From candidate to elected member: will new MPs face a trial by fire after the 2019 Canadian federal election?

Louise.CockramNews.jpgCanadian voters will today cast their votes in a tight federal election, after  which a large number of first-time MPs are expected to take their seats. Following interviews she conducted with sitting MPs and parliamentary staff, Louise Cockram argues that new members are currently forced to rely on their parties to acclimatise to the House of Commons, and that the official House induction has limited impact.

While the UK waits for a possible snap election, Canadians have been in election mode for months in advance of the federal election that will take place today (21 October). Public opinion polls and the backlash to recent controversies suggest that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals may lose some seats, while a third of New Democratic Party MPs plan to leave politics altogether. This means that a fresh crop of MPs will arrive in Ottawa in late October. These rookie MPs will have spent the past few months knocking on the doors of potential voters, attending community events and coordinating campaigns for party members in their constituency. Once elected they will have to adapt to the procedural rules of the House, as well as answer demands from their constituents and party whips. What will it take for these new MPs to transition from being a party candidate to an elected member? 

A joint project between Carleton University and the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield attempts to answer this very question. As part of the project we have spoken to 26 Canadian MPs who were elected following the 2011 and 2015 federal elections, as well as seven House of Commons staff who are responsible for facilitating the induction of MPs. The purpose of these interviews is to find out how newly elected MPs learn to do the job of an elected representative once they enter the House. The MPs interviewed for the project were from all the major parties in Canada (the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP) and were from different parts of the country. Indeed, due to Canada’s vast geography, many MPs face challenges balancing their constituency and parliamentary duties. It takes a full day for an MP who represents a riding (electoral district) in Northern British Columbia to travel to their constituency from Ottawa. This presents difficulties for the MP not only in terms of their ability to represent constituents but also puts a strain on family life.

Despite the best efforts of the Canadian House of Commons to support new MPs through these challenges, the induction of MPs is itself a highly political endeavour and in reality induction from the House is likely to be of limited value. Since the House induction does not have much influence on the way MPs go about their job, we surmised that there must be an alternative venue for MPs’ parliamentary education. We have found that the majority of MPs end up learning to do their job through their party whip and House leader’s office or through informal interactions with colleagues in their party. The induction is heavily mediated through the parties rather than the House for two reasons. First, the heavy demands placed on MPs’ schedules immediately means that they cannot absorb the deluge of information provided to them by the House. Second, the central role of the parties in political life means that new MPs are more likely to seek guidance from their party than the House. 

What role does the Canadian House of Commons play in MP Induction?

Since 1979, the Canadian House of Commons has provided a formal induction programme for new MPs. The House devotes a lot of resources to the induction for new MPs and spends months preparing the induction program in advance of each election. In 2011 and 2015 the induction was held over the course of two days with one day focusing on the administrative aspects of being an MP (e.g. claiming travel expenses, setting up the constituency and parliamentary office) and the second day focusing on procedure in the House. In 2019, the House plans to conduct the two-day induction in smaller groups based on party. This change is in response to feedback from the MPs that they do not feel comfortable raising questions in the larger sessions out of fear of embarrassing themselves in front of their new colleagues. 

To supplement the induction sessions, staff from the various service centres in the House (IT, legal services), as well as the Library of Parliament, conduct office visits with new MPs. During these office visits each service centre gives an overview of what they can provide to the MP, as well as who to contact in case the MP has a question. Since 2010 the Canadian House has also organised a buddy system whereby members of staff from the House of Commons are seconded to help MPs navigate Parliament (e.g. how to get phone lines and computers set up in their parliamentary offices). MPs have mixed opinions on the effectiveness of the buddy system – some say that it was useful to have an experienced member of staff available to them, while others say they quickly get buried in their duties and become too busy to utilise their buddy. 

