Today’s Hub Dialogue is with Jeremy Roberts, a Progressive Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) in the Ontario legislature.
MPP Roberts represents the riding of Ottawa West-Nepean, which he won in the last election by a mere 175 votes. Since being elected, he has distinguished himself on a number of files, including Autism-related programming and a private member’s bill to get rid of daylight savings time.
This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.
SEAN SPEER: I’m glad to speak to MPP Roberts today, someone with whom I worked in Ottawa, about what drew him to politics, what it’s like to win such a close election, and the challenges of being an advocate while at the same time serving as a member of the government. Thanks for speaking to us, Jeremy.
MPP JEREMY ROBERTS: Thanks for having me, Sean.
Getting involved in politics
SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with your decision to get involved in politics as an aide to the late Jim Flaherty. Some people are drawn to politics for ideological reasons and some are driven by career ambitions. You were motivated by a cause. Do you want to share with readers the origins of your involvement in politics and the world of public policy?
MPP JEREMY ROBERTS: My involvement with politics stemmed from my younger brother, Dillon. Dillon is a year younger than me. He’s 28 years old right now. He loves potato chips, he loves Barney the Dinosaur, and he swims like a fish. But he’s also nonverbal autistic, with a severe developmental delay, and suffers from epilepsy. All those different things made it so that my family had a lot of challenges as I was growing up. We had to fight for additional support for my brother, whether it be in the education system or in the healthcare system. We experienced many of the different challenges that a family with a child with special needs goes through.
The pivot point for us was when Dillon entered his teen years. We went through a challenging period where he was either constantly having severe behavioural issues, like getting very violent at home and school, or constantly having seizures, and then pivoting back and forth between these two extremes. Dillon’s doctors at the time were telling us that he needed to be placed in a care home where he could get 24/7 care to stabilize his medications, get him in a bit of a better situation, and also help our family. At the time, both of my parents had to take time off work, and I had had to take months off of my high school to stay home because the three of us all had to team up to take care of him. The problem was that the price tag on this care home was $85,000 per year, which for a family like ours was unattainable. So, we started pushing and fighting the provincial government.
We were fortunate that after I presented to a social services panel we were able to get Dillon the funding he needed. But really after that, I started hearing about a ton of other families that were going through the same thing. They were reaching a crisis point. That spurred me to say, “We need to do something about this. Something’s got to change.”
So, I started getting involved in politics and started volunteering for a local candidate in my riding. That was when I was about 15 years old. By the time I was 18, I was fortunate to be working for the late Jim Flaherty. It was amazing to be able to, in the span of three years, go from identifying a problem that was facing my family and a number of other families like mine, to getting to work on policy that would have made a difference for families like mine. That’s my political journey.
SEAN SPEER: Then you made the decision not just to be a behind-the-scenes aide but to put your name on the ballot in your mid-20s. Could you talk a bit about what it’s like to be a candidate in his or her early or mid-20s? What kind of challenges did you face? How did being a younger candidate create opportunities to reach new and different voters?
MPP JEREMY ROBERTS: When people ask me why I made that decision to run—I was 25 when I first ran—I put it down to two individuals that inspired me. One was the late Jim Flaherty, who unfortunately passed away in 2014. Jim had been such a passionate advocate for individuals with physical and developmental disabilities. I got to see firsthand how much a politician could make a difference if they were passionate about an issue like that. I saw a need to continue that advocacy in the political realm.
The other individual was Max Keeping, whom you may or may not have known. Max was the CTV Ottawa news anchor for a number of years, but he was also deeply involved in the community. He was a mentor of mine. Max was very bullish on the idea that if young people care about something, they shouldn’t just talk about it; they should get out there and do it. I remember sitting and talking with Max—he, unfortunately, was fighting cancer and would pass away in 2015—I spoke to him asking, “Do you think I should do this? Or am I too young?” And he said, “Yes, you should absolutely do this. We need more people like you who care about something and want to make a difference.” The influence of those two individuals spurred me to make that decision.
I’m really glad I did because there were a lot of people who told me, “Go and get some other experiences; grow up a little bit more.” In the short time I’ve been in politics, I’ve been able to do a lot. As an advisor in Ottawa, I worked to lay the ground on a National Autism Strategy. Since I got elected, I’ve been able to work on reforming autism policy in Ontario, advocate for supports to help individuals with developmental disabilities get through the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as work on getting a brand-new 200,000 square-foot facility for kids with special needs built in Ottawa. These are policies and projects that I don’t think necessarily would have happened had I not had the chance to be there and bring my unique perspective as a young person and as a brother of somebody who’s been through these challenges.
