Barry Campbell, a former Liberal MP, is president of Campbell Strategies and publisher of Parli.ca.
I once sat by the phone, waiting, as you did, for "the call." A newly elected Liberal MP in Toronto in the Jean Chrétien government, I watched and waited as the days went by. Journalists and friends repeatedly told me: "You'll be in cabinet. He can't pass you over." Like you, I did the calculations: gender, regional balance, friendships, experience, competence. "Maybe a few rookies will squeak in," friends assured me. "Let me make a call," others offered.
My phone, like yours, stayed silent. I waited and then, like you, watched with a sense of emptiness as the new cabinet was sworn in. You go from the euphoria of election night to the ignominy of the left-behinds.
You are asking yourself this. Who am I now? A backbencher? Didn't prime minister Trudeau "le Père" say we were "nobodies?" You know what cabinet ministers do (or, that they have staff to tell them what to do). But, truly, what do you do now?
The RCMP will not be showing up at your door to protect you. Images of satellite trucks in your driveway need to be, for now, set aside. Other indignities will follow: an inferior office on the Hill, a seat truly on the back bench.
Congratulations, you are a backbencher. Now get over yourself. Take a walk on Parliament Hill and look at the Maple Leaf flying over the Peace Tower. Take a deep breath and soldier on. You have earned the title "MP." Now use it.
If you want to feel powerful, talk to your constituents. They think that you can do anything for them. Often you can't; but they will thank you for trying. That will be humbling and you can use a dose of that. You're not giving speeches at the United Nations; but you will be giving speeches locally, some of which you will actually get to write yourself.
You'll have a TV spot on CPAC. This will be your 15 minutes of fame. Just remember you're not Jon Stewart. Hone your skills for down the road. Your mother will see you on television. She won't remember what you said, only that you looked nice.
School groups from the riding will visit, tour the Hill and want to meet you. It's a thrill to explain to impressionable young kids (future voters!) how this great democracy works, while you disguise the part about what a small cog you are in the great machinery of government.
The political arena is not for the meek. There is much to learn and some of that is hard: how to create distance between brain and mouth so you are not the subject of an unfortunate headline and a nasty call from the Prime Minister's Office; how to make everyone still like you even when you couldn't do much to help; and how to be patient knowing that you can't fix everything. Victories may be few and small, but still worth it.
You will learn from your caucus colleagues (each of whom thinks he or she is as smart and deserving as you) and learn how to give credit when it is due and when to keep your own counsel. Learn how to live to fight another day, how to speak at caucus meetings and be noticed (humour helps) and how to be a partisan loyalist and a relentless self-promoter without losing your soul and the still be the person who came to Ottawa to serve their country.
My advice is this: Your power will come through how well you develop and manage relationships – with the cabinet, your colleagues, Hill staff, civil servants and even the opposition. Your lack of an official portfolio means that you can be more objective and provide cabinet ministers with an unvarnished perspective they'll appreciate (mostly).
Pick both your battles and causes carefully. Most important, pick an issue and be its voice. Make it yours.
A four-year mandate is a long period. Who knows? In a few months or years, that call could still come: parliamentary secretary, committee chair, the cabinet! It did for me. Until then, the opportunity is what you make of it, not how others make it for you.