Sunday, January 24, 2016

Life on the moon

Former MP Ryan Cleary reflects on his time in Ottawa — sex, booze and The Rock’s role 

The following article — the first in a special series — was published in last week’s Newfoundland Herald (Jan. 24-30th). 

Ryan Cleary served as NDP Member of Parliament for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl between May 2011 and October 2015.

Soon after I was first elected, rookies were summoned to the House of Commons for Parliament 101, a crash course on how to best serve as MPs. Which was timely, considering I had to ask for directions to The Hill earlier that morning from my hotel in downtown Ottawa.

The presentation was delivered by veteran parliamentarians, and I took away two key messages: first, Ottawa was the “moon” and home ridings were “planet earth”; and, second, the last thing an MP should ever allow to happen is for Ottawa to “feel like home.”

In short, life in the nation’s capital was warped from the get-go. 

At least we had been warned—Ottawa was not the real world. So much of what happened there didn’t register at home, and MPs couldn’t afford to get comfortable. 

Over the next four and a half years, I witnessed the toxicity of Ottawa’s atmosphere. Booze flowed endless and free; the best of food, steeped in calories and cholesterol, was always within reach; families were almost never nearby, separated by work and time zone; children were kissed goodnight via cellphones and computer screens; and loneliness was as real as the temptation to relieve it. 

I once overhead a middle-aged Conservative MP compare his life in Ottawa to a college student living away from home in a dorm — except with money. That was his life, not mine. 

MPs were lobbied constantly with receptions held day and night, in Parliament itself and in nearby hotels like the famed Chateau Laurier. 

Friends in Ottawa were few and far between, at least in the early years. As the saying goes, “If you want a friend in politics, get a dog.” Only, as MPs learned soon enough, they were too busy to look after one. 

I watched marriages disintegrate around me, and relationships (including my own) crumble. I once visited a well-known spa in nearby Chelsea, Quebec, only to meet a married MP and a “friend” out for the day. The encounter was uncomfortable, but never mentioned (or forgotten). 

MPs spoke of sleeping with MPs of other parties, as well as journalists; there were no political lines in the bedrooms of Ottawa. Privacy was a rarity someone was almost always listening and MPs learned quickly to watch their words in elevators, bathrooms, or on the short green busses that circle The Hill when the House is in session. 

Then there was what brought MPs to Ottawa in the first place—politics. Taking to your feet in the Commons, before hundreds of MPs and the country itself, was a rush, but a humbling one, the honour of standing up for your province and people. 

The nervousness never subsided, but I repeated three words to myself to keep focus — Newfoundland and Labrador. 

“It’s always a battle,” I told my constituents. The numbers are against smaller provinces like Newfoundland and Labrador in every way imaginable, so the fight, if it’s one your after (and I never shied away from a skirmish) was constant and uphill (although MPs work as hard as they want to work).

“Is this the hill you want to die on?” was a question posed to me on a regular basis. My problem, at least in the beginning, was that I was prepared to die on every hill. Rot sets in with the first compromise. 

Ottawa is stunning, particularly in early morning on the walk to work — the architecture, the canal, Sparks Street, the Ottawa River. 

Parliament is majestic and the simple awe of being there (“That’s where I work.”) never faded. 

The scent of lilac in spring was particularly sweet, knowing there would be a second bloom a few weeks later in Newfoundland.

But too often I walked with my head down. 

There was always work to be done, a challenge to face. 

“Ottawa works in practice, not in theory,” Jack Harris once told me. 

And he was right. 

It’s not that I didn’t recognize the beauty of the city, I just saw the place through a political lens — as poisonous and conniving. 

And I couldn’t wait to fly home at the end of every week, even though more work awaited me there — a constant stream of casework and events. 

I savoured the thought of walking off the plane and smelling the air of Newfoundland.

I came across a quote recently, “If New York is said to be a town without foreplay, Ottawa is a town without climax.”

I never found that to be the case. There was a screwing every day. 

As a Member of Parliament, I was often asked what I missed most about journalism, my previous life. My answer was always the same: “Freedom.” 

As a politician, a member of a political party, I didn’t feel free. 

That didn’t stop me from regularly breaking loose, from accusing the Prime Minister, in a statement on the floor of the Commons in June 2012, of not being able to distinguish “his arse from a hole in the ground.” 

But then I didn’t ask permission. 

Better to beg forgiveness of the Speaker, which I did immediately after, than ask the party for clearance to mention Harper’s hole. 

At the time, Telegram columnist Ed Smith wrote how he would have retracted the statement altogether.

“… and say that, in my view, the prime minister does know his arse from a hole in the ground because, having spent a goodly amount of time with his head stuck in both, he is eminently qualified to judge.”

Soon after I delivered the arse/hole statement in the Commons, the NDP handed down a new policy whereby one-minute statements, which preceded the daily Question Period, had to be approved before delivery. 

In the Commons, before the media, in committee, in caucus, I felt controlled. Corralled. Herded. 

Except on VOCM’s Open Line (when the station allowed politicians on). That was usually always no-holds barred, as was delivering a speech in the Commons. 

With 10 minutes on my feet, followed by five minutes for Q and A, I never held back. I’m useless with a script (unless I write it). Don’t tell me what to say or think — I rebel against reins. As I often said, “It wasn’t my job to represent Ottawa in Newfoundland and Labrador, but the opposite.” 

And that meant I could never rise in the ranks of the NDP. 

I was officially responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, a junior critic area, but I didn’t care. I saw my real critic portfolio as Newfoundland and Labrador, which was all I cared for.

Question Period was tightly controlled theatre. MPs were expected to submit questions, with the powers that be in the Leader’s office deciding on the lineup and handing out scripts. During one memorable QP, two fisheries questions were allotted. 

Then-Fisheries critic Finn Donnelly posed the first one, and me the second. Only when Donnelly posed his question (about how scientists were being muzzled) I realized it was the exact same one I had on the paper in front of me. 

Someone had screwed up. 

So when Keith Ashfield, Conservative Fisheries Minister of the day, responded to Donnelly by rhetorically asking whether he “looked like a bully?” I immediately took to my feet to say that he did, in fact, look like a bully. 

The Speaker cut me off. I wasn’t being saucy, which I was accused of, so much as desperate for something to say. 

The news that day was overshadowed by Justin Trudeau, who made national headlines for calling Peter Kent, the federal Environment Minister, a “piece of shit.” In hindsight, I should have said Ashfield looked like a fucking bully.

Part 2: The hardest thing I had to do as an MP.

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