SEAN SPEER: One final question about the process that has led to you in this role. Let’s go back to election night in 2018. You won, if I recall correctly, by a pretty small margin. Tell us how you felt that day, how you felt that evening, and the reaction from you and your family after having won the seat and been given the responsibility of representing the riding that you’ve grown up in for your entire life?
MPP JEREMY ROBERTS: It was quite a remarkable evening. My journey through elected politics had been a little bit bumpy, as I’m sure you recall. I had been through a party nomination race where the other candidate was declared the victor despite a number of electoral irregularities, including more ballots in a box than there were registered voters. That questionable outcome was eventually overturned, and I was brought back in as a candidate about three or four months before the election.
I was 25 years old and running against a former mayor of Ottawa, a cabinet minister who had substantial name recognition, and we didn’t have any money in our account. Almost my entire campaign team was made up of Carleton and University of Ottawa students. My core team was mostly under the age of 25. When we got that candidacy back after the internal party review, we just hit the ground running, started knocking on doors, and tried to get out there as much as we could.
On election night, we were down by about 2,000 votes and there were only two polls that hadn’t yet been reported. We looked at our map, and we were convinced that we were going to lose. I pulled this group of young people around and I said, “Listen, guys, we fought the good fight. We didn’t quite come up this time, but we’ll come back next time.” I asked my campaign manager to get my challenger on the line so I could concede. And then, all of a sudden, the poll 79 out of 80 came in, and we jumped up. Suddenly, we were winning by 40 votes. We all sat around the computer, clicking refresh and until poll 80 out of 80 came in: we won it by 175 votes.
It was so remarkable to have gone through this very strange election, with a weird nomination, and then a tightened timeframe for the election and shoestring resources. We pulled it out of the hat. There was one problem: I had shredded my victory speech. After I talked to my team, when it looked like we’d lose, I had gone into my office at the campaign HQ and symbolically shredded my victory speech. Suddenly, I needed to go out to address this crowd and I didn’t have a prepared speech. The energy was electric, people were so excited, my parents were beside themselves. I went out spoke from the heart and talked a little bit about why I ran and how I hoped to make a difference for folks like my brother, who, thankfully, was with us at the campaign office that night, too. It was a pretty cool experience, a bit of a photo finish for the election.
Autism programs and reforms
SEAN SPEER: Let’s talk about a couple of issues that you’ve been involved with since you were elected. You’ve raised the autism file. This is a file that’s bedeviled successive governments. It’s understandable, of course, because families touched by autism feel this profound sense of urgency. They’re up against the clock to get medical support and improve the future of their child. One can understand why they’re as passionate as they are.
As someone who is both a member of the government, but also an advocate on these issues, can you talk a bit about how you’ve tried to manage the balance between communicating on behalf of the government and working alongside stakeholders and families to achieve change? It’s a position which most political science scholarship doesn’t address or doesn’t quite understand.
MPP JEREMY ROBERTS: When I first got elected, shortly thereafter, the provincial government started undertaking some reforms to what is known as the Ontario Autism Program, which is the program that offers financial support for clinical services for children with autism. There were a ton of problems baked into that program that we inherited. There was a growing waitlist—in fact, the waitlist was stagnated—and people weren’t able to access the range of clinical services they might need.
The government started tackling that. I am on record as saying that I don’t think we took the right approach to begin with. At the start, the government opted to go towards a model where it would take the entire pot of money, carve it up evenly, and distribute it to all the families. This approach may have dealt, in a way, with the waitlist, but it failed to deal with the critical problem of providing needs-based funding. With autism, you have such a range of different needs: from some children who are, like my brother, a little bit more severe, non-verbal, and face developmental delays, to some folks who are a lot milder on the spectrum. I felt that we needed to match these different needs with a needs-based funding model.
That was certainly an interesting period to go through. I held to the principle that had gotten me involved in politics, which was you can have much more influence if you’re on the inside than on the outside. I shared my concerns internally and worked very closely with the premier and his team, the minister’s office, and some of the stakeholders to try to shift us in a new direction. I was pleased that we ultimately adjusted. We also managed to get the budget for the program doubled from $300 to $600 million.
