On the occasion of his departure from the NDP caucus, Bruce Hyer and I chatted today via telephone.
Q: So I guess first off, when did you start to think about becoming an independent MP?
A: I first started to think about it under the whipping by Nycole Turmel after Jack’s death … Immediately after Jack’s death, I was very concerned about his—however it came about—choice of interim leader. I knew it would not be good for the party, which it was not. I was concerned for a variety of reasons.
Q: You were concerned specifically about Nycole Turmel’s leadership?
A: I was concerned about Nycole. But it really became very difficult when I and my constituents were muzzled after the long gun vote.
Q: What were your concerns about Nycole Turmel?
A: There’s no point in going there now … although she is still the whip, which I find quite ironic. We’re into an issue about whipping and Nycole has moved from the head whipper to the assistant whipper now.
Q: So just to clarify, you had two concerns: one, you were concerned about her leadership in general and two, you were bothered by the fact that you were punished after the long gun registry vote?
A: Absolutely. And it’s not about me or my ego, it’s about many things. It’s about my ability to do my job to which I was elected. And so my effectiveness was curtailed during that very long period.
Q: And when did you make the final decision to become an independent MP?
A: Well, as you may know, I backed Nathan Cullen in a high profile way and I think that he would’ve been a fantastic choice as our next prime minister. But I came over to Tom after Nathan dropped off the ballot because I believed at that time that Mr. Mulcair was the next best choice and was a much better choice than Brian Topp. And then when Mr. Mulcair told me shortly after—he didn’t tell me directly actually, which I would have appreciated—but when I indirectly heard that he was lifting the sanctions that Nycole Turmel had put in place over the long gun registry, I was pleased and I was ready to give him a chance. I was ready to go back to work. He asked the caucus, if any of us had aspirations in the shadow cabinet, to send him our wish list. And so I sent him a very short wish list in which I requested that I be made the small business critic—where I have a lot of interest and expertise and I feel it’s important that someday one of the political parties is the small business party because I don’t think there ever has been one—with a secondary choice of electoral reform, which I think is crucial to the future of Parliament. I never got a response to my note to Tom. So then two things happened. One is, in fairly short order, he started to say, especially in Quebec, that he would bring back the long gun registry and he would whip the vote. And I could see we were going to be on to a collision course again because I knew that I would not vote to reinstate the long gun registry … So I went, Uh-oh, well, hopefully he’ll get a dose of common sense sometime in the future. There’s a lot of time between now and then. So I decided to wait and be patient. But then when the list of shadow cabinet appointees came out and out of 102 NDP MPs there were 78 appointments, some of them pretty fluffy, but nonetheless, to be left off of that, I said, Well, I didn’t come here to be a backbencher and that’s pretty much when I made my decision.
Q: In terms of the gun registry, your concern is that three years or four years hence if he becomes prime minister, that’s when this would happen? Because there’s no other votes really coming up on it between now and then?
A: Well, we get opposition day motions and I will be surprised if he doesn’t bring it back as an opposition day motion. And as you know, motions aren’t law, they’re feel good exercises. But even on that I would not abstain and I would not vote to bring back the long gun registry. And so I could see it coming that, in addition to not having a shadow cabinet role, that I’d be back in the dog house again.
Q: When you say that you left because you didn’t have a role in the shadow cabinet that seems very different than saying you left for democratic principles.
A: It’s both, actually. You asked what was the precipitating, what was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Let’s back up here. Ever since I got to Parliament three and a half years ago, I have been unbelievably dismayed at the dysfunctionality of Parliament. And I’ve been very dismayed at the catcalling, the heckling, the lack of respect, the feeling by many MPs and many parties that the louder you yell the more valid your arguments are, at the hyper-partisan nature of the three main parties and at the whipping of votes in all three main parties. It has bothered me from day one. I am a former small business person and an environmental activist and I’ve had a wide-ranging career, I’ve been a judge, I’ve been an environmental consultant, I’ve been a retailer and an entrepreneur and I have never, ever seen anything as dysfunctional as Parliament. It’s abysmal. I’ve been scratching my head for three and a half years saying, What can I do to make this better? And so that is why I asked, as one of my two asks, for the electoral reform file … I don’t think most of the people in Parliament are bad people. I think we have a system that does not bring out the best in good people and it brings out the worst in bad people.
Q: And you didn’t feel like you could fix that system while sitting as an NDP MP?
