After more than 30 years of reverses, we're seeing significant power returned to the men and women Canadians and Ontarians elect to represent us.
The past 3 decades saw a steady reduction in the freedom and the influence enjoyed by "ordinary" elected members of both the federal and the Ontario provincial Parliaments – backbench members who are not appointed to the cabinet.
Increasingly, they were instructed how to vote on almost all matters that came before the legislature – and often even instructed what to say in debates. House Committees followed the instructions of the government party's Whip. Power was centralized – at the cabinet level and, more and more, in the office of the Prime Minister or Premier. As a result, unelected "advisors" came to wield far more real decision-making power than the men and women we elect to represent us.
But now, with new governments in both Ottawa and Queen's Park, that's changing. MPs and MPPs are going to enjoy more power and influence than they have seen in decades.
It's time to re-think your government relations strategies to take the growing role of "ordinary" backbench members into account.
There are changes happening at both the federal and provincial levels. In Ottawa , Prime Minister Martin has called the loss of power by backbenchers "the democratic deficit" and has promised a greater voice and wider role for MPs.
In his successful Ontario election campaign, Premier McGuinty spoke of restoring "respect" for MPPs, undertaking to allow more free votes in the House, wider latitude in debate and greater powers for the Committees of the Legislature – including the power to originate legislation.
After his election, the Premier took a dramatic concrete step to increase the clout of all government MPPs: every backbencher sits on at least one Committee of Cabinet. That's huge.
In the past, by the time government backbenchers heard about initiatives being proposed by cabinet ministers and their advisors, the decisions were already pretty close to written in stone. Because of the disproportionate power and resources enjoyed by cabinet and the Premier's office, "ordinary" members were rarely able to wield any real influence. In fact, protesting about such initiatives was often seen as a sign of disloyalty and would have serious career-limiting implications for any member audacious enough to raise objections or suggest changes.
(A point worth noting: limiting MPPs' influence not only frustrates MPPs who would like a greater say in events, it also robs the government of the benefit of the wisdom, common sense and advice of its own members because no one wants to be the one to say that the "emperor had no clothes". Questionable decisions like the Eves' Government's decision to launch a "budget" at an auto parts plant instead of in the legislature could probably have been avoided if "ordinary" MPPs had been free to voice their concerns and to influence events).
By way of contrast, as members of Cabinet Committees, MPPs will have access to all of the information Ministers have. The Committees operate as a sort of "peer review" process and, in theory at least, each member will have the opportunity for real and significant participation in the development of policies and initiatives and in the government's final strategies and choices.
And increasing the role and independence of Committees of the Legislature will provide greater opportunities for opposition as well as government MPPs influence public policy in Ontario.
How real will the "reforms" turn out to be?
There are some skeptics out there – people who believe that all the talk about empowering MPPs will turn out to be just talk. They point, for example, to the fact that – at the same time the Premier was talking about more power for MPPs and a less centralized approach to government, his office was insisting on vetting each and every staffer hired by Ministers, the caucus and individual MPPs.
They also point out that the bureaucracy has been conditioned for generations to focus only on Cabinet, usually viewing individual MPPs as, at best, of little real consequence and, at worst, as a potential nuisance. And they express extreme doubts that the government will ever allow Legislative Committees to be anything other than dominated and directed by government members toeing the government line.
There is no question that there are some natural centralizing factors in play that will mitigate against more real power for MPPs, but our understanding is that there will be real and lasting change as the men and women we elected to represent us move actively to make their new roles a reality. These people ran for office in the first place because they want to make a difference and contribute to the community, and we believe they will seize the opportunity to wield greater influence on events.
That will be healthy – for the government and the political process as a whole.
And as you work to develop the relationships with government you need to achieve your government relations goals, the relationships you build with individual MPPs can help make sure that healthy change really happens, because you have a real opportunity to help equip them to play their new and wider roles.
Which MPPs should you be concerned about?
There are three factors to consider as you choose your priority MPPs – the ones you want to develop relationships with.
The first is geography. If you are an organization like a hospital, the MPP for that specific area is a natural advocate for you, and you should be building that relationship on an ongoing basis. And that's true whether the MPP is a government or an opposition member. You'll have a judgment call to make in the case of opposition members: if the member is extremely partisan, she may be more interested in scoring political points or embarrassing the government than in helping you meet your goals. That can undermine your other important relationships, so it's a management problem for you.
