Entries from January 2006 ↓

Stuff

Highway 416 was a mess this afternoon. Freezing rain. The road covered with ice. Traffic reduced to plowing through two ruts on one lane. Zero visibility in the spray of the tanker trucks. I called Dorothy and told her about my white knuckles, and I am sure she thought I was a wuss, since it was plus five and clear four hours ahead of me.

In the trunk were two briefcases suffering from acute indigestion. One of them I had brought with me to Ottawa yesterday, and the other was a black government-issue sucker with wheels on it and a carrying capacity of about 400 pounds. Both were jammed and bulging with STUFF that I had collected during three hours of meetings with four different sets of people at the House of Commons.

I met the pay and benefits folks, who get to pay me, the office administration people who have twelve thousand rules about how to run a small business called an MP’s office, the stationery and postage people (home of the giant briefcases) and the information technology people who actually make Parliament work. Everyone was friendly, helpful and very respectful, plying me with a parking pass, a smart-looking smart ID card, and enough passcodes and user names to give a pachyderm memory burnout.

Along the way I kept accumulating more paper – folders, pouches, packages, thin envelopes, padded envelopes and then a whole whack of mail. I wondered how it was that I had received dozens of personalized letters six days after being elected. Hey, I was impressed, until I saw they were all from people who want something – from the Embassy of the State of Kuwait (“may we have better relations…”) to animal rights activists (“we need your help with legislation…”). In this Parliament, there are only 124 government MPs, and the lobbying of each one is bound to be furious.

But, you know, I had a good day – despite the lumpy hotel bed, and the snow I had to drag my shiny new briefcase through off Parliament Hill, and that icy drive down to the 401. It was still a good day because I was able to plug into the system I fought so hard to be a part of. I was reminded of how professional the House of Commons staff is – not a surprise, since working here must be one of the best jobs in the country. I got to tromp around those few buildings that are so full of history, unique in architecture and iconic in detail. It’s hard – even though I know these piles of stone so well – not to stop, stare up and marvel at the spires pushing up through the snow, defying the gray bleakness of the January sky.

When I got back Esther was just arriving at the constituency office for the night shift (we turned the place into an MP Help Center, which has been open every night until 9pm, thanks to her). I unloaded a mess of my House of Commons stuff on her, which made me feel better but I am sure ruined her evening. We talked about budgeting, financial accounting and procedures – of which there are way too many. But the point is simple: Every dime we spend in our office comes from the House of Commons, which comes from the government, which comes from taxpayers. And those taxpayers will want not only a reckoning, but a justification for all of it. As they should. So we had better be aware of that from day one, and act accordingly.

But I am done now. No more Ottawa for five days. Then it explodes.

By the way, in Ottawa this morning I was given a list of the assets the outgoing MP for Halton has in his office – from desks to computers, TVs to filing cabinets, shelves to printers. In a week or so the stuff will be moved to our location where we will gladly recycle it, and stop sitting on $9.95 Canadian Tire folding metal chairs.

But a lot of information will not be making the trip, as shredders moved in and have been chewing the place up for a few days now. We called the House of Commons today in an attempt to stop that, but failed. So, as we try to help people with ongoing problems and cases to solve, it will be without the benefit of their files. And I think that sucks.

It’s one thing for the guy to shutter his office immediately upon losing the election, even though he’s still being paid to be the MP. It’s questionable, his refusing to help our staff assist constituents – his and mine. But it’s completely beyond justification destroying their records, just to make us less effective, less hopeful and less worthy in the care of those people.

The voters got it right.

Out of the slush


I had forgotten what a disaster the weather in Ottawa is. When I set out from my Toronto gig this morning, it was nine degrees, no snow, with the sun peaking through the clouds. By Kingston, it was zero. By the time I was cruising down the Queensway into downtown Ottawa it was spitting freezing rain, minus five and there was slush everywhere. Downtown the snowbanks are only a foot or so high, but in the residential areas, they are over four feet. I wondered a lot why Parliament could not be in Victoria.

Anyway here I am and, crappy slush or not, it’s a good thing. The Parliament Buildings look as majestic as ever, and from my hotel room I can see the lights burning in the upper floors of the Langevin Block, where the new prime minister is plotting the launch of a new government.

I heard an hour ago that the first caucus meeting of Conservative MPs will happen next Tuesday, the day after the government is sworn in and the cabinet is announced. That will, of course, be a zoo – people milling around meeting each other, the national media out in full force looking for unsuspecting MPs ready to skewer themselves on their own words, and the inevitable strutting, puffing and postering that characterizes Ottawa.

This is quite the town, after all. I had not been in the lobby of my hotel 15 seconds before I heard my name called, and found myself talking to a cocktail table full of lobbyists who seemed dangerously interested in me. I fled. Walking into the washroom I ran into a guy who said he was from Burlington – a constituent. He pumped my hand and said, “Be very careful here. Do not change.”

That, actually, was about the 200th time I heard that today. Now that I am an MP, I asked readers of my weekly online financial column last night if they thought I should keep writing, or pack it in. After all, being a pol, how can I be trusted anymore? The response was overwhelming, and all day I have been blasted with emails form people coast-to-coast who are saying exactly the same thing. Be true to yourself, they tell me. Do not be ambitious, or sell out for position. Do what you said you would – go up there and represent the middle class.

