Life as a Parliamentarian, speech to Adventures in Citizenship group

Dennis Gruending in the House of Commons , 1999
Dennis Gruending speaking in the House of Commons , 1999

Each year the Rotary Club sponsors Adventures in Citizenship, a program where high school students drawn from across Canada spend time in Ottawa to see how our government works. I participated on a panel of former MPs speaking to 200 students and I talked to them about dreams they might have of one day sitting in Parliament.

Life as a Parliamentarian Speech

Thank you for inviting me to be here in a room filled with so many bright young people. You may have heard some jokes making the rounds about politicians. There’s the one about the politician who shakes your hand before the election and shakes your confidence later. Or about the politician who knows there are two sides to every issue and takes both of them.Joking aside, I am proud to have served as a parliamentarian, and I suspect that some of you would like to serve in elected office as well. This could be at various levels – on school or hospital boards, as a city councillor, as a provincial member of the legislature, or as a member of Parliament.

So, I want to start with questions that you might be asking yourself about public life as a career.

My path to public life

There are many paths to public life. I came to politics through my career in journalism. I lived in Saskatchewan and I wrote biographies on two of our most eminent citizens, Allan Blakeney and Emmett Hall. You may not have heard of Supreme Court Justice Emmett Hall. But you should thank him every time you see a doctor or visit a clinic or hospital, because it was his royal commission that recommended public health care for Canada. Mr. Blakeney was an excellent premier and one of those involved in bringing the Canadian constitution home from Great Britain and providing Canada with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

These are people of great integrity, energy and ability. They were able to make a difference in the lives of their fellow citizens. As I researched about them and interviewed them, I began to think that I would like to be in public life. I did not expect to make a contribution as significant as theirs, but I thought that I might accomplish something.

Questions to ask before you run

The decision to seek public office could be one of the most important ones that you ever make, so you should think about it seriously and honestly. First, have a little talk with yourself, and answer the following three questions:

Why do I want to run? Can I win? What will I do if I win?

Why do you want to run? Maybe you have always wanted to. Or maybe you want to keep a school or a park or a swimming pool from closing. Perhaps you feel passionately about an environmental issue such as climate change, or about the treatment of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

So let’s say that you have thought about it and decided that you want to run for office. Then it’s time to ask yourself if you can win. Some people run to further a cause or to make a statement, and that’s fine, but believe me it is much more pleasant to win than to lose.

Ask yourself, can I win this time, or if not this time then next time? We call that the two-election strategy. Here are some questions to pose

Is this the right timing for me? Will my loved ones and friends support me?  Can I afford it? Do I have experience and the name recognition? Do I have name recognition? Do I have a strong work ethic?  Can I raise the money, because elections can be expensive?

What to do when you win?

Let’s take this further. Let’s say you decide to run. You win the nomination and you win the election. You are suddenly into a new phase. You are a councillor, an MLA or MPP, an MP. Then what? Try to visualize yourself in that role. Ask yourself: What will I do when I win?

Why is that important?  It was Pierre Trudeau who said that most MPs are nobodies once they are a few hundred metres away from Parliament Hill. That was an arrogant statement, but also one with quite a lot of truth in it. Most MPs are not in the cabinet and do not hold one of the top jobs in their caucus. They are on the fringe rather than being in the centre of decision-making. As an MP you give a lot of speeches to a nearly empty House of Commons.  At times, it seems that nobody notices all of the hard work that you do.

Once elected you should be passionate and knowledgeable about something. When I was an MP, John Bryden, one of my parliamentary colleagues, was passionate about access to information and the public’s right to know. He knew more about that than probably any other MP. For long time Liberal MP Charles Caccia it was the environment. In a previous generation, for Stanley Knowles, it was adequate pensions for seniors.

The life of an MP

My colleagues on this panel served in the House of Commons for longer than I did, and they will be able to tell you about the life of a parliamentarian. I will make a few quick points.

You will work long hours and you will divide your time between Ottawa and your constituency. You will do a lot of travelling back and forth. You will try both to serve your constituents and to participate in debates and votes in the House of Commons.

I represented the poor side of Saskatoon and my riding extended out into the countryside. Many people in my riding lived in poverty. They didn’t have an accountant or lawyer or investment broker. The MP’s office was kind of a one-stop shopping centre for them.

My staff and I spent a lot of time on immigration casework. There are a lot of people who want to immigrate to Canada. Their families in this country feel very passionate about having their loved ones with them and them and they wanted our help.

We also did a lot of work around the Canada Pension Plan disability provisions. This would come up when people were injured on the job or somehow incapacitated. They had to go through a long and complex process to prove that they really were disabled, and people become enormously frustrated by the bureaucracy and the wait.

I mentioned that many of my constituents were farmers, and they have been living with an economic crisis for years now. The federal government has responded with some programs, but it has been difficult to get the money to people in time to save their farms, and in many cases it is not possible to save those farms. I did a lot of advocacy work on behalf of farmers dealing with the government’s agricultural bureaucracy.

I should mention that you run for office as the member of a party, in my case the NDP. But once you are elected, you serve as an MP for everyone. I was trying to help a woman and her family to save their farm. I found out later that she was working in the political campaign of the person setting up to run against me. That hurt, but it didn’t mean that I stopped working on her behalf.

All of this is a balancing act, because while you are serving your constituents and doing your share in the House of Commons, you will always have preparations for the next election in the back of your mind.

In Ottawa you may live in a hotel, an apartment or even a small room. It’s kind of like being a university or college student all over again. You will work long hours and the temptation will be to eat on the run, and to go to too many receptions for a sandwich and a glass of wine. I avoided most receptions, or moved very quickly through them, and I worked out as often as I could in the gym.

You will find it difficult balance your life between the public and private spheres, between your work and your family. If any of you have dads or moms who work altogether too much, you will know what I am saying.  People in public life have to be really careful on that score. Nothing is more precious than your family and your other loved ones. They were there for you before politics. In fact, they probably helped you get elected. And let’s hope they are there for you, and you for them, after your time in politics. It is a fickle profession. You can be sailing along as an MP one month and in the next you can be defeated in an election. You will want and need your loved ones to surround you with their affection and support when that day comes.

Yes, it’s worth it

This may all sound daunting. But is it worth it? Yes, it is. Serving your community in elected office is a high calling. You will participate in our country’s great debates and issues. You work to your utmost capacity, and you can make a difference.

Your choice to seek elected office will be one of the most important decisions that you will ever make. I do hope and expect that some of you will make that choice and that I will see and hear you one day in the House of Commons.

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Dennis

Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament