Memories of OLIP – Graham White

Memories of OLIP by Graham White
Department of Political Science, University of Toronto
(Ontario Legislative Intern 1976-77; OLIP Director, 1988-94)

September 1976: here we were, the first batch of Ontario Legislature Interns, eager beyond belief, determined to be the most helpful, best informed crew of parliamentary helpers possible. We had met all manner of Queen’s Park worthies, political and bureaucratic, who told us how the place worked. We were now meeting with various governmental officials who could be of practical assistance in sorting out problems on behalf of our MPPs.

Hence we had gone to the Ministry of Health to learn how to help constituents who might encounter bureaucratic problems with the provincial health plan. Gosh, but they were helpful! And so accommodating! But they seemed nonplused by our questions about resolving the kinds of problems we thought people would encounter with OHIP (this was in the bad old days of premiums, ‘extra-billing’, and patient reimbursement). The discussion got stranger and stranger… we began to suspect… Then they began the slide presentation – step by step instructions for newly graduated doctors to follow in setting up their billing systems. Yes, they had taken us for medical, not political, interns.

Life as an intern was like that; I expect it still is. Twenty-five years after that heady Fall, I retain fond memories of the intern programme, as well as an undiminished sense of its value. My recollections are not just of my all-too-brief time as an intern but also of my term as Director in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

For me, going to Queen’s Park was literally a life-altering experience. Until the intriguing ad for the programme turned up on some notice board, I had been a library-bound grad student closing in on a Ph.D. but with little first-hand experience of the political world. My speciality was long-term aggregate data analysis; I knew little of institutions and what I knew left me pretty cold. I had never met a practising politician face-to-face. My job prospects seemed limited to the odd course here and there. I wasn’t sure what an internship entailed, but it probably beat bouncing around as a part-time lecturer.

Did it ever. For one thing, the pay was a lot better (sadly this is much less true now than in days of old). And I quickly learned how energizing and enjoyable the hurly-burly of political life could be — it helped that I arrived at Queen’s Park during the first Davis minority, when one literally never knew if the government would survive the week. I also came to understand how important and intellectually stimulating apparently fusty old institutions such as the Ontario Legislature could be, and what interesting people were to be found there. As well, I also realized how many stimulating non-academic jobs existed for political scientists interested in learning first-hand about the political universe. The internship prepared me for just such a job, at the Clerk’s Office at the Legislature, where I worked for various legislative committees and also built up a store of insights, information and contacts that led to several books, numerous articles and book chapters on topics parliamentary, and a life-long fascination with institutions of governance.

Since the editor has graciously given me this opportunity to indulge myself, let me offer some thoughts on the early days of the programme, my stint as Director and the success the programme has enjoyed.

Early Days

We really did feel like pioneers. No one had ever done this before (at least in Ontario) and we were put on notice early on to perform well, stay out of trouble and make friends for the programme, lest the experiment come to a crashing halt after its first year. The notion of eager young (well, youngish) university grads coming to the legislature to help MPPs and to learn about the parliamentary process took some getting used to and a good deal of explaining, not just for mystified Ministry of Health officials, but also for members, political staff and other denizens of Queen’s Park (one journalist called us ‘trinkets’). Some were suspicious, others skeptical but in the end everyone proved extraordinarily supportive and helpful as we settled in and actually started doing useful things for our members.

In retrospect, and knowing how much effort it took running the programme once it was well established, I marvel at the investment of time and energy that the two principal figures put into getting OLIP up and running. Ron Blair, from UofT, and John Holtby, the First Clerk Assistant at the Legislature, who jointly oversaw the programme, quickly earned our respect and friendship; each was a remarkable character – no stereotypical academic or bureaucrat they.

The experience was a blur. We helped answer mail and phone calls (in those days, most MPPs had a secretary and no research or personal assistants; publicly funded constituency offices only came in midway through our term). We prepared speeches and researched issues for Question Period; we observed the House and its committees; we worked on our MPPs’ pet policy projects; we attended meetings on the members’ behalf; we visited their ridings whenever possible; we met weekly to compare notes and to discuss our activities with Ron and John. Some duties weren’t easily classified: among other things, I found myself retrieving my MPP’s car, which had stalled out in the middle of Queen’s Park Crescent, and responding to an irate constituent demanding to know what the MPP was going to do about the dead cat on his neighbour’s roof (answer: provide the Humane Society phone number!).

In addition to making ourselves useful around our members’ offices, we observed the political process, met all manner of interesting people in and around politics, and absorbed an enormous amount from being able to wander freely about the place. Two or three nights a week the House sat until 10:30 or 11:00; these evening sittings were wonderful for their relaxed atmosphere and the plentiful opportunities to meet MPPs and political staff from all parties informally (with no TV, members had to come to the Chamber to find out what was going on). Security was not a big deal and we moved freely through the government and opposition lobbies, the press gallery and other such places.

As if to ensure we had a well-rounded experience, the Tories engineered their own defeat in the House at the end of April thus triggering an election and sending us out to the hustings for our final weeks. This too was an unparalleled learning experience — and quite possibly the hardest I ever worked in my life. One of our number, Frank Lowery, abandoned his non-partisan stance to run for the NDP against a senior minister. This led one shocked MPP’s secretary, who had presumed that the polite, well turned out Frank was a ‘tiny Tory’, to proclaim: “It’s like finding out your favourite nephew is shacked up with Margaret Trudeau!” Both the interns and the programme survived the election. Frank lost.

As might be expected, I learned much about the legislature. Significantly, some of the most important only a participant observer could have picked up. For instance, knowing the literature on Canadian politics I was not surprised by the extent to which the largely white male, middle class MPPs were unrepresentative of their constituents, nor by the essentially powerless lot of the backbench MPP. What I was not prepared for, since few if any academics had written on it, was the human dimension of parliamentary politics: the extensive cross-party friendships and the deep concern MPPs showed for their colleagues’ personal problems, regardless of political viewpoint. Nor had I realized how much the politicians’ ambitions were leavened with genuine altruism, as reflected in the very high number of MPPs who were adoptive parents.

Not only did I learn a great deal about legislative politics, I developed some valuable skills. Perhaps the most useful was the capacity to meet short deadlines by writing quickly, if not always elegantly. As a grad student, my writing had been ponderous in tone and glacial in speed. The need to whip up press releases in an hour cured that in a hurry. Of course, I had some help: a young guy in the next office with some weekly newspaper experience took pity on my verbosity and showed me how it was done. No wonder my press releases sparkled: my tutor was none other than Dan Needles, later known as the creator of the award-winning ‘Walt Wingfield’ sagas.

Every day brought new experiences. Some were challenging (convincing the Chief Government Whip to find precious office space for government interns), some rewarding (helping win compensation benefits for an injured worker), some embarrassing (“tell me Senator X”, one of us asked on a trip to Ottawa, “what do you do now that you’re out of active politics?”). All were memorable.

Directorship: Former Inmate becomes Warden

In 1988, when Fred Fletcher decided to step down as Director, I was asked to take on the job. I already had a pretty good idea what it entailed, having acted as OLIP’s “Legislative Coordinator” while still at the Clerk’s Office and as Fred’s semi-official deputy after I joined UofT. Still, I found myself learning almost as much as I had as an intern.

I learned – I think – diplomatic skills explaining to disappointed MPPs why they had failed (again!) to secure an intern placement (and explaining to determined interns that they couldn’t all work for popular MPPs Sean Conway and Richard Johnston), cajoling money from the Legislature’s Board of Internal Economy (while fending off occasional attempts by Queen’s Park officials to downgrade the CPSA’s role in the programme), and managing the group dynamics of various sets of high-powered, Type A interns. I learned – again, I think – to distinguish false alarms about potential crises from genuinely serious problems. I definitely learned the value of delegating administrative tasks to interns, who in turn acquired quite useful skills organizing receptions and dinners, editing newsletters, schmoozing potential sponsors, working up programmes for visiting interns and seeing to the logistics of our own travel. I became adept at recognizing the administrative importance of the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ principle. Every year when I reported to the CPSA Board how swimmingly things were going at OLIP, I explained that much of my success lay in following ideas and processes that Fred had set in train; they thought I was being modest, whereas I was just being truthful. I also came to understand first-hand how I was just the front man for a terrifically supportive team: John Eichmanis, Doug Arnott and Ellen Schoenberger at the Legislature; Joan Pond, Michelle Hopkins and John Armstrong at the CPSA; and Rose Antonio, my assistant at Erindale.

I learned much about politics and institutions in Ontario and elsewhere in accompanying interns on their trips, even as I wondered what Parkinson would have made of the propensity of the number and variety of intern trips to expand to fill the time (and the budget) available. In 1976-77 our intern trips were limited to Ottawa and Quebec City; Fred added California, Washington and Alberta/British Columbia; during my time as Director, the itinerary might include Halifax, Boston, Yellowknife and Westminster, in addition to Ottawa and Quebec City (though not all in the same year!)

The trips, though great fun as well as good opportunities to get to know the interns on a more personal level, were no boondoggles. The programmes were full and highly informative, giving the interns valuable insights into politics and political systems beyond the confines of Queen’s Park. Travel was notably lacking in luxury. We stayed in lots of what might charitably be described as low-budget hotels (sometimes three and four, Director included, to a room), cadged free billets whenever possible and, on one occasion unlikely to be duplicated by future interns or intern directors, slept in a tent at 40 below in the bush near the eastern arm of Great Slave Lake.

As this suggests, the best part of being Director was dealing with the interns. Each group had its own chemistry and brought diverse experiences and perspectives (including regional, since, as a CPSA programme, we recruited nationally and usually had two or three non-Ontario interns). As individuals they could be demanding, supportive, energizing, inquisitive, self-serving, idealistic, and occasionally annoying, but never dull. Many remain good friends.

Inevitably there were downsides. Unquestionably the worst was the selection process. Every year, with so few spots in the programme and so many top-notch candidates, we had to turn down all sorts of impressive and promising candidates (one at least retained her interest in politics, becoming an Ontario cabinet minister; happily, she held no grudges). What I truly dreaded was the annual endurance test of the weekend spent in a stuffy office interviewing would-be interns from early morning to late at night, followed by an agonizing ranking of candidates. The fact that we always seemed to be doing non-stop interviews when everyone else in the city was enjoying the first glorious Spring weather didn’t help. Nor did the fact that I went through this ritual for sixteen straight years! (Little wonder Bob Williams has given up asking me to serve on the selection panel.)

OLIP: A Quarter Century On

The programme has changed, as has Queen’s Park. Yet OLIP’s value continues undiminished. MPPs continue to receive first-rate, energetic staff support to help them with their duties – and at bargain basement rates. Elected and appointed officials at ‘the Leg’ find themselves stimulated and refreshed from their exposure to idealistic, questioning young people eager to make a contribution to public life and to learn first-hand about real-life politics. The CPSA enjoys the reflected glow of a successful and prestigious programme. (At the same time, the CPSA represents not just logistical support and sage advice for the programme. I lost count of the times I was able to reassure a skeptical MPP, donor or bureaucrat, suspicious that the programme was a thinly disguised exercise in party patronage, with the magic words, ‘it’s non-partisan; it’s run by the Canadian Political Science Association’).

In an intangible but important way, the legislature and indeed the larger society gains from the presence of scores of people in important bureaucratic, private sector, media and academic posts who understand and appreciate, from first-hand experience, our most central democratic institution. Some interns left Queen’s Park more cynical about politics than when they came; others, like myself, though well aware of the system’s many shortcomings, developed a strong sense of the positive contributions of those in public life. In an era when so much misinformation and mistrust is abroad about government and politics, it is good to have a growing cadre of people with a balanced, informed understanding of politics and politicians.

After a quarter century that cadre includes – as the programme creators hoped it would – a wide range of people in diverse and interesting posts, a great many of which are in or directly linked to government. Any number of former interns have taken bureaucratic jobs, up to and including at the deputy minister level; many are in the private sector as lawyers or lobbyists (or both!) or in management positions; a smattering are in journalism, and some are academics (not all in political science, but several with a strong research interest in parliamentary institutions) such as David Taras at Calgary, Patrick Fafard at Regina, Dave Docherty at Laurier, Jonathan Lomas at McMaster, Gail Wood at Queen’s and Jon Malloy, who’s just taken up a tenure-track job at Carleton. More than a few former interns have taken a run for public office; two have come up winners: Bob Speller, who’s been an MP since 1993 and Tim Murphy, who was an MPP a few years ago. Two of my fellow interns took the electoral plunge: Peter Rekai followed the aforementioned Frank Lowery, running for the Conservatives in the 1980s; Peter lost too. (Angela Longo, doubtless the shrewdest pol in my year, went after real power: she’s now an ADM.)

As this account of post-internship activities suggests, the greatest benefits accrue to the interns themselves. They make life-long friends, broaden their horizons, develop useful skills, and learn directly about politics – and life – in a unique, enjoyable (if hectic) experience. They also find themselves hot commodities on the job market. When I was Director, even in the depths of the 90s recession I regularly had phone calls from trade associations, government relations firms and government ministries asking if I knew of interns who might be interested in the jobs they were looking to fill. And of course interns have long been prime recruits for all parties to take on political staff jobs at Queen’s Park.

I suspect that Queen’s Park interns are no longer mistaken for budding members of the medical profession, but I have no doubt that interns in the new millennium will continue to have amusing and enlightening experiences in the course of what they will likely look back on as one of the best years of their lives. Long may it be so.