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Exiting MPs share their views on the state of politics: ‘Toxic atmosphere’

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Exiting Canadian MPs on how politics has changed
WATCH: Several MPs have made their intentions clear that they will not seek another term, and Global News spoke with some of them to see how they feel politics has changed – Dec 29, 2023

The next election isn’t scheduled until 2025, but several MPs have already said they do not plan on seeking another term. Prior to the House of Commons rising for the winter break, Global News spoke with some of them about how politics has changed since they were first elected, and their concerns for younger parliamentarians.

Twenty-six-year parliamentary veteran Carolyn Bennett says she wishes that current and future members of Parliament could share her experience from the late 1990s when she first became an MP.

“I really feel badly that people haven’t had that experience and that things have become so partisan,” the now-former Liberal MP, who has retired from politics, said in an interview from her Parliament Hill office at the beginning of December.

“Even during elections, where you may be really nice to one another in person, but then the ‘keyboard warrior’ comes out at night, and it ends up so partisan and so awful.”

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In a chamber where political divides are often laid bare during question period and in social media posts, there’s consensus among exiting MPs from the three main national parties that the current tone is “toxic.”

“I don’t think we’re stuck forever in this current toxic atmosphere, but I would call the current atmosphere toxic,” said B.C. NDP MP Randall Garrison earlier this month. In April, he said he wouldn’t be seeking re-election.

“The political environment today in Ottawa is so adversarial. It’s almost like it’s about achieving political partisanship versus actually doing what is right for so many Canadians,” Alberta Conservative MP Ron Liepert told Global News.

Calgary – Signal Hill MP Ron Liepert speaks with Global News about how the state of politics has changed throughout his career in the foyer of West Block in early December. Luigi Della Penta / Global News

Liepert, who announced in February that he won’t be seeking re-election, has been involved in politics since the 1970s, first as a journalist covering the Alberta legislature and eventually joining the provincial government as Premier Peter Lougheed’s press secretary.

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He was first elected as a Progressive Conservative MLA for Calgary-West in 2004, serving two terms. Liepert won his federal seat, Calgary Signal Hill, for the Conservatives in 2015.

Since that time, he says he’s seen dramatic change in who is seeking public office.

“You had a real good mix of businesspeople, you had advocates, I don’t think we’re getting that anymore,” he said. “What we’re seeming to find is we have – and I think it’s in all political parties – you’ve got a lot of (former) young staffers who are now members of Parliament. That’s not to say they’re not good members of parliament, but I don’t think they bring that broad range of experience that you used to see in cabinets, in caucus 10, 20 years ago.”

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This is part of where Liepert says he sees the increased partisanship coming from. With that enhanced partisanship, he doesn’t see as many people from the outside eyeing entry into the political realm.

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“We’ve got people who are doing very well financially, have a good life. They just don’t want to give that up for this constant seeing your name dragged through the mud on a constant basis,” he said. “It’s really unfortunate because the whole country suffers as a result. Democracy suffers. It’s just sad.”

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Liepert spoke with Global News just outside the chamber in early December, when he stepped out between rounds of debate. He says people trying to get clips for social media are “running the show” in question period now. “I just don’t think that’s healthy for democracy. I don’t think it’s healthy for communicating with Canadians.”

A hint of optimism

While the public face of debate in the House of Commons can often revolve around partisan snipes and canned talking points, Garrison says there is still productive conversation that happens in parliament and that’s where he keeps his focus.

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“Despite the bad reputation that question period gives the House of Commons, it’s not where the real work goes on. And there’s lots of cooperation at other levels, in particular in committees, where we actually do get things done,” he said.

Garrison will call it a career when his fourth term in office comes to a close. He says each parliament he’s been a part of has had its own make-up of party strength, personalities and difficulties that come with it.

Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke MP Randall Garrison sits down for an interview in his Parliament Hill office to talk about how the atmosphere of politics has changed during his time in office. Rob Kazemzadeh / Global News

Through his time in office, Garrison says that he’s tried to focus on figuring out how to work with people of all parties in committees to progress amendments and legislation through the House.

“Well, that kind of work is not very sexy, not very exciting for social media or even for any kind of media. It’s very important to the to the lives of Canadians. So I’m a big fan of getting things done. I didn’t come here just to yell,” Garrison said.

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“While I think people who do come here to what I call yell are important. They create space for the rest of us who are actually the doers in the House of Commons.”

With his parliamentary career closer to the end than the beginning, Garrison prides himself on finding ways to work with his colleagues both under the Conservative majority when he was first elected in 2011 to the Liberal minority of today.

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However, he doesn’t see the current partisan face of politics shying away from an argumentative tone due to one important factor: choice.

“It’s by choice particular of a Conservative leader, but also by the Liberal leader. The choice is to have that confrontational style. So, are they going to change that? I don’t think so,” Garrison said.

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But for Bennett, she sees this as an obligation to sustain a healthy democracy.

“So, if it is an injustice, if it is mis/disinformation, if it’s actually not true – I don’t know what we do to just sit there and take it either online or in person. Online now, we actually, I think, are training ourselves not to respond,” she said.

A byelection will need to be called within 180 days of Bennett’s resignation to fill her seat of Toronto-St. Paul’s.

In her retirement speech, she said she had no regrets leaving her physician practice to seek political office but worries it will be harder to find people willing to step up and fill her seat in the current climate.

“I do think that we have to put a more human face on being a parliamentarian. I’m worried that good people won’t run. That is the foundation of our democracy that good people would run for office,” she said.

“We need to look at making this a safe place where people aren’t denigrated and where their character is put into question. That’s what I worry about.”

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