IN THE NEWS ~ NDP procedural wizards give a glimpse of the House's behind-the-scenes choregraphy

Laura Ryckewaert, The Hill Times

The House leader and whip's offices are central valves in the beating heart of House of Commons strategy for any recognized party on the Hill, working to negotiate, track, and shake up the Chamber's agenda. Given the importance of these offices to performance in the House, Jeremy Huws, chief of staff to NDP House leader Peter Julian, says it's an "asset" that a "sense of continuity" has been retained in staffing from last Parliament amid budget cuts.

"Being able to continue with the processes that keep our caucus ready for what's going to happen in the House at all times is a big benefit, keeping something of a stabilization effect on the caucus," he said in an interview last week, adding that "of course, the whip's office contribute to that as well."

As official opposition last Parliament, NDP House officers used to be allocated larger budgets but are making do with less now as the third party. The party dropped from more than 90 MPs in the last Parliament to 44 now. But Mr. Huws said at its peak the House leader's team was five strong and was trimmed down to its current level of four staff ahead of the 2015 election, a level that the caucus has been able to maintain with the NDP House leader's $324,118 budget for 2016-17.

The NDP House leader's office occupies seven suites on the fifth floor of Centre Block on the Hill, including a small boardroom and House Leader Peter Julian's office, which he also uses in his capacity as the MP for New Westminster-Burnaby, B.C. Directly across the Hall sit the offices for NDP Whip Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet and her staff team, helping the teams to keep in close co-ordination. Just around the corner sits NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's office suites, including a larger boardroom typically used for regular strategy meetings and Question Period prep.

Along with meeting in the boardroom, staff from the House leader's office, the whip's office, and the leader's office meet every morning while the House is sitting in the opposition lobby outside the House of Commons Chamber. After that, those staff, remain in "constant communication throughout the day about what's going to happen next: which speakers are coming up, will the bill collapse, are there motions we're going to move, are there motions we know the other people are going to move, that kind of thing," said Mr. Huws.

"We work exceptionally close with them; we have to," he said of the NDP whip and team. "The whip's staff are sort of stationed at the desk right at the doors into the House of Commons, into the lobby, so the person that's on the desk has to have all of the relevant knowledge that we have and that we're getting prepared for what's going to happen in the House on a given day so that it can be quickly communicated to MPs that are in the House."

If an MP "comes streaming" out of the Chamber looking to understand directions coming from the House Speaker, or seeking direction on a motion being moved, "if the whip's staffer doesn't know, it's usually because we haven't talked enough, occasionally it's because we're all surprised at what's happening and we're analyzing" on the fly.

Mr. Huws has been chief of staff to the NDP House leader since 2012, starting under then-House leader Nathan Cullen, after first joining the office in 2010 and starting off overseeing private members' business. Before that he spent roughly four and a half years, starting in March 2006, as an aide to NDP MP Charlie Angus.

As chief of staff to the third party House leader, Mr. Huws said he manages "work across the fields," co-ordinating with other NDP offices. He's also in regular contact with staff in the Liberal and Conservative House leader offices, in particular with the chiefs of staff of those offices (Vince MacNeil and Kenzie Potter, respectively), along with senior advisers Hugo Dompierre (on the Liberal team) and David Prest (for the Conservatives).

"Just making sure we're aware of what each other are doing when it's appropriate," he said. "A lot of what we do in the House is making sure that the choreography is right so that nobody looks silly... there aren't sort of awkward pauses in the daily routine of the House."

For example, in order for meaningful debate on a bill or a new motion to be held, all parties need to be aware in order to prep their MPs accordingly. As well, at times the parties are co-operating to bring certain debates or motions forward in the House-for example, making time in the agenda to hold a minute of silence for slain British MP Jo Cox in June. House calendar negotiations are also a "major hurdle" in those cross-party discussions.

While Mr. Huws said there's a lot more co-operation behind-the-scenes than outsiders may realize, interests don't always align.

"There are times when the negotiations are not completely smooth and they can go all the way up to hostile, I guess. But for the majority of discussions that take place, it's entirely civil, we understand that each of the parties have positions and we try to accommodate each other when we can," he said.

All other staff in the House leader's office technically work under the title of House leader's assistant but each takes on a different focus.

Alex Telka, who's been in the office since 2011, is the office's "top procedural guy" and is "responsible for government orders, which takes up the majority of most days." That means making sure the office, and in turn the caucus, is aware of what the government is doing in the Chamber on a day-to-day basis, "making sure that our caucus is briefed and has had a discussion on legislation" coming forward and ensuring briefing notes are prepared by various critics.

"When there's interesting procedural things happening, Alex is our expert," said Mr. Huws, on the lookout for "opportunities" using procedural rules, as well as possible "threats."

"There's a whole range of options of things that could happen," like "random motions getting proposed" or rushed votes, and the caucus needs to be as prepared as possible, said Mr. Huws. Parties are able to use the procedural rules of the House of Commons to their advantage.

