Learning from Change by Erin O’Toole, MP
In my first column after the 2015 election I wrote that ‘change is the law of life’ quoting John F. Kennedy as I contemplated the roller coaster ride of my first three years in politics. The 2019 election is now behind us and I have come to realize that with change comes wisdom. The learnings and grey hair that come with experience in any job prepares you for the future. This week, the 43rd Parliament will meet for the first time and the lessons from my political career will have hopefully prepared me for the new experience of a minority parliament. I was first elected in a by-election in late 2012. By the time I was led into the House by Prime Minister Harper and the late Jim Flaherty, it was December 12th. I took my seat for just a few hours before the House rose for a two-month winter break. I remember being disappointed because I had only just arrived in Ottawa, but looking back I realize that it was the best thing that ever could have happened. It allowed me to focus my first months as a Minister of Parliament (MP), on establishing my office in Durham, building an exceptional team and setting up systems to serve my constituents. In fact, many of the systems we developed in those first few months still serve our team well today. A few months later, Prime Minister Harper appointed me Parliamentary Secretary (PS) for International Trade in the middle of the most ambitious period of trade expansion in Canadian history. I worked closely with Minister Ed Fast, who became a friend and mentor for me in my first year as an MP. Ed gave me responsibility for working with small and medium sized businesses on growing their business by accessing export markets around the world. This allowed me to see the hopes and aspirations of entrepreneurs, farming families and exporters across Canada up close. I wrote about this in my first ever blog post and taught me to understand the issues from the point of view of the people you engage with. My first two years as MP prepared me for my most challenging assignment yet; as the Minister of Veterans Affairs. The Prime Minister brought me into the cabinet to modernize a department and win back the trust of Veterans. I learned so much in this role that it could fill many columns, but the biggest lesson came from the people I served. The Veterans, especially many injured Veterans who find a new purpose advocating for their comrades, taught me the need to listen with empathy and engage them directly in the process of change. This meant that I began a lot of meetings with angry people venting frustrations at me before we could find points of common interest and chart a course forward. Being accountable, listening and engaging people in the change that would impact them became a touchstone for my style of leadership because of this experience. The loss of my job as Minister in 2015 also changed my role from being a government MP defending our decisions to becoming an opposition MP opposing the decisions of government. This was a dramatic change in both style and substance for me. I wrote about my concern that I would come across as perpetually angry because of the inherent negativity that comes with “opposing” others. To counter this impression, I have tried to be very well informed on all issues and use an approach in opposition that is tough, but fair. I also try to treat my political adversaries with respect and collaborate whenever possible. I have had great success building trust with MPs from other parties by working together on issues related to mental health or veterans. I am hopeful that this experience will come in handy in this minority parliament. The last parliament also saw me run for the leader of my party at the urging of some of my colleagues. I was not successful in my leadership run, but once again, I learned a lot from it. The experience of travelling across Canada and hearing the aspirations or concerns of citizens and communities from the Legion halls, church basements and shop floors of the country made me a more effective MP and a better Canadian. The skills I had developed of listening with empathy and engaging others in change allowed me to develop friendships and forge policy ideas based on the diverse needs to our country. The experience also showed me that the old adage that you learn more from your failures than from your successes is absolutely correct. A minority parliament requires all MPs to do their job whether it involves governing or opposing and to do so with the knowledge that the government could fall accidentally or intentionally at any time. A minority parliament also has the potential of finding new ways to collaborate and compromise provided the parties can listen and engage one another in a serious fashion. That will be my focus in this session and I know that the lessons I have learned along my political journey will guide me.