Exactly one year ago last week, my political career came to screeching halt when I lost my bid for re-election to the House of Commons with less than 20% of the vote.
I knew getting re-elected as an Independent would be a challenge; I was, however, bitterly disappointed with my third-place finish.
Returning to private life after a political career has some unique, but many common, qualities with any other loss of employment. Getting fired hurts; it is a huge blow to the ego and creates the realty that you must now figure out what the next phase of your life might look at.
Any politician who tells you after an electoral loss that “it was all for the best” is either being deceptive or more likely is trying to convince him or herself. Politicians are generally super competitive and a career in politics requires a certain amount of self confidence. Being rejected by the electorate deals that security a tremendous blow and you have to adjust.
I guess the first thing I noticed is how local “players” interacted with me. A sitting MP is used to having his calls put through to other elected officials and local business leaders and having e-mails returned in a timely manner. That all changes. As do public events. Where formerly, constituents would walk across a crowded room just to get a word with the MP and millennials asked for selfies. Suddenly, you are a wallflower. Many people don’t know what to say to a defeated politician; safer to just look away. And if everyone who claims to have voted for me actually did, I’d still be in Ottawa!
Twelve months later, uncomfortably and fake empathy have been replaced with: Are you running again perhaps in next year’s municipal election? Given my suspicion of partisan politics, perhaps the lure of local issues would force me out of retirement. Unlikely; I have won three elections and lost two. I have no intention of gambling my winning record away.
Undoubtedly, the biggest transition for defeated office holders under 55 is vocational transition. I know a handful of defeated PC MLAs from eighteen months ago who are still not working. Those expecting plentiful job offers are soon disappointed. We learn the tough lesson that the skills learned as a Parliamentarian—how to clap on demand and vote as instructed– are not readily transferable to the private sector. Some eventually hang out shingles as consultants—consulting on a variety of topics from international trade to communication strategies. Former cabinet ministers with impressive rolodexes will find work. Some may become lobbyists; although restrictions on lobbying for former “office holders” adds additional challenges to gainful employment post politics.
Unfortunately for me, there is little demand for ‘how to improve democracy’ consultants; fortunately for me, I had my legal training to fall back on. Except similar to colleagues who are engineers or IT Specialists, getting back into a profession after an extended absence presents challenges. Skills quickly become antiquated.
In my case, the Law Society of Alberta mandates that practitioners, who have been out of the profession for over four years, must satisfy the Education and Credentials Committee that they have entry level competence. That wasn’t so much the problem as that the Committee is made up of Benchers (volunteer governors) and they only meet a few times a year; the process took over three months before I got my licence back.
The Alberta economy is deeply recessed and building up a legal practice from the ground up has proved challenging. Fewer houses are being bought and sold and there is little corporate activity; there is no shortage of litigation disputes, only a shortage of clients with the resources to advance them. It will take some time before I have income replacement for the $160,000+ salary enjoyed by a Member of Parliament. I have used my downtime constructively; I have taken courses to become a Practising Mediator and am working towards qualifications to become an Arbitrator.
There are some definite positives, however. I certainly don’t miss the four plus hour flights preceded by airport security twice per week. I certainly enjoy spending more time at home and with my wife; she says she feels the same way. I enjoy my privacy and watching sports on weekends rather than the endless ribbon cuttings, community fundraising dinners and other demands on one’s time.
The best part of the job is the people; the worst part of the job is the people (different people). I miss the debates. Not the contrived theater that occurs on the floor of the House of Commons, but the private discussions in backrooms, committee rooms and watering holes, often with members of different political parties and persuasions.
I don’t miss the partisan wrangling and games. I do miss the ability to contribute to a public policy debate.
It took me close to nine months to wean myself from my addiction to Canadian political news. I read newspapers selectively now and don’t feel discombobulated or that I missed something if I miss “At Issue” on Thursday nights or “the House” on Saturday mornings. Certainly, writing once a week for ipolitics allows me to at least partially satisfy my need to contribute to political discourse.
The transition from elected office to private life is both challenging and full of opportunity. When you are no longer a ‘somebody’ that people want to be seen with, you learn who your true friends are. You reconnect with those friends and family. You learn your true worth as an individual and remember what truly matters over at this website. You regain your privacy and control over your schedule. You humbly accept your fate and your promotion from public servant to sovereign citizen.