Guess who's not invited to the PMO Christmas bash this year?
THE GHOST OF PARTIES PAST
Guess who's not invited to the PMO Christmas bash this year?
AS THE HOLIDAY season begins, I already know one invitation I won’t get: to the Prime Minister’s Office Christmas party. The format during my years with Jean Chrétien was pretty standard. The Boss would thank us for all our hard work and make a corny joke. We would laugh politely and make for the open bar. A forgettable sit-down dinner usually consisted of dry chicken breast or salmon with some kind of salty, unidentifiable sauce. Music and dancing were also on the agenda, along with lots of opportunities for us Lesser Liberals, the insignificant staffers of the PMO, to smirk as senior staff—or the
Big Boys Upstairs (BBUs) as we called them—boogied.
Despite our cynicism (a workplace injury in politics), these parties did matter for Lesser Liberals. For we were the shadowy figures in the background; we were the staffers whose names the Prime Minister did not even attempt to learn. We only received a 5-by-7 photograph of Jean and Aline Chrétien as a Christmas gift, not the 8-by-10 photographs the BBUs got. But
last year we were less cynical than usual. We knew it was our last Christmas party.
The clean sweep last Dec. 12, the day Paul Martin officially took over as prime minister, came as no surprise. The writing had been on the wall, literally, before the changeover at the Langevin Block, across the street from Parliament Hill. We arrived at work the previous week to the smell of paint fumes and the sight of glistening white walls, with our desks and bookshelves crammed into
the centre of the room. Our computers, printers and phones were unplugged. Never mind that we still had news releases to release and speeches to hone. “We have to paint for the new team,” was the explanation.
New regimes come and old regimes leave. That’s part of politics. Loyalty and allegiance are job requirements that outweigh, in many cases, competence and experience. But given the combination of considerable skills and complete insignificance of most Lesser Liberals, it’s too bad nearly everyone gets the boot with the arrival of a new leader. At least half of my colleagues who turned out the lights at the Langevin Block last December were in high school when Jean Chrétien and his BBUs first took over the PMO in 1993. They were lectured about his rise to power in university political science
classes. They were more bemused observers of the Chrétien-Martin feud than active participants, completely shut out of the decadeslong, behind-the-scenes intrigue and machinations. After all, filing an expense claim or arranging travel for a BBU doth not a Chrétien insider make.
On Dec. 11 it was clear, though, that the number of staffers who would stay on and serve Paul Martin and his crew could be counted on one hand. So we did the only thing you can do in those circumstances, and that is party like tomorrow would never come. We deleted and shredded and tried to track down library books and equipment we had forgotten about. Different sections hosted mini-parties. BBUs bought us smoked oysters and wine. We ignored the cracker crumbs that fell. We smoked cigarettes
WE ignored the cracker crumbs that fell. We smoked cigarettes inside. What were they going to do? Fire us?
inside. What were they going to do? Fire us? Finally, we turned off the lights and piled into cars driven by the sober among us and buzzed 24 Sussex Drive with Green Day blaring Time of Your Life.
The next day we woke up, headachy and dry. We felt flattened and silenced as we watched the new cabinet team get sworn in on Newsworld. Our aching eyeballs skimmed the backgrounds to see which of our friends who had been staffers to backbenchers would now become high-powered assistants to new cabinet ministers. Maybe they would hire us. We wondered how long our purgatory would last as Chrétien pariahs. Surely, the new team would recognize our skills and experience and want our help on the coming election campaign. Or not.
Of course, as things unfolded, purgatory wasn’t such a bad place for a Lesser Liberal to be in the last campaign. We could scratch our heads and wonder at the tactics of the new team. To our discredit, perhaps, we weren’t always sad to see them falter. But for most of us, we had recovered from our addiction to the adrenaline that accompanies political life. We were no longer obsessively checking phone and
email messages. We could skip the front page of the newspaper and go straight to the horoscope. Maybe the stars knew what the future held. We sure didn’t. Lucky for us it was early summer—a pleasant time to be unemployed.
A year later, we have managed to move on. Some of us have gone back to school, although it can be a shock to study a subject in depth and to write in paragraphs rather than bullets. Those who joined the public service have managed to win the respect of new colleagues who have built careers based on tangible, measurable achievements and were skeptical of newcomers whose experience was more political than professional.
Others have joined the private sector. (I found other people to write speeches for.) No matter what path they chose, the qualities that got Lesser Liberals to the PMO— cleverness, communications skills, a knack for being in the right place at the right time and an addiction to adrenaline—are qualities that can lead to interesting work. But we miss the magic of the Langevin Block—lofty ceilings, soaring windows, deep carpets and heavy doors. Leaving its decayed elegance for a modern workplace is like leaving the funky Left Bank Paris hotel for a sterile Best Western. You can’t deny that it’s nice to have a functional heating system and modern wiring in your workplace, but you miss the sense of being part of history. And no other job will allow you to hear the words you wrote come out of a world leader’s mouth. No other job will include shinny hockey games that let you either (gently) check the prime minister of Canada or receive his pass for the winning goal.
Meanwhile, the new gang of Lesser Liberals has had a year to settle in. I haven’t seen their offices, but I imagine the photographs on their desks (them with the PM; them with Bono; them with the PM and their spouse). Those with children will have smiling pictures of the progeny they never get to see. After the tough year they’ve had, they may head into the Christmas party on Dec. 19 with a good dose of cynicism. But if they’re smart, they will enjoy it anyway. Because the last election reminded us that we are all Lesser Liberals. They should enjoy the time of their lives, because it may not last that long.
Freelancer Amélie Crosson worked as a ‘Lesser Liberal’ under Jean Chrétien for six years.
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