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OFF SCRIPT: Tug of party leash is strong for MLAs learning the ropes

In the face of uncertainty and confusion, it should be no surprise that most MLAs choose the safety of clarity that comes with siding with their party, even when their consciences might feel tested.
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Eastern Shore MLA Kevin Murphy, Speaker of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, presides over deliberations last May. (RYAN TAPLIN / Local Xpress)

By MARK COFFIN

Most people know what it feels like to start a job when you’re not quite ready. To make it, you need a good coping strategy. You can sit quietly in meetings and take detailed notes, but eventually you’ll be expected to contribute something.

Perhaps you’re lucky enough to find someone in your new workplace who can be your protector and mentor. They keep you safe by distracting managers while you find your footing, and offer subtle hints when it looks like you’re about to fumble.

SEE ALSO: Province House does not live up to its billing as a public square

My own approach is to ask cleverly worded questions and sprinkle in what I think are insightful observations that only fresh eyes could see.

All of these approaches share a common starting point: it’s not OK to be vulnerable, so cover up any way you can. It’s human nature to want to appear smarter and stronger than we actually are.

Now, consider that it’s not just your co-workers and your boss whom you’re trying to impress. Imagine a large gallery of onlookers and interlopers, none of whom know what it takes to do your job, but many who are ready to tell you how to do it.

That is the struggle of learning to be an MLA.

I can hear you asking already. “Onlooker? Interloper? We’re the voters. We’re their bosses!”

Technically, you’re right. Every four or five years, we’re their boss. But, their day-to-day reality is quite different.

The political parties exert their power much like managers would in a typical workplace. The party’s expectations are clear: support the party and the leader in public and save any questions and criticisms of the leader’s approach for caucus and private conversation, if you express them at all.

Carrots and sticks are used to make the consequences of breaking those expectations equally clear. The carrots are funding for roads, schools and hospitals in your constituency. The sticks include being locked out of cabinet and not being your party’s candidate in the next election if you fail to fall in line.

The power of the voting public, on the other hand, is more similar to peer pressure. The public expectations often can be hard to decipher, vague or shifting. The public is rarely united around what it wants from an MLA. Many want help accessing government services, some of them want you at their mother’s 100th birthday party and others have something to say about proposed legislation.

The consequences of not living up to those expectations are equally vague. Loud and persuasive voices easily can be mistaken for powerful ones. A disorganized and unpolished movement could hold the voting power it will take to elect your opponent instead of you in the next election.

So, in the face of uncertainty and confusion, it should be no surprise that most MLAs choose the safety of clarity that comes with siding with their party, even when their consciences might feel tested.

When we sat down with former MLAs to hear their reflections on their careers, one of the first questions we asked was: How did you learn to do your job?

It became clear that the answer to this question was inseparable from the power dynamics at play within political parties. The nonpartisan offices of the Speaker and Chief Clerk of the House of Assembly provide training on the basics: how to file expenses, set up a constituency office, and House procedures.

The parties provide training for MLAs. Some of it is formal — there are orientation sessions, and in some caucuses, rookie MLAs are assigned mentors. But much of the mentorship and training from the parties is informal, as it might be on any job site, where regardless of position and rank, simple seniority gives one the clout to hold court among juniors.

Listening to former MLAs speak about their early days on the job, it’s clear that they get an education in political realities from their party. But it’s also clear that much of what they receive is an indoctrination into those realities. Indoctrination into the party they belong to, and indoctrination into the realities of the shared political culture that sustains (and remains virtually unquestioned among) political parties as we know them.

The MLA’s experience of politics is socialized first by the party. In Ottawa, MPs get an office on Parliament Hill separate from their party headquarters. When Nova Scotia MLAs are out of their constituency, they all work out of an office in a suite with the staff and other MLAs from their own party. Their colleagues are always next door, ready to answer questions, and (presumably) offer guidance that helps the MLA and protects the party and leader.

Want the full story? This article is an adapted excerpt from the weekly ‘On the Record, Off Script’ podcast produced by Springtide. Listen to this episode “How do you learn to be an MLA?” and subscribe to the podcast here.

Mark Coffin is the executive director of the Springtide Collective, an organization dedicated to researching and teaching about politics and democracy in Nova Scotia. He co-hosts of the ‘On The Record, Off Script’ podcast.
 

Province House does not live up to
its billing as a public square

By LOUISE COCKRAM

There is a paradox in our province’s democracy. The Nova Scotia legislature is one of the most important public spaces in the province. The legislature is where bills are debated, scrutinized, and turned into law or sent to the waste basket. It is where billions of dollars of public money are approved for expenditure and taxation. It’s where the voices of the 51 geographic districts are represented through their elected lawmakers.

The work that happens in the legislature has a direct impact on the lives of Nova Scotians. Public issues from health care to transportation are in hands of MLAs. Those lawmakers have a stake in deciding how children across Nova Scotia are educated, too. Recently, government MLAs voted to impose a contract on educators across the province, forbade them from striking and halted work-to-rule action. Sitting in the legislature is a big responsibility, one that most MLAs do not take it lightly.

While the legislature has the capacity to act as Nova Scotia’s public square to decide issues of importance, the reality, unfortunately, is much further from the ideal. This is the paradox of Nova Scotia’s democracy: the heckling, lack of collaboration that goes on in the House, high rates of party discipline, sexism and racism undermine the role of the legislature as a public square.

Acknowledging this paradox, we wanted to better understand the Nova Scotia legislative assembly. Taking a page from Michael MacMillan and Alison Loat’s book, Tragedy in the Commons, we set out to interview former MLAs. MacMillan and Loat have conducted dozens of interviews with former MPs and published their findings in their best-selling book.

So, for over two years, we have been travelling across Nova Scotia to speak with former Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). We offered each of them a chance to have an "exit interview." We have since conducted 35 of these interviews with 35 former MLAs, of the roughly 100 former MLAs still living in Nova Scotia.

Strong democratic institutions are important vehicles to effectively work through issues that affect all Nova Scotians. In order to address the legislature’s shortcomings as a place of decision-making, it is important to look at the root cause. In our research, we explore why the legislature does such a bad job at being Nova Scotia’s public square.

Want the full story? This article is an adapted excerpt from the weekly ‘On the Record, Off Script’ podcast produced by Springtide. Listen to the full episode this article is drawn from, and subscribe to the podcast here.

Louise Cockram is a graduate of the masters in political science program at Dalhousie University and a PhD candidate in the political science department at Carleton University in Ottawa. She is the lead researcher for the Off Script podcast and research project.



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