Overall the MPs we spoke to found the information provided to them during the two-day induction period and from the service centres to be overwhelming. This is compounded by the fact that MPs also have to respond to constituents for the first time, hire staff and get their offices set up. To remedy the problem of information overload, the MPs we interviewed suggested that the House provide supplemental induction sessions throughout the course of a parliament. From the House’s point of view, there are logistical challenges in providing induction sessions beyond the initial induction period in the House as MPs quickly get swamped by constituency and House duties. The House has attempted to provide additional induction sessions in the past, but these were ill-attended. 

What role do political parties play in MP induction? 

The second provider of induction for MPs in Canada are the political parties. Induction from the parties is more ad hoc and is conducted through regular party caucus sessions and interactions between MPs and the chief whip/House leader’s office. 

The political parties play an important role in MP induction both by offering induction sessions to new members during meetings of their party’s caucus but also through answering questions on House procedure and other matters. Indeed, many of the MPs we interviewed told us that when they were first elected they would go to the House leader or chief whip’s office for advice on procedural matters instead of the Clerks or table officers. The induction and advice from parties seems to focus on how the new MPs can best contribute to the party’s strategy in the House. For instance, the Conservative Party conducts mock question periods so that MPs can learn the most effective intonation and language to use when making statements and asking questions in the House. 

What did we find through our interviews? 

On the whole, the formal induction provided by the House does not seem to leave much of an impression on MPs. As mentioned previously, many of the MPs we interviewed became overwhelmed by the information provided during the two-day induction period. When asked how they learned the job of an MP, one MP told us that ‘You’re basically thrown in off the deep end, so you sink or swim.’ Another MP recounted that the process of learning to be an MP:

‘[is a] trial by fire, it’s wild. You take a lot of lessons from your life experience before you enter politics and you come with the perspective that you’ve built over the course of your life figuring out what you care about. You learn about the specific issues that matter to the people you represent during the campaign and from growing up in a community but the actual day to day stuff you more or less figure it out as you go.’

The feedback from MPs indicates that they learn their role informally rather than through the formal induction provided by the House. This informal induction comes both from advice from longer-serving MPs, as well as sitting and watching the behaviour of other MPs in the House. Many MPs told us that they received ad hoc advice from senior MPs on a variety of topics including procedure, work-family balance and their living situation in Ottawa. This advice was more likely to be provided by MPs in their own party, in particular through the whip’s office. When asked who they would go to for advice, one MP told us that: ‘I think my automatic instinct, because I saw them all the time, [was to] ask other members of parliament or my whip’s office just because they were always in the lobby.’ 

MPs were also more likely to receive this advice from MPs who represent the same region, for instance a rookie MP who represents a rural constituency in Ontario would be more likely to seek advice from a longer-serving MP in a neighbouring constituency. While the MPs found advice from senior MPs to be valuable, it was delivered on an ad hoc basis and some MPs did not receive any help from more experienced members. The NDP is the only party with a formal mentorship scheme whereby new members are assigned a senior member of their party to help them. Even then the success of the mentoring relationship depends on the willingness of the senior MP to reach out and provide advice to their flock of new MPs. The informal nature of the advice likely contributes to the ‘trial by fire’ nature of the MPs’ early days in the House.

At best, the House induction can provide MPs with the contact information of House staff so they can ask questions during their first few months in office. The attention spans of MPs whose lives and careers are in flux as they arrive in Ottawa does not expand to much else. New MPs naturally gravitate towards individuals in their party rather than the House during this busy and uncertain period in their political career. Further, the House is constrained in the advice it can provide to MPs. The role of MPs is contested, and the House is reluctant to be prescriptive on the more substantive aspects of the role of an MP (such as how to balance time between the constituency and Ottawa). Therefore, questions about the more substantive aspects of their role (such as the balance between their constituency and parliamentary duties) are typically answered by the political parties. It remains to be seen whether improvements to the House induction program will penetrate the iron grip that parties seem to have on Canadian MPs during their first weeks in the House.

For the second phase of the project, we have interviewed MPs in the UK to hear about their experience of induction and are currently comparing their responses to that of Canadian MPs. 

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About the author

Louise Cockram is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University. Her dissertation explores the orientation that newly elected MPs receive in Canada and the UK. She recently spent six weeks doing field research for her dissertation with the help of the Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield.