The new year brought with it a new excitement for me, aware that I would soon be able to visit the picturesque riding of Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock after having spent the fall of 2008 working at the Queen’s Park office for MPP Laurie Scott. With the advantage of hindsight I can now say with full confidence that broader political configurations and pure coincidence turned my already built-up enthusiasm into a turbo-charged curiosity and eagerness in expecting to partake in a rare moment that few, if any, interns have hitherto experienced. The reason? Overcoming the challenge of having a leader without a seat. John Tory is now one step closer to returning to the legislature which would confer upon him all the rights and responsibilities of a sitting member of provincial parliament capable and willing to unite the party and direct all its efforts towards electoral victory in 2011. Such a scenario would only occur in the aftermath of a successful by-election which has yet to be called by the Premier. This entire sequence of events has of course, been made possible by Laurie’s offer to give up her seat to make way for John as she takes on the role of being in charge of the party’s election readiness and candidate recruitment. Certainly, Laurie’s sudden act of selflessness and loyalty–qualities that I have seen time and again while working for her as an intern–is something that Mr. Tory is grateful for, as any other party leader in a similar situation would be.
Laurie made her announcement at a press conference that was convened at the Olympia Restaurant in Lindsay on Friday, January 9, 2009. I was scheduled to go to Lindsay the following Monday, so the news altered my expectations entirely. I felt like I was about to embark on a fact-finding mission to add clarity to a lot of (mostly Toronto-based) speculation and conjecture surrounding the circumstances of this outcome, Laurie’s motivation, and what this would mean for constituents; themes which dominated the headlines across the board. Needless to say, my internship with Laurie coincided with a profoundly important moment for the riding, the party, and the province of Ontario.
So, the two-hour drive from Toronto to Lindsay that sunny Monday morning was very relaxing and put me in a very good mood. I arrived in the constituency office, which is located at the intersection of the two main streets in downtown Lindsay, where I finally met Beverley; Laurie’s assistant with whom I had worked for months over the phone prior to my arrival there. It is always delightful to put a face to the name of someone you had worked with closely for so long, and I was warmly welcomed by the rest of the constituency office workers; Ferrin, Sally and fellow (high-school) intern Brooke.
Unsurprisingly, the office was insanely busy that day – inundated with phone calls, letters and e-mails about Laurie’s resignation, what it meant for the communities in her riding and their extant needs, as well as the adequacy of Mr. Tory’s bid to represent a rural riding. My very first task was to help with the assembly of some recently-purchased boardroom chairs from Costco. Despite sounding trivial, those chairs were very much needed for the meetings that were to ensue that day and that week, and as in any other office setting, the administration of practical matters is ultimately what facilitates political dialogue, so I was happy to help. As the day went on, Beverley and the girls gave me some pointers on how to handle phone calls, what general reactions had been like and what I was to expect more generally while being in that riding. A short while later, Laurie arrived at the office and in her usual style, gave us speedy updates on her busy schedule that week which resembled shuttle diplomacy if you substitute foreign dignitaries with local community leaders and replace trans-oceanic flights with trips down highways 35, 115 and 401 to and from Toronto.
As a matter of fact, Laurie had an engagement that evening at the Albany club where she received two standing ovations by her peers – meanwhile Bev and I happily took credit for the dress she wore at that occasion, after having selected it from a ladies’ fashion outlet in Lindsay earlier that day. Clearly, fashion and politics do mix. I can confidently say that Monday was the busiest day that week and that people in the riding were still grappling with Laurie’s decision which inevitably forced us all to consider the near future and what different scenarios might look like based on when the by-election would be called. Running errands with Bev that day really gave me a chance to familiarize myself with the issues there, the local political culture, and some of the outstanding challenges that rural communities continue to face: infrastructure renewal and transportation, improving access to health care, a fair deal for farmers, investments in tourism and recreation, environmental protection coupled with sustainable development and the preservation of local industries. The way I see it, issues are perennial but people are not, so much credence does go to understanding and appreciating the role of individual leadership and innovation when it comes to applying real-world solutions to existing problems, but more importantly, facilitating dialogue among vast, often disparate and conflicting interests. This is a skill that cannot be attained in the distant seclusion of academia which is why I am grateful for participating in this internship.
Indeed, after I settled at the Lindsay Inn that evening, and took in all the action, a restful night was very much welcomed. In comparison, the next three days were a bit less hectic so I had time get to know the constituency office staff more closely. Some major tasks I undertook included reviewing media coverage of recent events, mainly isolating newspaper stories and commentaries on Laurie’s decision, in addition to conducting some data entry of people’s attitudes on a new software programme designed to save paper and register constituents’ feedback electronically. But the highlight of my four days in the riding was definitely attending the fire and police chiefs’ annual luncheon at the Lindsay armoury where I had the opportunity to meet community leaders, mingle with residents, and meet (for the first time ever) John Tory. He and I had a nice brief chat and my first impressions of him are that he is a warm, approachable man with a very sharp intellect who is always keen to tackle issues and hear what others have to say. Doubtless, he talked to a lot of people at that luncheon – or to be more precise – they talked to him and conveyed their thoughts on his candidacy. In subsequent days, Mr. Tory met with countless community activists and representatives, municipal politicians, journalists, and constituents listening to their concerns while also establishing a personal and political connection with them, to dispel all the ambiguity surrounding his persona as someone coming from an urban setting. All in all, Mr. Tory very clearly has his work cut out for him but I am certain that with Laurie by his side, he will do his best to earn a place in the legislature and achieve his goal to cement his role as leader of the opposition.
To sum up, the drama surrounding the leadership of the PC party is slowly coming to a close and pending Mr. Tory’s re-entrance into the legislature, a new phase will be ushered in between now and the next general election, and I consider myself very lucky to have been able to partake in and personally witness these events. I am grateful to Laurie and her staff for welcoming me in Lindsay and offering me their time, attention and guidance. I really hope to come up there again before my next placement, to observe the by-election and see how the candidates battle it out first-hand. One certainly gets the sense of accruing an institutional memory after having been at Queen’s Park for a while, because interesting political developments are noteworthy and I hope to one day look back fondly and say to myself: ‘I was there!’