An open letter to new MPs

Dear new MPs,

Congratulations on being elected! You’ve every right to be excited – as a fellow Canadian who is hoping that the house can be changed, I’m excited too. You are the largest group of young MPs to hit the house in a long time. You’re also mostly from the same province (Quebec) and of the same party (NDP). So you have a lot in common – you can act collectively. Don’t be afraid to use that power.

Because as exciting as everything is, things are stacked against you. Remember. Ottawa has worked itself into a nice groove around how MPs are supposed to behave and how the house is supposed to work. Everything will be pushing you into that mold.

First, you’ll arrive in Ottawa (maybe you already have) and you’ll partake in the one day (half-day?) new MP orientation. Don’t expect much. If you want a real orientation, find Aaron Wherry. Read his article hear on why the House is broken (there is this video of him too). This is the orientation you really need.

But the real first test will come when you set up your office. The test will happen so quickly and so subtly you won’t even notice it. It will go something simple like this: you want to use a Mac or an Android phone as an MP. A friendly parliamentary IT staff will deferentially but sternly tell you that for reasons of security and compatibility this isn’t possible. They’ll be a moment of awkwardness and, the next thing you know, you’ll be sitting in your office, using a HP desktop computer with Windows 7 thinking “I’m so lucky to have been set up this quickly…”

Stop. Stop right there.

The real lesson learned there was that – when it comes to parliamentary staff. You will do as your told. That you are young enough, pliant enough, naive enough to follow their lead. Remember. You are the elected officials. They are the staff. It’s their job to meet your needs. Not the other way around. If you are going to reshape parliament. Make it more open, more democratic, more accessible to a broader group of possible MPs you cannot learn the first lesson they will try to teach you: Compliance.

Sadly, it isn’t just the staff that will be trying to prod you into the gentle groove of an MP. One of your biggest obstacles will be your party elders. They will dangle a big carrot in front of you: the opportunity to be in Government and, the opportunity to be in Cabinet. In exchange they too will want compliance. You must read from the party line, sit on this committee, not that committee, ask this questions in the house, don’t ask that one. Be a good MP.

Stop. Stop right there.

Don’t believe it. Maybe you will have an opportunity to be in government, and even cabinet (and even if you do, even these positions are so controlled by the PMO as to have varying degrees of autonomy). But the reality is. It isn’t likely. Few people get into cabinet. Still more starkly, many people don’t get re-elected (it happens to even the best of politicians). You may think you are playing a long game, but the truth is, the opportunity to be difficult, to demand change in how the house works, to cause a fuss, is now. Not tomorrow. If you wait, you may think you’ll be able to change the house one day in the future, but in reality, the house will change you. The best way to change our house of parliament is to have a group of young MPs angry, hungry, carefree and naive enough to simply demand it. That’s you. That’s right now.

I don’t pretend it will be easy. You’ve got the government, parliamentary staff, even your own party leaders working against you in different ways. But don’t underestimate your influence. Even the small things you can demand could make everybody’s lives more interesting. Make CPAC pan out when MPs are talking so we can see how few people are in the house. Demand a bigger research budget so that you can display some have some independent thought on issues and not rely on your party’s research bureau for all your information. Blog about your committees so that Canadians don’t have to just rely on Kady O’Malley who can only be in so many committees).

You’ve got a chance to make a fuss. I hope you’ll take it. But either way. Good luck.

PS Sorry for any typos, sadly lost the first draft of this, so have been rushing to publish this version before flying out the door.

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