2013 Parliamentarians of the Year

Canada’s top MPs — as chosen by their peers

From the hardest-working to the most knowledgeable, from the best orator to the rising star, here is our seventh annual list of Canada’s top MPs, as selected by their peers:

Parliamentarian of the Year

Peter Stoffer, Sackville-Eastern Shore

Photograph by Blair Gable

First Runner-up: Right Hon. Stephen Harper, Calgary Southwest
Second Runner-up: Justin Trudeau, Papineau

It was John Holm, a long-time MLA in Nova Scotia, who first told Peter Stoffer to take care of his constituents, return their phone calls and show up at their doors. Stoffer took that advice to heart, and then some. Nearly everyone who phones him gets a call back (he semi-famously eschews email), even if you don’t live in his riding—even, it’s worth noting, the 500 people who recently sent him the same form letter about health premiums for retired civil servants. “He understands that the real work is not done in the scrum in the foyer, the real work is done by calling someone from Battleford, Sask., to talk about veterans issues,” says NDP MP Megan Leslie. “He knows that’s where politics needs to happen, in the community.” Leslie, who occupies a nearby riding, has observed him at events in Nova Scotia and watched as he made an effort to acknowledge everyone’s contribution. “He’s really good at making people feel special,” she says. (It’s no coincidence Stoffer was previously the recipient of the award for most congenial MP six years in a row.)

When he decided to run for office in 1997 in the riding of Sackville—Musquodoboit Valley—Eastern Shore, the former baggage handler and customer service agent for Canadian Airlines wasn’t expected to win, but he knocked on nearly 12,900 doors and brought treats to hand out to any dogs he encountered. On election day he received 12,433 votes, 39 more than the second-place finisher, part of a small orange wave that swept Nova Scotia that year. Fourteen years later, in 2011, he won his riding by nearly 10,000 votes, his sixth consecutive victory.

Stoffer is known on Parliament Hill as one of the good guys, the creator of the multi-partisan “All-Party Party,” an annual bash to bring parliamentarians together and raise money for charity. “The reality is I haven’t met a senator or a member of Parliament that I haven’t liked yet,” he says. He has become a prominent advocate for veterans. “After being born in Holland and my parents were liberated by the Canadians and their allies, that is the most heartwarming thing that I get to do,” he says. He’s proud, too, of pushing for a national shipbuilding strategy and helping save CFB Shearwater in Nova Scotia from being shuttered a decade ago. He says he’s not sure if he’ll run again in 2015, but he says he hopes he’ll be remembered for doing his best “not just on veterans and advocacy for Shearwater and shipbuilding, but I tried to get along with everyone,” he says. “I tried to make Parliament as comfortable as I can.” – Aaron Wherry


Rising Star

Hon. Chris Alexander, AjaxPickering

Photograph by Blair Gable

Runner-up: Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe, Pierrefonds-Dollard

In two years, Chris Alexander has gone from rookie MP to Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. The former diplomat, who served in Russia and Afghanistan, quickly took on the role of parliamentary secretary for the minister of national defence after being elected, and was out in front when it came to forcefully defending the government’s policies, including the controversy over the F-35 procurement process. The diligence and persistence paid off with his appointment in the July cabinet shuffle. “I do feel very fortunate to have been elected as an MP first and foremost,” Alexander says, noting ordinary MPs do the majority of the work in the chamber when it comes to debates, and not the ministers. Alexander says that he really had an opportunity to learn from friends and colleagues who have been in government longer than he has. “To be a minister is a change of pace, and a change of focus,” he says. “But I look forward to learning more, just as quickly as I can.” – Dale Smith


Best Orator

Hon. John Baird, Ottawa West-Nepean

Photograph by Blair Gable

Runner-upRodger Cuzner, Cape Breton-Canso

There are others on the government side—Pierre Poilievre, Vic Toews, Peter Van Loan—who have left their mark on question period, but it is probably John Baird whose image is most associated with this era’s daily exchange of pleasantries, the minister proving to be quite photogenic mid-shout. Baird has mastered the art of the quickly conveyed assurance or denunciation. “I don’t mind a good dust-up if there’s an honest difference of opinion, and it’s a big, meaningful issue,” he says.

