When Liberal MP Mark Holland lost his Toronto-area seat in the 2011 federal election, he also gave up something else: his identity.
The long-time politician – first elected to the eastern suburb of Ajax, Ont., in 2004 at the age of 29, after years as a municipal councillor – realized he didn’t have any real friends. His marriage crumbled; he felt disconnected from his three children. He didn’t know what to do with himself.
“I poured my soul into the party in the lead-up to that period. And it’s fair to say that I had nothing in the way of a personal life,” said Mr. Holland, who turns 44 next month.
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“I had no Plan B. … I really didn’t know even how to stand up.”
It’s an experience that Mr. Holland, who won back his seat in the 2015 federal election, will bring to his new role as chief government whip when Parliament is set to resume next week. Known as a loyal soldier who helped defend the government on difficult files such as its ill-fated electoral reform pledge, Mr. Holland will be in charge of assigning committee roles, disciplining MPs and ensuring the party has all the votes it needs in the Commons.
In Mr. Holland’s case, however, the job comes with a healthy dose of empathy, too.
“I come into this role knowing for MPs that throwing yourself all into this job and having it be your total passion – there’s a real personal price to pay for that,” Mr. Holland, whose children are now 18, 19 and 22, said recently over lunch in Ottawa.
“I didn’t balance that as well as I should have. I have a great relationship with my kids, I think they understand what I’m trying to do and why I’m here. But, you know, there are definitely moments I could have been a better father. And I try to make that right today.”
Mr. Holland views his new role through a lens of tough love and understanding.
“It’s a lot of saying ‘no,’” Mr. Holland said. “It’s a lot of delivering tough news. And a lot of telling people they can’t be where they want to be, or do what they want to do.”
That said, “A good whip doesn’t whip. … A good whip pulls people together and gets them onto the same page.”
Drawing on his own experience as a political staffer and organizer, Mr. Holland said he knows what it's like to experience aggression at work.
“I’ve been screamed at, I’ve had things thrown at my face. Stuff that had me go home and cry at the end of the day,” he said. “People get under enormous stress, and they don’t necessarily vent that stress appropriately.”
He will be faced with the continuing challenge of creating a safe workplace on Parliament Hill – an issue that came to the forefront this year during the #MeToo movement, which has sought to bring to light incidents of sexual harassment that have been hidden for years.
He said he hopes to foster an environment that encourages people, including young staffers, to come forward, noting he believes mediation can serve both parties. But he admits there are no hard rules on how punishment is meted out in harassment cases. “To a certain degree there has to be some inconsistency of outcome, because of the fact that every circumstance is different,” he said.
(In a follow-up phone call, Mr. Holland said he doesn’t think Justin Trudeau’s reaction to an 18-year-old groping allegation, in which the Prime Minister said he did not believe he acted inappropriately, but understands that a woman can experience interactions differently, would discourage anyone from coming forward. “The matter’s been answered to,” Mr. Holland said. “We’re going to take a look at all situations individually. It becomes particularly difficult if an incident is 20 years old or 30 years old … but I think every instance will be listened to.")
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Mr. Holland’s involuntary political hiatus led him to some unexpected places. He took improvisation classes at Second City in Toronto. He worked his way up to an executive director position at the Heart and Stroke Foundation. And he connected with his kids again, attending concerts and going dancing with his daughter.
But the political animal – who first started volunteering for the Liberals at the age of 12 – couldn’t stay away. He decided to run again in 2015, beating former immigration minister Chris Alexander.
This summer, he said he seriously considered running for Ontario Liberal leader, but decided against it. He said he plans to run again federally in the 2019 election.
Most of all, he said his time away from politics taught him that it’s the institutions – not his own needs – that matter the most.
“I took myself way too seriously,” Mr. Holland said. “Now I have a lot more respect for the role, and less respect for how important I am in all of this.”