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PMO Staff Run Government; Ministers Represent It

Last week’s cabinet shuffle and some of the awkward stories about ministers unaware that they would no longer be ministers are a stark reminder of the absolute authority the Prime Minister has over who he appoints and how he does it, and the often hamfisted way changes can be made.

To wit, in March of 2016, shortly after I had first taken my seat on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs (‘PROC’ in Hill parlance – all committees have a four-letter code by which they are known), my highly respected colleague Arnold Chan, the MP for Scarborough–Agincourt, took me for a nighttime walk around the frigid front lawn of Parliament at the end of the day’s sitting. We had just begun to get to know and respect each other personally through our work on the committee, and he wanted to tell me something important.

Arnold had recently suffered a bout of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a relatively rare form of throat cancer that he believed he had beaten on time to run again in the 2015 election. He was sharp as a scalpel, a political animal with years of experience in provincial and federal politics, and he lived for the work we did. The original discovery of the high genetic risk-factor cancer had caused his brother, Kevin, to also be tested, and they had gone through the bizarre experience of going through cancer treatment together over the winter of 2014-2015.

He told me as we walked that he had recently felt a new lump and knew immediately that his cancer had returned. He had discussed it with his wife, Jean Yip, and their three sons, and he said to me, “they know what this means,” a simple phrase that has stuck with me ever since.

Arnold was the Deputy Leader of the Government in the House of Commons – colloquially, the Deputy House Leader. He would be pulling back from his duties, and he wanted me to take them on for him while he went through his next round of cancer treatment. This would not be an official Officer of Parliament role – he was holding it – but I would fulfil the duties, themselves not well nor indeed officially defined.

It took a couple of weeks of uncertainty to figure out exactly what this meant, but generally it came with two key responsibilities, which I will describe as a separate essay.

On the house leadership team, I spent nearly all my time in the Chamber, generally attending only the procedure committee. But as an MP, I knew that I could attend any committee any time I wanted. With the responsibilities that came with acting in Arnold’s role, I did not start taking advantage of this until I was almost two years in, when I started offering to take individual committee sittings off other MPs’ hands without asking for anything in return so that I could study topics of interest to me.

In the late summer of 2017, I wanted to attend the Standing Committee on Transport, Communities, and Infrastructure, which I had listed as my first choice two years earlier when initial committee assignments were made by the Whip’s office – as had most of the Liberal caucus, due to the word “Infrastructure” being there and massive infrastructure investment being our signature election promise. The committee was discussing Bill C-47, the Transportation Modernization Act, which would modestly reform the rail industry and bring in the passenger bill of rights in the aviation sector.

The committee sat before the House returned that summer in order to get through the bill in time to get it passed early in the fall sitting. As my home was only two hours drive from Ottawa, it was not tough for me to find an MP from much further away who wouldn’t be able to come during a non-sitting week who would be willing to trade – especially as I was asking for nothing in return.

A few days into our hearings on September 14th, 2017, long time Toronto MP Judy Sgro, the committee chair, interrupted proceedings very briefly to tell us:

Just for the information of the committee, we've just been notified—thank you, Ms. Raitt—that Arnold Chan, our member of Parliament from Scarborough, has died. He was a member whom we all very much respected and appreciated. It is with great sadness that I have to make that announcement.

Take a deep breath, and I'm sure all of us will send our sympathies out to his wife and family.

All right, as parliamentarians, we're back to work.

When an MP dies while the House is sitting, the House generally suspends for the rest of the day and the next day begins with tributes. As the House was not sitting that day, the committee carried on without so much as a recess. I swallowed my emotions as best I could and when my next turn to speak came about 30 minutes later, the chair said: “Our next speaker will be Mr. Graham. I have to acknowledge that you had a very close relationship with our colleague, Arnold Chan, in the House leadership. If you want to take a moment to acknowledge that, I believe the committee would welcome that.” I gave a short and emotional acknowledgement of his passing before we took a moment of silence and I proceeded with my questioning of the witness, then Minister of Transport Marc Garneau.

I do want to take a moment to acknowledge the immense contribution to this place of my close friend and our colleague, Arnold Chan.