But he also prides himself on working with those across the aisle, and wishes more people on both sides were willing to do so. Since becoming the foreign affairs minister in 2011, he has had opportunity to practice both his diplomatic skills and his willingness to be heard. This past summer, there was a flap with the Maldives over that country’s disputed elections. He has also championed the ending of both forced marriage and the criminalization of homosexuality. “The idea isn’t just to be a champion, just to give speeches,” he says. “You hopefully want to begin a conversation.” – Aaron Wherry


Most Collegial

Rodger Cuzner, Cape Breton-Canso

Photograph by Blair Gable

Runner-up: Ed Holder, London West

If recent tradition is any guide, a few weeks from now Rodger Cuzner will rise in the House of Commons, shortly before question period, and read aloud a Christmas-themed poem about recent goings-on around the Hill. There have been other poems as well, about Bev Oda, Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair, and the rhymes are not always kind. But amid the rote partisanship that can dominate afternoons in the House, here at least is some levity. “In the last election campaign, the Tory candidate said, ‘How could you vote for a guy that does nursery rhymes?’,” Cuzner laughs. “I take my work serious, but I don’t take myself too serious.”

Asked what he likes about Cuzner, Conservative MP James Rajotte identifies his sense of humour. “We have our political differences, obviously, but I have nothing but respect for him,” Rajotte explains. Rajotte and Cuzner have been friends since 2000, when they were both first elected. They play hockey together and Rajotte now calls Cuzner his “evil twin.” Cuzner says he’s never bought into the idea that partisan rivals are not merely adversaries, but enemies. And he says the longer one is around Parliament Hill, the more the realization sets in that “when the gavel goes down and the meeting is over, we’re all similar people trying to do the best we can with what we have.” – Aaron Wherry


Most Knowledgeable

Hon. Jason Kenney, Calgary Southeast

Photograph by Blair Gable

Runner-up: Marc Garneau, Westmount-Ville-Marie

It’s rare anymore for an MP to debate in the House without the benefit of prepared speeches, but Jason Kenney, Minister of Employment and Social Development since July’s cabinet shuffle, regularly gets up to respond to questions without so much as glancing at his notes. In scrums, he can handle his own back-and-forth with reporters while eschewing prepared talking points. It’s the mark of someone who knows his files. “Jason has the ability to develop a vision for where he wants a department to go and, more importantly, make that vision a reality,” says cabinet colleague Michelle Rempel. “He’s also an incredibly hard worker.”

Kenney is known to book meetings as late as 9 p.m., then head back to the office until well past midnight. He credits his ability to sleep anywhere for allowing him to put in 20-hour days when needed. And then there’s all of the face time he puts in with ethnic communities across the country (he’s also the minister for multiculturalism); he’s shown himself to be deeply familiar with their issues and concerns. It helps that Kenney reads translations from ethnic media articles first thing every day. As his responsibilities grow, so do his efforts to stay on top of the issues. – Dale Smith


Best Represents Constituents

Ted Hsu, Kingston and the Islands

Photograph by Blair Gable

Runner-up: Peter Stoffer, Sackville-Eastern Shore

First-term MP Ted Hsu was one of only two new Liberal MPs to win a seat in the 2011 election, succeeding former House Speaker Peter Milliken in the Ontario riding of Kingston and the Islands—big shoes to fill. Making a two-hour drive door-to-door from his constituency office to his desk on the Hill, Hsu regularly cites examples from his riding when debating national issues. “If you see some of my blogs, I recently wrote about federal funding for affordable housing, but brought it back to the city of Kingston’s budget,” he says. Hsu, who has a PhD in physics from Princeton, has worked as a nuclear researcher at Chalk River, an investment banker and at an alternative energy company. But it was during the three years he spent as a stay-at-home dad that he decided to enter politics. He now serves as critic for science and technology, post-secondary education, and economic development in Ontario. “The constituency work takes precedence over the work in Ottawa,” Hsu says. “You have to listen to the people in the riding and get to know them.” – Dale Smith


Hardest Working

Elizabeth May, SaanichGulf Islands

Photograph by Chad Hipolito

Runner-up: Hon. Irwin Cotler, Mount Royal

Elizabeth May usually leaves her apartment in Ottawa before 7 a.m., heading for Parliament Hill where she will have meetings shortly thereafter. As soon as the House of Commons is called to order, she moves to seat 309 in the chamber. There, for the most part, she will remain until the House has adjourned for the evening. She returns home around 10 p.m., then spends a couple of hours returning emails.