So, I really appreciate the cheering section right now, because all anybody in this slushy place wants to talk about is the cabinet. It is more depressing that the weather, since the preoccupation in Ottawa with title and position clearly says that just being an MP is not good enough.

It would be nice if all those rung-ranking journalists and wannabee observers had actually run to be the MP in Halton over the last eight months – walking mile and mile, knocking on thousands of doors, without a job, and staring into the eyes of untold numbers of people who were looking for somebody to believe in. I think they’d realize tonight, as I do, there is honour, dignity, achievement, purpose and immense pride in why I am here. And when I walk back on to Parliament Hill, it’s not in the hope of becoming someone else, someone more important. Instead I just hope I can stay me. And I will.

Since when is being an MP not enough?

Tonight I went hunting for an apartment, ankle-deep in frozen slop. Ottawa is a big city, but it ain’t Toronto, and already the number of available rental units is being seriously reduced by new MPs looking for digs, like me.

Anyway, found one. It’s close to the Hill, nice view, but small and affordable. It will suit me just fine and when Dorothy comes to visit, I should be able to smuggle Cheka in. That MP lifestyle is about to begin – constant travel, frequent separations, nonstop stress and an impossible schedule. But, after campaigning so hard and promising so much to so many, I will be the last one to complain. Like I said, a total honour to be here.

“Keep writing Garth,” says an email that just arrived, “give us the straight goods. Give us your political insight, give us the financial advice, and just be yourself. As a long-time reader, I mostly agree with your writings, sometimes I don’t. Now that you’re an MP again, I am even more interested in your new perspective. Please avoid the party rhetoric, please do not abuse your bigger ‘soapbox.’ Please ignore the frivolous issues and just keep speaking to me, to us, the middle class Canadians who want to know what you are thinking.”

And what I’m thinking is this: I have a heavy burden now. It’s called the truth. And I will deliver it, out of the slush.

Pink walls

So, we sat around this morning amid the dregs of the campaign. Bar fridge half full of half-eaten stuff. Broken lawn signs. Rolls of poll maps. A boom box of questionable status. Unknown and discarded articles of clothing.

Somehow during a campaign you just don’t notice the space you’ve been working in has two walls painted pink and two lavender. But, in the clear light of a post-election world, looking at this now as a constituency office and an outpost of the federal government, it sucks. I smell a lot of paint in my future.

But this morning we – Will and Dan, both smart guys, both volunteers, both professional pollsters, both with a huge amount to add – ignored the walls for a while and focused on what went right, and wrong, with our campaign in Halton. Man, lots to discuss.

The starting point was how much work I actually put into winning. Eight months of campaigning, with over 25,000 doors personally knocked (another 20,000 by the team), an intensive local media campaign and oodles of community events. My efforts attracted an army of volunteers, a fair whack of money and every visible outward sign that the campaign had, by E-day, turned into a steamroller.

The bottom line, of course, is that we won the riding. After 13 years of Liberal entrenchment, we were successful in taking a 6,000 vote deficit last time and turning it into a 2,000 vote surplus. It was a major accomplishment. We celebrated it with gusto.

But what we discussed today is why the margin of victory was slimmer than expected. After all, the local Liberal was hardly a household name. As far as we know, he didn’t bother knocking on many, if any, doors. His campaign office was dark most nights. His literature was amateurish and spotty in its delivery. And it was me, not him, who had media coverage – local and national – pegging me the frontrunner from almost the first week of the campaign.

So, why did we not win with double the plurality? A question very worth asking, The answers might be of value to the next campaign, other ridings, other candidates in the GTA and Ontario, and the Conservative party in big hunks of the country.

Well, actually, there are no answers. Just some comments from three guys sitting in a pink office on a Sunday morning in Milton, Ontario. Here are a few things we chewed on:

– Lots of voters in Halton, where oodles of young families are buying homes, have never really been aware of any other kind of government but a Liberal one. Thirteen years is a long time, which means a 31-year-old hockey dad in north Burlington was an 18-year-old student (with things other than federal politics on his mind) when the Conservatives were last in office.

– For 13 years Liberals have had the power of incumbency behind them – pumping out householders, running columns in the local papers, popping up in every ribbon-cutting ceremony. The brand has been ingrained into the community to the extent Liberals have been winning elections without actually trying.

– The attack ads may have worked. And so did the smear campaign – the fear and the doubt-mongering that characterized the final two weeks. Nationally, Paul Martin hammered away saying Conservatives would take away a woman’s right to choose, and also alleged we would run a $23 billion deficit. Locally, the Liberal pumped out press releases and mailers accusing me of wanting to eliminate local governments, shut down the auto industry and bring in user fees at hospitals. No eating kittens, though.

– There is an innate fear of social conservativism in most of the urban areas of the riding, like there exists in several key Canadian cities in which Tories won no seats. It is, it seems, the residue of the Reform Party which will take a few more elections to fade. Enough voters believed me when I said our party is open, modern, mainstream and tolerant, but many others are waiting to see that proven by actions.

Of course, I might have hurt myself with my aggressive and non-stop campaigning. It’s conceivable Liberals who might have just let change happen, decided this Turner punk needed showing. Hence the fact the local Liberal’s voting numbers actually increased from 2004, while ours went w-a-y up.

In any case, the election is over, and it was won. Now it is my duty to be not only the best MP that ever existed, but also understand the job at hand preparing for the next vote. Suddenly, in Halton, Conservatives have incumbency. With that comes opportunity. And I was never one to balk at opportunity.