Following the September 1990
provincial election, the New Democratic party formed the Government of Ontario
for the first time in its history. Many of the new members had no previous
experience in the legislature. One of them had been president of the Student's
Council at the University of Western Ontario just months before the election.
He speaks about his impressions of life as a newly elected member with Susan
Allan. The interview was conducted in June 1991.
Tell me about your background in
I got involved in politics about 10
years ago during the 1981 provincial election. I went to an all-candidates
meeting and took the Conservative MPP to task over an education issue.
Actually, when I think back, it was on a colleges and universities funding
issue. Shortly after that I got involved in the riding association.
When I was entering grade eleven I
ran for Students' Council prime minister and lost. Subsequently, I ran again
and was elected and then later, reelected. My first year I was involved with
the Ontario Secondary School Students' Association. With that I went to
leadership camp, organized leadership conferences and also participated in the
student parliament held in the legislature at Queens Park. They gave me the
responsibility of looking after the government side.
When I arrived at the University of
Western Ontario I had my sights on being involved with the student council. In
my first year, I ran for president of my residence council, Saugeen-Maitland,
and lost. The following fall I ran in a student council by-election and won a
position. I ran for Board of Directors that spring and failed to get elected.
The following year I ran for president of the students' council and was
successful. I guess I always knew that I wanted to get involved in politics but
I thought federal rather than provincial.
In July, I was selling hotdogs and
pop in the stands at London Tigers games and one of the people from the riding
association came and asked me if I'd be the candidate.
We knew the Liberals were going to
call the election for early September and we knew once the election was over I
would be able to go back and finish my school year. So I was asked to run on a
Friday night and by Monday I had almost convinced myself to run. I knew it
would be a good experience for me.
Why did you choose the New Democratic
I guess that goes back longer. I am
a big "Canadianization" person (not necessarily nationalization) but
if you have some national control over your resources and your main areas you
can do well. Even today, although it's a global economy you still have to have
some significant home-based industries.
I guess my background – I'm the
youngest of eight – has something to do with it. Once my dad sold the farm he
worked in construction and, of course, construction was always an up and down
type thing. It was from job to job and there were some stretches on
unemployment insurance and there were one or two stretches on welfare as well.
So there was just the sense the
government should be there to employ people and find ways to employ people as well.
I guess that is what attracted me. I should say that my dad used to be involved
in the late-sixties as well as my older sister.
Many, including yourself,
considered your campaign a longshot. To what do you contribute your success?
I think there were a couple of
reasons I was successful. We knew the Liberals were sliding in the riding and
we knew there would be a lot of former Tories who voted Liberal in 1987 who
would never bring themselves to vote NDP and they'd go back and vote Tory this
time. We also knew the Family Coalition Party was going to take away some of
the people from the Tories.
We just got out there and worked
and canvassed everyday. That, with the combination of the provincial campaign
went very well. We tried to say in the provincial campaign that the two old
parties were not working and there was really no difference between them. We
were able to pick up on discontent out there as a result of the failure of the
Meech Lake accord which said the old style of politics of doing it behind doors
And we knew the most valuable
political lesson – Never take your voters for granted.
Tell me about your constituency.
How often do you get back? Describe the concerns of your constituents?
It has one city of 25,000 and a
town of 10,000. The rest are small villages. Traditionally it's been small-c
conservative. Oxford is a very patriotic-type riding. It has strong British
heritage. Oxford and Woodstock are known as the dairy capital of Canada.
Right now, I am in my constituency
pretty well every week. In Ontario the legislature sits four days a week with
Fridays off so Fridays are my busy day in the constituency. I try to get there
as much as possible.
There are a great deal of problems.
We certainly have a lot of people who need assistance solving problems with
government. People have trouble with bureaucracy: it's not moving for them and
sometimes it moves for us. It is particularly troubling when you have different
levels of government – is it a municipal/provincial or provincial/federal
responsibility? There's no doubt there's a problem with government agencies not
taking responsibility for a problem if they can pass it to others. I hear a lot
of municipal concerns.
How different is provincial
politics from the world of student politics?
There was some good training in the
student council presidency. I mean you have all these small constituency groups
when you think in terms of the residences and the different faculties. They all
have their own interests and as president I had to balance them off just like I
have interest groups in my riding.
Students will come to the council
president with a problem they need solved – a lot of cases it's just simple
referral. The same thing now – in many cases it's just simple referral.
So those types of things are
I was familiar with budgets. I $3.5
million dollars is nothing compared to $52 billion but you get a sense of how
you develop budgets. Those skills are very helpful.
There is something new everyday in
the legislature and there always was on students' council.
Usually with the students' council
once the school year started you were always responding to things. As a MPP I
am responding to a lot of the crises in my riding.
Has your age been a factor in
the way you have been received by your colleagues?
Initially there was some sense of
`Here's the young university student who hasn't even graduated, he came in on
the sweep and that's great and he'll be there and maybe with time he'll evolve
and emerge' – I detected that in the first few months.
Really I had more experience in
public speaking and debating than a lot of the members and after a couple of
outings in the House, people saw I knew what the issues were and seemed to
respond more favorably.
It is interesting because even
though I was only 24 when I was elected, I was familiar with Queen's Park from
the lobby sessions we had done there. Some of the new members had never visited
My political science background
gave me an understanding in terms of how parliament works and how the
legislature works and how policy is developed and made. Many other members did
not have that. So, you know, they are all things you can learn but in terms of
feeling comfortable I think I might have got there sooner than some others.
Tell me about your role in the
I am doing a couple of things.
Right now I am one of the whips with the responsibility of co-ordinating
speakers on debates and making sure we have enough people in for our votes. I
am also sitting on a committee now – a finance and economics committee. We
heard pre-budget consultation and lately we have been dealing with the issue of
As a backbencher do you feel you
have any influence on the cabinet?
The problem is with our system of
cabinet secrecy which makes it very difficult. Cabinet ministers must take an
oath of secrecy and there are certainly issues on which you feel you do not
have any input. There is consultation that goes on but in terms of where the
final decision is made – it is made in cabinet.
The budget is an issue that can be
frustrating. I sit in there on Monday afternoon at 4 o'clock when the Treasurer
delivers the budget and that is my first time to see it. An hour and a half
after he's done I have to tell all my media what I think about it. And, you
know, your initial reactions are not always the best.
I certainly hope that somewhere
along the line we can open up government and in turn some of our institutions.
The partisan nature makes it so adversarial. You would hope you could use the
collective wisdom of 130 people to serve the people but after watching a
filibuster and watching the opposition do its job you sit there and you wonder
if there is not a better way.
How has your life changed since
last year at this time?
It is far busier. I thought
student's council president was a busy position and it was. This is far busier
in terms of the pace. When I am in the constituency on Fridays I have 12 or 13
meetings with constituents or with other groups.
And then there is the public recognition.
Where ever I go in the riding, people know me and they will want to come and
One other thing is that I do not
have to live like a student anymore. I am able to rent my own place now and I
got rid of my rusting Grenada and bought a new car.
With each level I have moved up
there has been a greater sense of responsibility. At Western I was dealing with
issues about student rights and student input into decision-making. Now I have
people coming in who are losing their houses, their livelihoods – much more
serious issues in the overall scope of things. There is a greater burden on me
as a member to help those people.
Do you see yourself as a career
Well, that will be for the people
to decide. I always wanted to be in politics and I would be quite comfortable
doing that for a long time.