Working on Parliament Hill is a unique experience and it’s an environment that’s very hard to compare to other work places at times. This is especially true if you work in a partisan position, either as an MP, Senator or political staff. The pressures are unique and really, the reactions to those pressures is very unique too.
That unique culture is something that has been built over time and is engendered into newly elected MPs by more senior ones who act as mentors. Those mentors help to show the newbies the ropes, learn the rules and can serve as a sounding board for them when they face situations that maybe they aren’t sure what to do with. But while that mentorship is a good thing, it also helps to re-enforce the old ways of the place, some of the bad habits and can at times make it harder to improve the general tone of the place.
I have been thinking about this this weekend because of the newest developments in the SNC/PMO Scandal. But before going into those, let me take a step back to the late Fall of 2015, after the election that brought the Trudeau Liberals to power. The result of the 2015 election was notable for a few reasons, but there was one that kind of flew under the radar, but one that I’ve been watching since that time out of honest curiosity. You see, during most elections in Canadian history you don’t see a huge amount of turnover in MPs; yes, you do get new blood while others retire or at defeated, but typically the large majority of MPs are elected are returning MPs. That means that a smallish number of new MPs come in to a chamber where the culture and approach of the place is very well entrenched.
But the results of the 2015 election made for a rare situation; around two thirds of the MPs elected in that election were brand new. Thanks to the convergence of a lot of retirements, combined with the third to first election of the Liberals, you ended up with a house full of newbies. And it just wasn’t the Liberals, although they naturally made up by far the largest cohort of the newly elected. The Conservatives had a dozen or so, and the NDP had around 16, despite losing 60 seats.
So for me this Parliament was going to be an interesting one to observe because for one of the rare times in Canadian history, the newbies outnumbered the senior members. Most of those newbies came to Ottawa without the bad habits that we all complain about over time and came in with a different view of how things should be done. Simply put, if there ever was a chance to improve the tone and get away from the old, simple “business of usual” view of things, surely this Parliament was the best chance we’ve ever seen.
So a long-passing curiosity of mine in this Parliament has simply been to watch, to see how this would all play out. In some ways, I would say it’s been a more collegial; I especially saw this in Committees, where I experienced an environment I never had before in my previous six years before that election. That gave me hope that maybe this is getting better. But towards the end of this week, the SNC/PMO Scandal has proved to be quite the litmus test of this, and I think the results are interesting:
To me, seeing this reaction has been interesting, just as much for what’s being said as for whose saying it. This whole “Speak up or Shut Up” line from the government isn’t a winner, which I’ll get to in a bit, but it’s also a window into this old class/new class paradox. It’s not a surprise to me that all of those who are saying that line so far are long-sitting MPs in the Liberal caucus, who have sat in past governments. Their language screams of “This is how things are done…. Don’t rock the boat”, which is quite the opposite of doing better or the Sunny ways the PM promised on the election trail. I’d also note that the MPs that David Akin mentioned “liking/RTing” the tweet are all newbies, although some have long deeper roots in the party. Marc Serré, for example, is the second generation MP in his family, as his father was an MP in the past. So some of them may feel a more natural affinity with the longer-sitting crowd or that maybe more likely to take the “this is how things are done” view.
On the other hand, though, it’s been Jody Wilson-Raybould, Jane Philpott, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Wayne Long and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith who have been among the more vocal ones on the other side of the SNC issue. They have been wanting to get to the truth, have been calling for more transparency and wanting to see their party be better. Wilson-Raybould made that point abundantly clear in the letter she sent to her constituents when she said “We need never resign ourselves to the excuse that “this is just the way things are done””. They are clear that this is an issue of principle for them.
But while this is clearly an issue of principle for the new group, for the experienced group they see machinations, scheming and power seeking. They see plotting and ill-intent on the part of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott. To me, this is where I’m seeing this dichotomy play out, between the new and the old. The older group has live through and seen those kinds on intrigues before, so for them, that’s what they know and expect; they seem to have a hard time believing or accepting that these people would resign on principle of all things. But for the newer group, I think they are trying to save their party from themselves; I think that they believed the rhetoric they ran on and are now doing what they can to try to make it a reality. I see that as one of the big tensions here.
And it seems that the PMO is blind to that tension, or at least believe they can plow it under by this tactic of calling them out publicly. But you see, there is a big problem with that approach, one that Darrel Bricker of IPSOS pointed out this morning:
You see, according to the polling so far, it seems that Wilson-Raybould and Philpott have the credibility, while it is the PM and his government that are lacking in that measure. Most people in the general public connect with this idea of principle and acting upon it, rather than “inside the bubble” political machinations. As Bricker points out, if you want to challenge their motives, you need to have more credibility than they do, and the PM simply lacks that at this point. Taking this approach of attacking the messengers isn’t helping or changing that fact, and is just digging their own electoral hole.
It may be a bit cathartic and make some caucus members feel better by getting to vent, but it’s not helping their cause at all. In fact, it’s making those tweeting “stand up or shut up” really sound more like their yelling “get off my lawn”, which isn’t really the younger, sunny ways image the Liberals ran on successfully last time. I’ll be curious to see going forward what the rest of those other newbie MPs do as this continues because, remember, they are the majority in the Liberal caucus. They can set the course if they choose to; the question remains about the effect of the last three years has had on their view and approach. Time will tell.