people get into cabinet. Still more starkly, many people don’t get re-elected (it happens to even the best of politicians).
You might think you are playing a long game, but, the truth is, the opportunity to be difficult, to demand change in how the House works, and to cause a fuss is now – not tomorrow. You might think you’ll be able to change the House one day in the future, but, in reality, if you wait too long, the House will change you. The best way to change Parliament is to have a group of young MPs who are angry, hungry, carefree, and naïve enough to simply demand it. That’s you. That’s right now.
I’m not saying it will be easy. You’ve got the government, parliamentary staff, and even your own party leaders working against you in different ways. But don’t underestimate your influence. Even the small things you can demand have the potential to make everybody’s lives more interesting. Make CPAC pan out when MPs are talking so we can see how few people are actually in the House. Demand a bigger research budget so that you can display some independent thought on issues and not rely on your party’s research bureau for all your information. Blog about your committees so that Canadians don’t have to rely solely on Kady O’Malley (who can only be in so many committee meetings at one time).
You’ve got a chance to make a fuss. I hope you’ll take it. But either way, good luck.