What sets May, leader of the Green Party, apart is that time in the House—a chamber that is otherwise only sparsely populated. She gets only one question per week in question period and doesn’t have a regular speaking slot during debate, so she contributes by asking questions of other MPs. Between those interventions, points of order and presenting petitions, she might get four or five opportunities to speak per day. Her constant presence fits with her championing of parliamentary democracy and her desire to see it freed from the tyranny of party leaders, but it is also fits with the engaged and independent parliamentarian she thinks the residents of Saanich-Gulf Islands want and need. “Not all constituents care about all the pieces of legislation,” she says. “But I don’t think there’s any legislation that goes through the House of Commons that there isn’t someone in my riding who’s very concerned about.” – Aaron Wherry


Lifetime Achievement Award

Peter Milliken

Photograph by Blair Gable

Back when he was keeping order in the House of Commons, Peter Milliken was cautious about criticizing how the place was changing. Some of his more forceful rulings—especially one upholding the right of parliamentarians to demand information from the government—stand as historic. His 2001-11 run set a record for longevity as the House referee. By the time he retired before the 2011 election, he was acknowledged even by Britain’s speaker as the leader among those who do the job in Commonwealth parliaments. Yet Milliken’s typically unassuming manner made him seem more a patient arbitrator than a stern judge over what were, during his tenure, increasingly bitter, witless partisan exchanges.

In retirement, though, this year’s recipient of our Lifetime Achievement Award for a former parliamentarian is more willing to talk openly about his misgivings about how the House has evolved. Milliken’s main complaint is that the party “whips”—the MPs appointed by the prime minister and opposition party leaders to keep discipline in their caucuses—have grown too powerful in recent years. “I think what’s happened to House of Commons proceedings is a major takeover by the party whips of what members say and which members speak,” Milliken says. “Initially it was just control as to which members were going to be up, but increasingly the whips are telling them what to say as well.”

He says the tightening of control by party disciplinarians is linked to another change—the gradual acceptance of MPs reading directly from prepared texts in the Commons. Back in his early days as the Liberal MP for the Ontario riding of Kingston and the Islands, where he was first elected in 1988, Milliken remembers that direct reading wasn’t tolerated. An MP who stared down at his paper for very long was apt to be interrupted by another raising a point of order to protest about the reading. Likely the Speaker would then urge the MP not to rely so extensively on notes. “Now, members are allowed to have lecterns on their desks, they’re allowed to read their remarks, and quite often they do,” Milliken says.

The problem isn’t that it makes the House boring; it’s that handing an MP a script is an easy way for whips to prevent spontaneous remarks. “It’s given the people who are saying to the member, ‘You must say this, here’s what you’re going to say,’ greater control over what the member says.” What’s more, Milliken argues that reliance on written texts has made heckling harsher and less humorous. That’s because an MP sticking slavishly to a text prepared for him by his party, and who has been told to wrap it up in a certain set time, isn’t apt to engage in any freewheeling give-and-take. “Friendly heckling is gone in large measure,” Milliken laments. “Whereas in days past, members used to get up and start making a speech, and they’d be heckled and they’d respond to the heckling. There was a lot of joking going on back and forth.”

To make matters worse, he says, MPs from opposing parties often simply don’t know each other. In fact, some make a conscious point of remaining strangers. As Speaker, Milliken often hosted dinners at which he would try bring partisan rivals together. But some MPs always turned down his invitations. “They didn’t want to be in that position,” he says, “sitting and chatting with somebody from another party all evening.”

Asked what he would tell a young person turned off by the idea of a life in politics by TV images of QP, he says, “Yes, the House sits 140 days a year, but on the other days you’re often busy with constituency issues.” He calls that work “important and interesting.” When the man long identified with the inside of the chamber is far more upbeat about what MPs do outside of it, you know the place needs fixing. And when Millken says so, there are still many who listen.

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