Keith Beardlsey’s View From the Hill – Boys in Short Pants – Tory Backbenchers – October 3, 2012

CFN – John Ivison’s column on the frustration being felt by backbench Tory MPs was quite interesting and for the most part pretty accurate.

It is true that Tory MPs and ministers are champing at the bit because they have to take orders from “the boys in short pants”.  It also says something when that term has been widely adopted by MPs when they converse with other MPs, and the term is now used as a substitute for “PMO” or for some ministerial staff.

Since the last election this frustration has been steadily increasing.  Ministers, their staff and individual MPs often find it almost impossible to get PMO to move away from a position or talking point that they have adopted. MPs have the same frustration when dealing with some ministerial staff, many of whom have no political experience, and some of whom have never worked on an election campaign of any type. A few aren’t even members of the party. Many MPs are finding it impossible to have a dialogue with these individuals, let alone a political discussion because the staff simply don’t “get it”, and the “get it” is all too often linked to the political consequences of what the staff want to do.

The net result is that frustrated Tory MPs often bypass staff and go directly to the minister with their issue.

This was one of the reasons the Prime Minister set up the ministerial advisory committees consisting of MPs and Senators. They help to provide the political advice and experience that staff often lack.

There has been more than one instance of a someone being interviewed for a junior position in a minister’s office, but they were turned down because they lacked experience. They have then be hired by PMO and put in charge of the minister and staff that had rejected them. That doesn’t make for a lot of confidence on the ministerial side.

There are also instances of the Tory members of committees refusing to follow the advice of their PMO handler because it just didn’t make political sense. This would have been unheard of a few years ago.

The good news of course is that given enough time, some of these “boys in short pants” will become excellent staffers. But they are learning on the job, not the best place to do so when every mistake you make has the potential to be a media headline tomorrow.

The micro-management style worked initially because in 2006 most staff and ministers were new at what they were doing. There were virtually no ministers with previous experience and most of the staff was also without the experience necessary to run a ministerial office and support their minister on a daily basis. Sadly that is one of the things that happen when a party has been out of government for such a long time. When in opposition experienced senior staff tend to move on to other careers, find out they have a life again and it becomes impossible to tempt them back to Ottawa.

Micro-management and message control also worked because of the minority situation the government found itself in. From the PM all the way down to MPs, everyone knew a slip up or out of line comments could cost the government dearly if we were suddenly brought down in a confidence vote. It became a team effort to insure that the minority government wasn’t hurt by its own members. Call it what you will, but it produced an unshakable discipline throughout the ranks.

Majority rule has changed that dynamic. There is no longer the fear of a snap election. Add in the fixed election date and PMO has lost a lot of its leverage over MPs. For example, threatening them with a refusal to sign their nomination papers no longer works, and by now many Tory MPs have been relected several times and they know that if they aren’t a Parliamentary Secretary or minister by now they probably never will be.

When you come to Ottawa you arrive as an idealist ready to change the system and soon find out that causes you believe in or issues you want to get involved in don’t suit the party’s agenda. Sitting on the backbenches for that amount of time lends to MPs thinking it’s time to make their mark. Who wants to be known for the SO 31s PMO has them read before Question Period?

Will backbench Tory MPs revolt over the 2nd Budget Implementation Bill that will come forward? It’s hard to say but I don’t think so.  Budget bills imply a confidence vote and refusing to support the government on that vote just isn’t a bright thing to do.

But backbenchers do have options that have been traditionally the domain of the MP, especially Private Members Bills or PMBs. If they have the courage of their own convictions and if they can withstand the heat from the Leader’s office and the House Leader’s office they can still introduce bills on subjects they support. Certainly there will be bills that come forward that the party, PMO and public may not like. Some may even be politically unsupportable, but that is one of the things you live with if MPs want to retrieve some of the power that PMO has taken from them.  At the same time how often have we ever seen passed PMB’s honoured by a government if it disagrees with the bill. Look at all the ones passed by the opposition during the minority government period, how many were implemented?

Another area where MPs can resist the all controlling PMO is in committees. If something doesn’t make sense, tell your handler so and do what you feel is right. If you are proven correct you have plenty of ammunition to push back with later if you need too.

All in all there are Interesting times ahead if you sit on the backbenches of the government side.

Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.


1 Comment

  1. Keith, I enjoy reading your columns, and just this morning read the National Post story to which you refer. The changing dynamic of this Conservative majority is quite fascinating as you point out. In my opinion, Harper will have to change tactics. You can’t keep having the troops goosestep their way in and out of the House every day in a country like Canada. Fear works wonders for a while, but then as you say, when there are few if any consequences, Conservative members will start(we hope) speaking out and bringing riding issues forward. But I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen.
    By the way, I also enjoyed reading “The Iron Man”- your feedback to that interesting book was duly noted.

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