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A Canadian flag flies over Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 21, 2011. A House of Commons committee has passed a report recommending the Harper government be found in contempt of Parliament. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
A Canadian flag flies over Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 21, 2011. A House of Commons committee has passed a report recommending the Harper government be found in contempt of Parliament. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Lessons for the first-time MPs Add to ...

Here's one of those awkward moments the hundred or so rookie MPs elected Monday may soon face.

You go to a community function in your riding. A raffle takes place. Of course people expect you, their member of Parliament, to buy a ticket.

Do you tell them it's not in your budget? No, says former MP Eleni Bakopanos. You learn you have to pay it out of your own pocket. Even if you go to six of those events every weekend.

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And you will go to six of those events a weekend. Even if you are shy. Even if you are exhausted from your week-long 16-hour-a-day workload.

This is the kind of life a political neophyte can expect with public life, says Ms. Bakopanos, who was first elected to the Commons in 1993.

It was the last time Canada's political landscape changed so much, when the Progressive Conservatives imploded and the newly formed Bloc Québécois and Reform parties sent nearly a hundred neophyte MPs - including one named Stephen Harper - to Ottawa.

The new job had its challenges but was immensely rewarding for Ms. Bakopanos, a Liberal for the Montreal riding of Saint-Denis, and for Ian McClelland, another rookie from 1993, who won Edmonton Southwest for the Reformers.

Here, they share some lessons they learned as parliamentary newcomers.

EXPECT HOMEWORK

It can be a grind, as MPs attend parliamentary committees and caucus meetings, sit in the House, prepare bills. Then they head to their ridings, where most of the time is devoted to helping constituents deal with the federal bureaucracy, helping them with their visas or immigration files.

"People's problems don't stop at five o'clock on Friday," said Ms. Bakopanos.

Weekends are spent in the riding, attending social functions, seniors' club anniversaries, charity auctions. "My normal Saturdays would be three to four events. And Sundays would be one or two churches and one or two events … I did a lot of bingos."

YOU'LL BE WHIPPED

The rookie MPS will have to learn to deal with party discipline, to stay on message, to say things they may not fully support.

"There is very little spontaneity. Once a decision was made in caucus you were pretty much expected to toe the party line. It was a question of making sure you sang from the same hymn sheet," Mr. McClelland said.

Some dealt with it better than others. "As you may recall, I wasn't particularly good at that," he said with a laugh. At the time, he had been one of three Reformers who riled their caucus by voting in favour of long-gun registration.

From that experience, he learned that political rivals can often more civil to you than the young political staffers tasked with monitoring their own caucus, Mr. McClelland said.

"They will find that they have a 20-something standing over their shoulders, making sure they toe the party line."

YOU WON'T WIN THEM ALL

"When we came to Ottawa we were full of idealism. Not many of us had a clue what we were doing," Mr. McClelland said, adding that his party's greenhorns were at first outwitted by the more experienced Liberal government.

"While we were trying to figure where the washrooms were, they were able to do pretty much anything they wanted."

Ms. Bakopanos's lesson is that new MPs need to pick their battles wisely, which in her case meant focusing on social justice, women's rights and minority issues. "Choose where you want to leave your mark. Choose areas of policy where you want to make a difference."

HUMILITY HELPS - SOMETIMES, AT LEAST

"Never expect a thank you for what you did," Ms. Bakopanos said. "There should be no expectation that you will satisfy anybody."

And being humble helps you accept that no matter how much you try to satisfy constituents or fellow caucus members, circumstances beyond your control may defeat you.

"When the wave comes, that wave takes everybody, not matter how good or bad you've been," she said, alluding to the incumbents who were defeated Monday night.

Mr. McClelland also noted the ephemeral nature of political life.

"Today you're a hero. And when you lose the election, the phone stops ringing. So you can't allow your persona to be defined by being a member of Parliament."

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