Perhaps "the best example of that" so far this Parliament was the vote on Bill C-10 in May, when opposition parties, in an effort to kill the bill meant to allow Air Canada more flexibility on where it locates its maintenance operations, used procedural tricks to bring about a surprise Monday vote and came shockingly close to success. Liberal MPs scrambled to reach the Chamber in time. Liberal House Speaker Geoff Regan ultimately had to vote to break a 139-to-139 tie, despite the Liberal government's large majority in the House.

Dominic Arseneau, who joined the House leader's office in January, is in charge of private members' business, ensuring MPs up next on the legislative calendar are ready and keeping track of progression. He also helps "contribute to the Question Period process" for the office, which is led by the party leader's office, and ensures MPs are, "as much as possible," on the "same page" and ready to debate private members' business coming from other parties, said Mr. Huws.

Mr. Arseneau previously worked in the NDP leader's office as a Quebec media officer and is a former aide to NDP MP Guy Caron. He also has a background in international journalism and has worked abroad, including for Al-Jazeera.

"He's a real sort of media, communications expert and he's a huge asset in that capacity to the work that we do," said Mr. Huws.

The newest addition to the team is Mackenzie Doll, who moved over from federal party headquarters to join the House leader's team in July. She's responsible in a "more global capacity" for communicating the work of the office and NDP MPs on the Hill. That means taking the "often very complex" procedural work being done and "putting it into a package that makes sense to non-procedural experts," for everyone from caucus MPs to party staff to the general public and media.

With the complexity and abundance of House procedural rules, "the learning curve will be quite steep," for Ms. Doll, but she's already got "very useful" experience in a "communications capacity." She studied public relations at Ryerson University and was responsible for communicating with "our stakeholders and strongest supporters" in her previous role at party headquarters, said Mr. Huws.

Overseeing everything is Mr. Julian, who's been NDP House leader since 2014. Mr. Huws said Mr. Julian, as the boss, is a crucial part of the office continuity and makes sure the team is ready for anything. He has "pushed us to find a creative way to make something like happen," to use procedural rules to put checks on the government-of-the-day's agenda.

"He's become a procedural expert, more so than the average MP since he's been House leader. And just the role that he plays in keeping our team focused on the right things and really keeping our caucus together on files," is crucial, said Mr. Huws.

The whip's team

Over in NDP whip's office, which has a $338,653 budget for 2016-17, longtime staffer Rob Sutherland is chief of staff.

As a result of reduced resources, the team went down by two since last Parliament, with Tom Shannon moving over to serve as a legislative assistant to NDP MP Alistair MacGregor and Éric St-Amant now serving as member's assistant to NDP MP Brigitte Sansoucy.

Mr. Sutherland has been on the Hill since 1981, starting off in the offices of a number of NDP MPs before joining the NDP House leader's office in 2003. He joined the whip's office in 2012, and has been much lauded for his knowledge of parliamentary procedure, built up over years of experience at the heart of the caucus' House work. In The Hill Times' recent 15th Terrific 25 Staffer Survey, Mr. Sutherland came second in the Most Knowledgeable category, along with placing 16th overall.

Anthony Salloum is a lobby officer for the whip, and can frequently be seen manning the third party's desk in the opposition lobby, which flanks the House of Commons, through which MPs enter and exit the Chamber. He and Mr. Telka on the House leader's team are in particularly close contact, often side-by-side in the opposition lobby, throughout any given day when the House is sitting.

A former union head for NDP Hill staffers, Mr. Salloum has worked the lobby for the NDP whip since 2011, and before that was legislative affairs aide to then-NDP MP Claude Gravelle. His first foray into political work came in 1997, as a constituency assistant to then-NDP leader Alexa McDonough in Nova Scotia, before moving to Ottawa to work as a liaison officer for the Atlantic provinces in her leader's office in 2000. After she was replaced as leader by Jack Layton in 2003, Mr. Salloum became her legislative and communications assistant in her capacity as an MP.

Charles Brabazon is a committee officer. A former MP staffer, Mr. Brabazon joined the whip's team last Parliament under then-whip Nycole Turmel.

Another longtime NDP staffer, Theresa Kavanagh, is a logistics and committee officer for the whip. An Ottawa Carleton District School Board trustee since 2010, Ms. Kavanagh has also been working for various NDP whips since 1997 and before that, was a legislative assistant to then NDP MP John Solomon starting in 1993.

Finally, Christian Brideau is an assistant to Ms. Boutin-Sweet as whip. Mr. Brideau started off as an administrative assistant to former NDP MP Yvon Godin in 2003, in time moving over to Mr. Godin's office as NDP whip, a role he held until 2011.

The NDP whip and House leader offices "became a really sort of professional machine" as official opposition in the last Parliament, said Mr. Huws, adding he's "quite proud of the work" accomplished last time around, which he says has continued under the new dynamics of the House this Parliament.

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