The House of Commons is “on a break” for the summer, as they say, and Members of Parliament will be “back to work” in the fall.
While it’s true that the political news is a trifle thin these days (shirtless photos of the prime minister notwithstanding), we probably should dispense with the idea that MPs have stopped working.
In fact, they may be doing more work away from Parliament than they do while the Commons is sitting — more work that they consider valuable, at least.
All through the summer checking in on MPs, first elected last year after that extra-long, August-to-October campaign. I gave the project so we could get to know some of the nearly 200 newcomers to this Commons, and remind myself of how political life is viewed through the eyes of people still new to it.
One thread runs through all of the conversations we’ve had to date: These new MPs get far more out of their jobs the closer they are to their home ridings. While they’re awed, even humbled, by the majestic surroundings of their workplace on Parliament Hill, their main job satisfaction comes from day-to-day contact with the people in their ridings.
“It is absolutely where I find I make the biggest difference,” said the new MP from the Windsor-area riding of Essex.
The lawyer who pulled off two surprise upsets last year — taking the Liberal nomination away from Conservative defector former Minister and then defeating former finance minister.
But it’s the work he’s been doing back in his constituency office, that makes him feel most useful — helping people navigate immigration applications, or deal with tax or benefit claims.
New Conservative MP was showing me around his riding office and seemed most proud of one small room, filled with a growing pile of backpacks. In a few weeks, those backpacks will be loaded with school supplies and distributed to disadvantaged students in his community.
He grew up in subsidized housing, relying a lot on charity. He spoke from some experience about the difference made in real people’s lives when MPs turn their attention to such projects.
Every time one of these MPs talks to us about the rewards of constituency work, We reminded of a lunch I had years ago , not long after he was first elected as MP. We asked him: What was life like as an MP, compared to the political world he’d witnessed growing up at 24 Sussex?
He said the biggest surprise — a pleasant one — came from his duties at the constituency office. He hadn’t seen his father doing that part of the MP’s job; as prime minister, He had to delegate most of the riding work to staff. But who (unlike his father) got his start in politics as a backbencher in opposition, said that riding work is where many everyday political problems get solved.
What’s interesting about this aspect of an MP’s job — and the rewards MPs get out of it — is the fact that constituency work really isn’t all that partisan. Sure, some government MPs will try to boast that they’re getting more help for their ridings because they represent the party in power, but frankly, those immigration claims and tax-benefit issues are going to get attention no matter where the MP sits in the Commons. Very few MPs (unless they’re in politics for the short term) are going to tell a citizen that their office is open only to supporters of their party.
Judging from the conversations we have had this summer and before, the partisan stuff is what appeals to backbench MPs the least. Question period, apparently, seems just as much of a circus to those down on the floor as it does to those in the gallery.
In the meantime, it hasn’t been hard to find Members of Parliament willing to sit down and chat over the summer. The only problem had has been with slotting interviews into their packed schedules, between back-to-back meetings or sessions of door-knocking in the ridings. In a very real sense, this summer hasn’t been any less busy for them than last August, when they were auditioning for the jobs they now hold.
A month or so from now, when Parliament is getting set to restart for the fall, the headlines will be filled with that “back to work” phrase — as though political life as we know it simply ceased when the Commons went dark after Canada Day. But for most MPs, the real work — at least the work they like the best — never stopped.