It’s a summer of reflection
MPPs thinking of running, or not running, in 2018
With an Ontario provincial election planned for next June, many MPPs will be spending this summer kick-starting their unofficial re-election campaigns. But not everyone will be out shaking hands and kissing babies on the barbecue circuit. For many, this summer will be a period of serious reflection. Is it finally time to call it quits? Do they have the stomach to face another gruelling campaign with the possibility of four more years of political life? Or should they join the likes of Environment Minister Glen Murray and several veteran MPPs, including Speaker Dave Levac, who have already announced they will be leaving politics? It was a question I faced prior to the 2014 election and I remember how difficult it was to decide to leave.
Political operatives hate this period. Convinced that the only way to hold existing seats is to have the incumbent run again, campaign officials will be placing enormous pressure on current members to keep their names on the ballot and put aside any talk of moving on.
And it’s not just internal pressure. Wavering members, particularly on the government side, are also forced to deal with intense media speculation about who might be quitting. With the Liberals trailing in the polls, every Liberal MPP knows that any retirement announcement has the potential to be spun negatively as a vote of non-confidence in Premier Kathleen Wynne and her party.
One need look no farther than an April story by the Toronto Star’s Rob Benzie, claiming that there could be an “exodus” of Liberal MPPs not running in the next election due to the premier’s unpopularity. Speaker Levac picked up on the theme in his retirement announcement, telling the press that “some will question or even use my announcement against my party and my leader … Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Maybe it’s time both political operatives and the press gave those MPPs considering retirement a break. They need to stop reducing a complex personal decision to one based solely on crass political calculations. A political life is hard enough without having to worry about being accused of treason against your leader and party for simply deciding to leave. In my experience, few decide to retire simply because of poll numbers.
I look at my own decision not to run in the 2014 provincial election. At that point I held the dubious distinction of being the Liberal MPP who had won by the smallest margin — 323 votes. The polls showed the governing Liberals in real trouble and as House Leader I had become one of the main defenders of the government in the never-ending gas plant scandal. It was easy for the opposition and others to characterize my decision as a lack of confidence in the Wynne Liberals. Never afraid to take a cheap shot, the Opposition was quick to describe me as “running away from the government” in the first Question Period that followed my retirement announcement.
Although it was an easy narrative to construct, it simply wasn’t accurate. My retirement had little to do with politics and much more to do with family. I had an 8-year-old and 3-year-old who barely knew me. My wife had shouldered the burden of raising our kids alone for far too long. She often joked that she had the worst of all worlds; she had the responsibilities of a single parent but wasn’t allowed to date (at least I think she was joking). I had experienced health problems, hated the commute to Toronto and was simply sick and tired of the political life. It was time to leave.
I don’t dispute the fact that in a tight race incumbency can have its benefits. Certain members are so well-known that their name on the ballot can hold a seat even when the tide is going the other way. MPPs are not, however, commodities. They are not chess pieces to be moved around the board. They are human beings with complicated personal lives and have every right to retire without being accused of disloyalty.
We need good people to enter politics and although we spend much time discussing ways to make it easier to become a candidate, we rarely speak about the need to help those already elected make a graceful exit.
John Milloy is a former Ontario cabinet minister who served as Liberal MPP for Kitchener Centre. He currently teaches at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, Wilfrid Laurier University, and the University of Waterloo. A version of this commentary was originally published online by QP Briefing.