VANCOUVER – She would go on to serve as a Liberal cabinet stalwart, rising to the post of deputy prime minister, but Anne McLellan still recalls climbing the stairs of the House of Commons for the first time.
“All of a sudden it just hits you that ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a Member of Parliament and I represent all those people back home,’ and you walk up those stairs and through those doors that so many others have for close to 150 years,” McLellan says.
“Until you’re there you really don’t know what that’s like.”
Just days from now, voters in British Columbia will choose a new line-up of MLAs for their provincial legislature, and what comes next for political neophytes elected will be a whirlwind of the unexpected.
This summer, the University of British Columbia will host a political bootcamp of sorts, where McLellan and a high-profile list of other veteran legislators will offer their experiences and expertise to prepare lawmakers of the future.
“It comes as a real shock that making laws in this country is as messy a process as it is, as complex a process as it is,” says McLellan, who arrived in Ottawa with the benefit of having taught constitutional law.
It’s a life of long working days and long commutes, late nights, bad food, media attention, lobbyists, more media attention, the demands of constituents and the demands of the party and even more media attention.
Federal lawmakers are away at least four days a week, 30 weeks or more of the year.
“And then when you come back on the weekend, don’t think that you’ve got free time,” McLellan says.
“You are out at constituency events, community events, meeting with people in your constituency office. You’re probably out at one event or another, if you’re home, Friday night, Saturday night, until you get back on the plane on Sunday afternoon and fly back to Ottawa.”
The UBC Summer Institute for Future Legislators is a pilot project that will run from June to August, offering weekend workshops and mentoring on everything from how a bill becomes a law, to ethics, to how to deal with media, said Max Cameron, director of UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
In addition to McLellan, the program will hear from former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, former NDP premier of B.C. Mike Harcourt, former Conservative cabinet minister Chuck Strahl and Steve Peters, the former speaker of the Ontario legislature.
“For many politicians, the first year in office is almost wasted. They really don’t know what they’re doing at the outset,” Cameron says.
Most people enter public life because they want to contribute to society, he says. Unfortunately, that’s not always the way the public sees it.
“They say terrible things about our politicians, so the associations we have with political life are often quite negative.”
The hope is that this kind of mentoring will encourage more good candidates to enter the political arena.
“Our focus is on: What do you do once you’ve gotten elected, once you’re in the legislature? What’s the role of the legislator?” Cameron says. “Interestingly enough, if you ask politicians they don’t always know the answer to that.”
That says something about how dysfunctional the political system has become, he says.
At the midway point of the B.C. election, these mentors have already seen a few candidates who could have used some guidance before they filed their nomination papers.
One rookie candidate has been called out for allegedly doctoring her resume, another stepped down for calling Premier Christy Clark and the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada “bitches” in his Twitter feed.
And it’s not just the greenhorns.
Clark is under attack for stopping and then proceeding through a red light — with a reporter in her car.
Harcourt, the former Vancouver mayor and B.C. premier, says those entering public life need to understand that it is just that — public.
“Realize that everything you say and do could end up on the front page, or the six o’clock news or the top of the hour radio broadcast,” he says.
“I think that’s really important is to get ready for that sort of exposure, scrutiny of your life, your loss of privacy. But you get into public life, that goes with the turf.”
Would-be politicians need to understand why they’re seeking office.
“There’s a lot of things you can waste a lot of time on unnecessarily, so hone in on what’s really important,” he says.
It’s tough work, Harcourt says, and he recommends rookies “keep your eyes and ears open” and hire a great team to surround them.
For Strahl, who was first elected under the Reform banner in 1993 and then served as a minister in the Conservative cabinet of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, preparing your family is as important as preparing yourself.
“I think if you do that, it’s a great career and a great and interesting life, but you don’t want to get swept away and overwhelmed in the initial days,” he says.
And, oh, those initial days.
“What you don’t know when you’re elected is legion. If ignorance is bliss, you’re the happiest person in Parliament,” says Strahl, who was appointed last year the chairman of the Security Intelligence Review Committee.
Elected officials show up and it’s often their first exposure to the legislative process, the bureaucracy, caucus, the media.
He recommends rookies avoid getting swept up in the, well…politics of politics. The “theatrics,” as he calls it, are necessary.
“But if all you’re doing is theatre, if all you’re doing is trying to get elected, then your ability to really impact things for your constituents or for Canada … is not all it could be.”
Some of the antics are part of legitimate debate — but not all, McLellan said.
“Sometimes people make comments that are very hurtful and mean-spirited and they’re intended to be personal,” she says. “People, I think, have to develop a bit of a thick skin.”
Public office is exhausting, challenging, wacky and fun, says Harcourt.
“Most citizens that I talk to, they’d like you to be open, accommodating, give them a sensible answer — even if it’s no — and they’ll respect that.”