Election defeats put 400 staff out of work

The drastic change in the Liberal Party and Bloc Québécois seat count following this month's election has left more than 400 people out of work.
More than 400 staffers lost their Parliament Hill jobs in the wake of the May 2 election. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The drastic change in the Liberal Party and Bloc Québécois seat count following this month's election has left more than 400 people out of work.

When Canadians went to the polls last week, they sent 107 new MPs to Ottawa. That's more than one-third of the House of Commons.

The Bloc went from 47 seats to just four, and the Liberals lost 44 of their 77 seats.

But the MPs not coming back to Parliament aren't the only ones who've lost their jobs.

"The first thought was, I guess I've got to find a job. It was a real shock," said Matthew Rowe, the legislative and communications director for Navdeep Bains, the former Mississauga-Brampton South MP.

Rowe worked for Bains for almost five years, but Bains lost his seat on May 2, meaning he and his staff of six have lost their jobs.

The people who work for MPs and the parties behind the scenes on Parliament Hill include office assistants, research, policy and communications staff. And it's not just MP offices, but the party offices that manage caucus services. Fewer MPs mean smaller staff budgets.

'That's democracy'

But most staffers, despite the recent loss, seem to take it in stride.

"When the country changes its mind suddenly like that, there's very little you can do. And yeah, good and bad get caught up in that sweep. It doesn't mean that it's wrong — that's democracy, that's how it works," Rowe said.

"Politics is a fickle game. And to those who are freshly emboldened by their electoral results, it's important to always take it with a grain of salt, because the wheel is always turning, and sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. And the important thing is not whether you're up or down. It's what you do when you have the chance."

Katy Kydd-Wright lost her job when NDP MP Gordon Earle was defeated in 2000. She ended up back on the Hill about a year later and stayed for several years after that.

"I don't think that Canadians generally think, well, I'm casting this ballot, I may be casting somebody out of a job," she said.

But she still remembers watching the election returns that night.

"It was devastating. I mean, the moment of finding out that that was it. At first, though, quite frankly it was more devastating …I felt worse for [my boss] than I felt for myself. Because after all, it was him that was out there with his name. It was his face on the signs and on the literature," she said.

"And I think the reverse was definitely true as well. He felt worse for us, he was very concerned about us as staff people."

There are generally two types of Hill staffers. Some are people who make a career out of it, sticking with a long-serving MP or working for a number of MPs over the years. But most are young, just out of university or close to it. They've got energy to burn and no commitments to stop them from working most hours of the day and night.

Political junkies

Yaroslav Baran ran communications for the Conservative Party during three election campaigns. Now he's a consultant in the private sector.

"These jobs consume all your time. Your social circle, your circle of friends becomes dominated by politics, because you're spending so much time at work and because it's such a big part of your life. So you really have to be a thoroughly political person for it to be the right thing for you," he said.

Although anyone who has done it describes the job as taxing, all-consuming and unstable, those in their early 20s aren't considering their career's long-term longevity.

"It's like there's a group of migrant workers who get to run the country. They don't have any security, they don't have any benefits, there's no sense of permanence, but they love their jobs and they're given vast amounts of responsibility," said Scott Reid, a speechwriter and communications consultant on the Hill off and on from 1988 until 2006. Reid was part of Prime Minister Paul Martin's staff when the Liberals lost to Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

"So in the days after an election when you've lost and you feel like, wow, now what? I never gave a moment's thought to this, and now it's over. I have to break my lease, I have to move, I have to find a job. Once that dread and that tough time is over, those people land on their feet because they emerge very skilled and very valuable in the eyes of the job market."

This leads to a question a lot of staffers get: if they're so valuable, why not try to work for a party that won more seats than theirs?

"I don't think Mr. Harper was willing to extend that invitation," Reid said.

"It is different. People from other walks of life don't necessarily experience that kind of wholesale change. Government's gone, new government arrives, and it's empty the hallways time. It is abrupt and it's a bit startling, but by and large you're talking about a group of people who are in their 20s and have immense capacity to bounce back, and they do."

As well, the staffers say, they don't do the jobs for the paycheque alone.

"We're here because we believe in the cause, and for many of us, depending on what riding you're coming from, it's only a week away that you were just fighting the NDP for your job. And to all of a sudden give that up and just cross the floor to pay your bills, that's not why we're here," Rowe said.