I know he would want us to focus on our work, to move forward with what we need to do. When I visited him a few days ago, his concern was not about himself, but rather how everyone else was doing. He knew where he was going and wanted to make sure that the rest of us were going to carry on. He wanted to know what was happening here, to discuss our work in procedure and House affairs, where we sat together, and to pick up on the most recent gossip from around the Hill.

He loved this place. He lived this place. Of course, being Arnold, he apologised profusely between laboured breaths that he would probably not be able to join us at caucus the following day or at the House this fall.

On behalf of all of us here, I want to send my best to Jean and their three sons. We are with them at this difficult time.

To Arnold, we will remember to follow our hearts and to use our heads. As we do, Arnold, you will always be with us.

A year and a half earlier, I had accepted to take on Arnold’s responsibilities and had been told that, should the worst happen, I would inherit the role in which I was acting. Arnold confirmed that to me from his deathbed a week before he passed, when my wife and I drove to Toronto to visit him at his home, where he was living on a palliative care bed in his living room. Having learned a lot and been busy, getting the role was not necessarily something I still looked forward to, but I would certainly rise to the challenge if offered.

When the House returned for the fall session after the weekend, I learned that the first Monday morning tactics meeting was cancelled, which was unusual but not especially remarkable. I made my way to the Chamber and discovered that I was the only member of the House leadership team present that day, so while I usually worked to back up Kevin Lamoureux, the Parliamentary Secretary, I was perfectly capable of managing debate in the Chamber on my own and spoke ten times that day.

The next morning, I went to tactics and we went through the whole meeting, running unusually long. At the end, the House leader, by then Bardish Chagger and no longer Dominic Leblanc, announced to the room that a new member of the team would be joining us and she hoped we would all welcome him and work well with him; that she was off to swear St Catharines MP Chris Bittle into the role of Deputy House Leader. I was not sure whether I would be keeping the role or losing it, but I certainly did not expect to find out the answer to the question in a room full of 20 people at the end of a meeting in which I was obviously no longer relevant.

I picked up my bag, commented “that’s a hell of a way to get fired,” and left the room which had fallen into an awkward and immobile silence, my involvement in the House leadership team coming to a thankless, abrupt, and unexplained end. I immediately asked Natalie in the Whip’s office to put me back on the regular House Duty roster, generating a short and impersonal announcement to all Liberal MPs’ offices about which House Duty group I would become part of, essential information for staff negotiating trades so their Members could be off the Hill.

While many reached out to me in the days that followed, and I was kind-of sort-of offered to continue in my unofficial and unpaid non-role on the House leadership team, of which I was the only member at that time to speak French, I never returned.

I went through a period of anger and existential doubt about my purpose in being in Ottawa, and about the utter disrespect shown by the leadership. I spoke to many other MPs who I respected about the experience, and many shared the lack of respect they encountered as well, often more as an amusing anecdote than any kind of actual annoyance. Some complained about not being Ministers in spite of their work to get the leader elected or just because they were better than everyone else, and it gave me pause to question my own hubris and thinking, even fleetingly, that I might be owed anything at all.

A common problem I heard, and one that I also had, was Ministers visiting ridings and only telling the local MP after the fact. I’d already experienced it – the Prime Minister ate at a restaurant in Mont-Tremblant in the heart of my riding and I read about it in the local newspaper the following week as one of many examples. I remember in particular Mélanie Joly passing me in the staircase behind the chamber in Centre Block, the main building of Parliament currently closed for renovation, one day and announcing to me, as if it should excite me, “I was in your riding this morning!”, the local media opportunity for me bringing a Minister to my riding being evidently lost.

One of my favourite stories was from then-Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (Youth), Peter Schiefke, who, in spite of the important-sounding role, was not given an access pass to the Prime Minister’s office, then still called Langevin Block. He told a hilarious story of being stuck at the entrance to the building, blocked from entering by security, as he was not on the guest list and did not have credentials to enter. 15 minutes late for the event at which he was meant to represent the Prime Minister of Canada, a senior PMO staffer came running downstairs and let him in without any irony, apologising for the oversight – but still not granting a permanent pass.

I realised from Peter’s story and others like it that it was my pride that had been hurt, not my purpose, and once I figured that out, I went back in time to a week before that tactics meeting and remembered that when Arnold had left us, I was at a committee I had no obligation to be at, pursuing files that were of particular interest to me.

What was stopping me from doing a whole lot more of that?

Posted at 04:21 on August 02, 2023

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