Monday, February 1, 2016

MPs to keep a close eye on constituencies Parliamentarians beware

PM tells Grit MPs to keep a close eye on constituencies

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told all rookie and veteran Liberal MPs at their first national caucus meeting on Nov. 5 that if they want to get re-elected, they should ensure they are approachable to their constituents and that their constituency offices deliver top-quality services.

“Because, we all understand—and those new Members have been clearly told by the Prime Minister—that constituency work is what gets us elected, helping people at the grassroots level and making sure we’re putting emphasis on that, as well as doing our responsibilities here [in Ottawa],” said Liberal MP Judy Sgro (Humber River-Black Creek, Ont.), who was first elected in a byelection in 1999 and re-elected in all six subsequent general elections

Being a good constituency MP has always been known to be the key to getting re-elected. However, the wild electoral swings in the 2011 and 2015 federal elections have made the electoral landscape more competitive. And MPs are talking even more about how important constituency work has become. 

In 2011, the NDP won the official opposition status and the Liberals were relegated to the third-place party, both firsts. In 2011, the Conservatives won a majority victory with 166 seats, the NDP won 103 seats, the Liberals 34 seats, Bloc Québécois four seats and the Green Party one seat.

 And in a dramatic reversal this past October, the Liberals won a majority government with 184 seats, the Conservatives went down to the official opposition with 99 seats, the NDP were reduced to 44 seats, Bloc Québécois moved up to 10 and the Green Party maintained its one seat.

 In this increasingly competitive political  environment, new and veteran MPs are ensuring they start preparing for the next election the day after the last one and they say constituency work is critical because it cements support and builds loyalty. 

“It’s got to be all about helping people. If you didn’t run for election with that in mind, you’re going to have difficulty. That’s where the votes come from,” Ms. Sgro said, adding that she has a good reputation in her riding as being helpful.

“People don’t forget that you helped bring the brother [from overseas] for a funeral or sister for a wedding or helped get the family here. People stay very loyal to you,” Ms. Sgro said.

 Good MPs can work seven-days-a-week and are on 24/7. It’s not unusual for MPs to put in more than 60 or 70 hours each week. MPs said their constituents contact them by email, letter, phone, and walk-ins. Constituents mostly need help with immigration issues and passports, but MPs can deal with everything under the sun including child custody issues, divorces, housing, pensions, health care and veterans issues, among many other issues. 

For MPs representing urban ridings, more than half of their constituency work is often related to immigration issues. In most cases, MPs hire two to three staffers in their constituency offices and usually one works exclusively on immigration-related files. 

MPs usually make themselves available at least one day a week in their constituency offices so that constituents can meet them in person. In the days when MPs are in their ridings, they also attend community events.   

“That’s where it all happens,” said Ms. Sgro. “The work happens right out there in the ridings, listening to people, listening to what the concerns are and then trying to fix them.”

Eight-term Liberal MP Wayne Easter (Malpeque, P.E.I.) told The Hill Times that MPs who don’t serve their constituents properly after getting elected don’t last long in office. He said that his home phone is listed in the local phone book and Islanders sometimes call him at home.

“Never, ever, ever forget where you came from. The issues that are on the ground that are important in your ridings, those issues are the lifeblood of those people affected,” said Mr. Easter, who was first elected in 1993 and has been re-elected in seven subsequent elections. 

Mr. Easter said that even if the MPs are not successful in helping their constituents, people still appreciate that they tried. 

Rookie Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette (Winnipeg Centre, Man.) said MPs are responsible for helping out their constituents, regardless of whether they get elected in the next election or not. He said that sometimes MPs who do good work in their ridings lose elections, especially if there’s a political wave like the one the Liberals rode to victory in the last election. Mr. Ouellette defeated former six-term NDP MP Pat Martin in the last election by a margin of 26.5 per cent of the vote.

“You’ve taken on a responsibility and you can help people out, so you might as well make a difference in people’s lives, just for that one simple reason,” said Mr. Ouellette. 

Rookie NDP MP Daniel Blaikie (Elmwood-Transcona, Man.)—son of former veteran NDP MP Bill Blaikie who served in Parliament from 1979 to 2008—said constituency work helps MPs learn first-hand which government programs work and which ones do not. Constituency work teaches MPs the key flaws in government programs and helps them come up with concrete practical solutions.
“If you are going to be criticizing government on how programs are working or not working, actually, getting to see it by working with people who are the targets of those programs or who are eligible for those programs or who aren’t, gives you a first-hand experience with what those programs look like on the ground, rather than just on paper,” said Mr. Blaikie. “You get a sense of what the issues are that people are grappling with.” 

Mr. Blaikie won the riding by beating Conservative incumbent Lawrence Toet by only 61 votes. 

“It’s always important to be a good constituency MP. I don’t think it’s more important for me than it otherwise would have been if the margin had been 1,500 votes [or more]. I would be just as concerned to make sure I’m doing that [constituency] work well.”
The Hill Times

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