We then pulled together all of the stakeholders, including those who were critical of us, and said, “Listen, we’ve got a new $600 million budget, what’s the best way we can spend this?” We let the stakeholders guide that policy development challenge, understanding the constraints that we had in terms of a set budget, and wanting the program to be sustainable and wanting to be able to move as many families off the waitlist as possible. Now the program is in a much better spot. It’s rolling out as we speak, and I think it places Ontario as a world leader in autism supports.
One way that I judge my success on this program is to ask: “If this had been there when my family needed these supports, would it have made a difference?” And the answer for me is very clear “yes”.
Abolishing daylight savings time
SEAN SPEER: Just one final question, MPP Roberts. Another file that you’ve championed, which may be of interest to readers, is bringing an end to daylight savings time. You have a private member’s bill that has passed the Ontario legislature that would effectively do so, subject to neighbouring jurisdictions similarly doing so.
Very few private member’s bills ultimately become law. Can you please go over the reasoning behind the legislation and a bit of a reflection on the legislative process? What, if anything, have you been doing to try to build some momentum in these neighbouring states to, in effect, unlock this important legislation that you passed?
MPP JEREMY ROBERTS: When I first got elected, one of the benefits of having worked in politics previously is I felt like I had a fairly good understanding of what different tools an elected official has in his or her toolbox. You have a bit of a public profile that you can use as a pulpit. You have an ability as an insider to work with ministers’ offices and ministries. And, of course, you have that legislative role, and an ability to table private member’s bills. Now, private member’s bills, as a lot of your readers would know, cannot have a fiscal cost—they cannot spend money. It has to be something that’s a purely legislative change.
I was looking at a range of different issues. One thing that’s always bugged me and that I’ve heard from a ton of different people on is this annoying time change we go through twice a year. I dove in and started doing the research. Why did we start doing the time change? Well, it started as a way to save on energy consumption during the First World War. The research clearly shows that this initial purpose is no longer relevant. We aren’t getting any savings in energy consumption anymore. I then started looking to find out if there are any health benefits to it. And, it turns out, there isn’t. In fact, there’s a whole range of negative health impacts to changing the time twice a year. It’s been linked to an increase in heart attacks and strokes, more fatal car crashes, less productivity at work, and a whole slew of different negative side effects.
Changing this has broad public appeal. Poll after poll typically shows that, in Ontario, support for ending the time change is at north of 70 percent approval. With broad public appeal and clear academic research to back up a change, it seemed like a great issue to try and tackle through a private member’s bill.
I introduced it in the legislature and worked to see if I could build broad-based support. There was tremendous bipartisan support. From the day I introduced it to the day it became law, it took us 55 days to make it happen. When we brought it forward to the committee, we had small businesses that came forward to talk about how much they supported it. There’s a lot of folks who argue that a permanent daylight savings time—which my bill would bring about (meaning a little bit more sunlight in the afternoon and evenings)—could actually help small businesses because people are more likely to want to go out after work if there’s still sunlight. We got the bill passed with virtually no opposition and tremendous support.
Now, as you said, we’re working on getting Quebec and New York to join us. With New York, we benefit from being in the same time zone as the markets in New York City, and there’s a lot of cross-border commerce. With Quebec, it’s a bit of a local Ottawa issue. Of course, half the federal government is in Ottawa, and the other half is across the river in Gatineau. You’d have a really weird situation where a lot of people would be missing meetings.
I’ve been actively reaching out to Premier Legault in Quebec and Governor Kathy Hochul in New York. We haven’t heard back from Governor Hochul yet, but there is a state senator in New York State that is looking at this and introducing legislation. In Quebec, Premier Legault has said in a press conference that he’s “open” to the idea, so we’re continuing to follow up with him. It was pretty exciting to pass my first private member’s bill into law and especially when it is something that affects so many people. Now we just need to figure out how we can do it responsibly and get those last two partners on board.
SEAN SPEER: Well, congratulations MPP Roberts. It’s a great accomplishment. It speaks to your general policy orientation and your evidence-based approach. I wish you luck making this change and in the forthcoming election where you’ll be trying to build on your 175-vote margin. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, experiences, and insights with us.
MPP JEREMY ROBERTS: Thanks so much, Sean.