The second factor to consider as you choose your priority MPPs is their membership on Cabinet Committees. Which committees will be dealing with your issues and areas of concern and which MPPs are on those committees? You will want to develop relationships with all of them, positioning your organization as a useful source of information and a realistic potential partner going forward. The "ordinary" MPPs on these committees may feel themselves to be at a disadvantage compared to the Ministers with their extensive sources of information and research, and there's a very real opportunity they will value the different point of view you can help bring to bear. And because the backbench MPP members of these committees will be a little less busy and a lot less insulated by staff than the Ministers themselves, you may be able to establish relationships of mutual trust and respect more quickly with them than with the Ministers. And remember – every backbencher is a respected leader is his or her own community; every backbencher ran for office in the first place because they want to make a difference and contribute to the public interest; and every backbencher is a potential cabinet minister. The relationships you build with them now can become even more important in the future.
The third factor to consider as you choose your priority MPPs is their membership on Committees of the Legislature. Ideally, you'll want every member of the committees that deal most directly with your issues and concerns – both government and opposition – to know about organization and to view you as valuable sources of information and as realistic and responsible participants in the political process. The idea of these Committees becoming more independent – and of even being able to originate legislation – may have tremendous long-term implications for the process in Ontario by putting a new premium on multi-party cooperation to achieve goals. That would be very healthy because excessive partisanship has been a major contributor to public cynicism about politics in Ontario and Canada-wide.
Designing your approach to your priority MPPs
Once you've decided which MPPs you want to develop relationships with, the next step is to decide who is best to approach them on your behalf, and to decide on the "offer" – the reasons why it makes sense for the member to take the time to meet and begin to develop a relationship with you. And then it takes a systematic effort to build and nurture the relationship.
A few good rules of thumb:
- Every MPP relies on her local constituency for re-election; are there
people in the constituency who could make the first approach and are there
specific issues or concerns in the constituency that could form the basis of
a powerful "offer" when you first make contact?
- Do your homework: does this member have any history or track record
relating to your issues or concerns? Do you know anyone who knows them who
can give you advice about the best ways to approach them?
- Building a relationship takes time and consistency: make sure the
person or people you choose to initiate the relationship are prepared to
work at it systematically over time.
- Be systematic: in our experience, reaching out to individual MPPs
works best if your organization has a single co-ordinator encouraging and
following up all the contacts.
- As you develop your "offer" to the MPP, put yourself in her shoes:
if you were her, what would make you want to talk to your organization? If
you go in with the attitude that "it's her job to talk to us and listen to
our views", you'll deserve to be disappointed in the results.
- Be prepared to state your "offer" very clearly: providing the MPP
and her staff with a single page briefing note that outlines the areas you
want to discuss will make it a lot easier to arrange a meeting (MPPs are
like everyone else – they hate surprises) and will help make sure the
meeting time is useful because it gives the MPP time to prepare.
- Remember that listening is first step in any relationship: aim to
find out what's most important to the MPP so you can respond most
effectively to help her play her new role.
- Capture the information and deepen the relationship. Make sure that
– after each meeting or discussion with the MPP – you're getting a clear
record of what was said. There should be a quick briefing note prepared
after every discussion or meeting with the MPP and/or her staff – detailing
what they said and identifying any concerns or suggestions they identified. And extend the relationship to include the MPPs staff and others who brief
or influence her.
- Continue to contact and talk to the MPPs and their staff. As the relationship grows, try to help the MPP understand your goals and concerns – and make sure it's about more than money. Every organization the MPP talks to comes convinced that it and its cause are entitled to money from the government. Try for a change of pace: think of ways we could advance the public interest without spending more (you'll be a refreshing change).
If you'd like to talk more about building the newly re-empowered MPPs into your government relations strategy, give us a call.
For about 30 years, "ordinary" backbench MPPs have been becoming the forgotten men and women of the political process in Canada and Ontario . That's changing now and it's a change for the better as our elected representatives have greater scope to use their knowledge, ability, insights and leadership ability to help make government more responsive and Ontario a better place to live.
Call. We can talk about the best ways to help the change succeed in a way that also helps achieve your government relations goals.