A: I tried. I’m not going to tell you all the internal stories, but it’s been a struggle … Jack was very good at balancing the needs and opinions of MPs and the desires and opinions of the party. It’s very clear that in all three main parties, most of the time the party controls the MPs not the MPs control the party. But Jack was very good at balancing those things. And so, for example, Jack gave me important roles, critic roles when I was there, environment, small business, tourism, etc and he asked me to introduce and shepherd through the House of Commons Bill C-311, the climate change bill, which I did, successfully. So I felt useful, worked hard, felt listened to, didn’t always have my way, but I watched Jack struggle with the constant dynamic tension between the MPs and the staffers and the party apparatchiks. And he was pretty good at balancing those things. I mean, he was an amazing man, I miss him, we all do. To be honest, a large part of why I stayed for as long as I did was because Jack was such an exceptional leader and I believed in Jack. He certainly pressured me hard on the gun thing. He didn’t agree with me and he was persuasive, and beyond persuasive sometimes about it, but he never brought down the whip on it, for which I was appreciative. He was both a small-d and a large-D democrat. The good news and bad news about Thomas Mulcair is the same. He’s obviously very strong. He’s very controlling. He will rule with an iron fist and we’re back to old style politics and he’ll be good at that. I hope the NDP either forms government or forms part of government next time, one way or another I hope the NDP is in power next time, and I hope that Thomas Mulcair is the prime minister. But I just hope that along the way, instead of going for the rigid, controlling Stephen Harper model, that he seeks a new style and a new model where he allows some small-d democracy and some flexibility in managing his MPs. I’m not the only MP in the caucus who feels that the party is way too controlling.
Q: How do you square your feeling now with, I mean, right after the convention you were fairly complimentary of Mr. Mulcair and his leadership abilities?
A: I never believed in a million years that he would be silly enough to immediately say that he would bring back the long gun registry and write off Manitoba and Saskatchewan and Northern B.C. and other rural parts of Canada. I found that disappointing. But I was hopeful that maybe he felt the need to do that right away and then he’d just kind of put it on the back shelf for awhile and reflect on it. So that was the first warning signal. But, you’ll have to make your own decisions on this, but when I look at the list of who got appointed to what in the cabinet, I think there are some clear biases there and I think there was some punishment for not supporting him in the [leadership] race in certain areas … But I just want to go back to the main reason here though. It’s not mostly about the NDP. I wish them well. I’m going to vote with them most of the time. I’m not going to give up my party membership unless they wrest it from me somehow. I’m a social democrat and I’ll be voting with them probably 95% of the time. But I’m not going to vote with them 100% of the time. If I ever rejoin any other party—and I’m not planning to do that—but if I ever did, I would never join a party where they whipped votes, end of story. I’m going to vote with my conscience and I’m going to vote with what I think is best for Canada and my constituents and that’s the end of the story. And so hardcore NDPers who think party right or wrong or to use Brian Mulroney’s metaphor, you dance with the one who brung ya, it’s not me. It’s just not me. Up to a point, I’ll—my 16-year-old son said awhile ago, Dad, when did you become so patient? I’ve watched you become very patient over the last nine years. You never used to be a patient person. But my patience ran out here last week … I do plan to run again, probably as an independent in the next election. But that’s a long time away … What I’m committed to now is, first, doing the best job I can for my constituents. Every day, every week, I and my staff see constituents being abused or neglected by a variety of government agencies, most noteworthy being Canada Revenue Agency and EI. And so we’re the court of last resort for many people. And I have the world’s best staff, they’re just fantastic, both legislative on the Hill and constituency work in the riding. I may be naive, but I believe we’re going to be even more effective now. When you’re in the party, you have to do an awful lot of busy work. They eat up an awful lot of your time and energy with trivia and form, rather than substance. All the parties do. Have you ever noticed that virtually no media pay any attention whatsoever or sit in the House during debates? A lot of it is boilerplate bumph. It just goes on and on for hours and days and weeks and months. The bad news is I have to do a lot more homework in researching every piece of legislation to decide how to comment, how to debate, how to vote on it and whether to propose amendments, so that’ll be a lot of work for me and my staff. But the good news is that I won’t be told what to think and say and vote in the future and I’m looking forward to that.
Q: Do you have much hope for some of the democratic reforms that you’ve talked about? Do you have much hope that those are going to be realized?
A: I don’t know the answer to that question. But I really believe what I’m about to say: I believe that democracy in Canada is at such risk, the system is so flawed, that unless we get some kind of democratic reform, I don’t have a whole lot of hope for democracy or the functionality of Canada and Parliament.