Politics

Rookie MPs prepare to learn the ropes

There's a lot to learn about life as an MP and not a lot of time to learn it, as 105 new MPs are about to discover as they arrive on Parliament Hill to begin their new jobs.

First-timers get ready to face parliamentary procedures, House rules and those 'pinch me' moments

Chris Alexander, seen outside his Ajax-Pickering headquarters during the election campaign last month, is one of 34 rookie Conservatives about to get their first taste of life as an MP. (Amber Hildebrandt/CBC)

There's a lot to learn about life as an MP and not a lot of time to learn it, as 105 new MPs are about to discover as they arrive on Parliament Hill to begin their new jobs.

So how exactly do these rookies climb such a steep learning curve? With a little help from their friends, new and old, in their parties, and a lot of help from the House of Commons staff.

It's been a week now since these rookie MPs claimed victory, setting them on a new career path and adding their names to Canada's political history books. But party time is over, now is the transition period that involves wrapping up their old jobs and trying to figure out how to do their new one.

Before showing up for their first day of work, these rookie parliamentarians will have seen a map of Centre Block and the parliamentary precinct, but it's not difficult to get lost in the historic buildings and the maze of hallways.

Caucus meetings are beginning this week with the Liberals gathering on Wednesday, and while a date hasn't been settled for the new session of Parliament to open, it's likely to be within three to four weeks — so there's not a lot of time to get adjusted.

For many of the newly elected MPs, such as Conservative Chris Alexander, the last eight days have been jam-packed and a roller-coaster of emotions. First came the "exhilaration of success," the former ambassador to Afghanistan said in an interview with CBC News, then the exhaustion and fatigue from fighting a tough five-week campaign in Ajax-Pickering  caught up with him.

This week, Alexander said he's feeling "excitement but also a sense of anticipation that goes with starting a new job."

"There are uncertainties, there are things we have to learn," he said.

Alexander, touted as a star candidate for the Tories who was successful in unseating Liberal Mark Holland in the Toronto-area riding, was on leave during the campaign from his job as president of a small startup energy company. His victory means a permanent departure from that position and Alexander said part of the last week has been devoted to finishing up that job, while preparing for his new one.

"There's work on all fronts that needs to be done," he said.

How rookies learn the ropes

Within 48 hours of winning their riding, MP-elects opened their mailboxes to find their "Day One" package sent to them by courier from Ottawa.

"Dear newly elected member," a letter from the clerk and Speaker of the House of Commons reads, and other materials in the package include a guide for new MPs that's about one-inch thick. It's split into various sections that inform the new parliamentarians about their responsibilities, legal information, conflict-of-interest rules, their swearing-in ceremony, hiring staff and other administrative guidance, a summary of their allowances, and generally what to expect in their new job. It also includes the all-important map of the parliamentary precinct.

New MPs are also assigned a liaison officer who they will meet with face-to-face when they come to Parliament Hill for "rookie school." Rookie school was developed in the wake of the election in 1993 when a record 205 new MPs were sent to Ottawa.

The House of Commons will host two days of training sessions where the new MPs will get a tour of Parliament Hill and learn the nuts and bolts of how the place works. In one session, they will hear from experienced MPs on how to balance work and life, and tips on how to handle the stresses that life as an MP can impose.

Where they will work — their office location — is decided by their party's whip, and until then temporary offices are assigned. Getting email set up and BlackBerrys in hand are among the first orders of business when the new MPs arrive.

Experienced MPs act as mentors

In addition to House of Commons help, the rookies are also getting lots of advice from their new colleagues. "Older" MPs such as Niki Ashton, who is just 28, will serve as mentors for their co-workers in caucus. She's been described as the youngest veteran MP.

"It sounds like an oxymoron, but I guess it's true," she told CBC News.

The Manitoba MP has already reached out to some of the rookies that are joining her NDP caucus, some of whom are years younger than she was when she was elected at age 26. Ashton said the mentorship she received when she arrived on the Hill was crucial to helping make the transition smoother.

"You take your own style but there are logistical things that other people have done for a long time so it's good to learn from them," said Ashton.

Hiring staff as early as possible also helps, Ashton noted, because they will help with travel arrangements, finding accommodation and other logistics.

Sean Casey, the newly elected Liberal MP in Charlottetown, can skip the hiring staff stage because he is inheriting all of his predecessor's employees. Shawn Murphy held the seat for the Liberals since 2000 and his staff has agreed to work for Casey, who is currently wrapping up his previous job as managing partner at a major law firm.

"He's been a tremendous help," Casey said about Murphy, who decided not to run again.

Casey is no stranger to politics, having served as president of Prince Edward Island's Liberal party and working on campaigns since 1988. He has a good idea of what he's getting into, and  the 47-year-old can't wait to get started. He feels "like a kid at Christmas," said Casey.

Among the congratulatory phone calls he took last week, was one from former prime minister Jean Chrétien.

"For a wide-eyed rookie like me that was a neat thing to happen," said Casey. "As a Liberal, it doesn't get much bigger than that" — like a junior hockey player getting a call from Wayne Gretzky, he said.

Casey will get his first taste of life on Parliament Hill Tuesday evening when he attends a Liberal reception and his first caucus meeting will follow on Wednesday.

It will still be a few weeks until the rookie MPs take their places in the House of Commons — Parliament isn't likely to resume until June 6 at the earliest — but when they do it's sure to be a memorable moment, according to Ashton.

"It was a real thrill," she said. "I remember being in the moment, looking up at the stained glass windows.… You realize that you're really in there, the magnitude of it.

"And there was definitely a point where I turned to my seatmate, and I think I said I was having one of those pinch me moments," said Ashton. "I still have those moments. It's a recurring feeling."