This is the final episode in our journey through the experiences of former MLAs. In this episode, we share what we heard when asked former Nova Scotia MLAs to share the advice they would share to a future political candidate. This episode is simply that: the advice they would give to those who aspire to and have recently won elected office in Nova Scotia.

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Episode Transcript

Former NS MLAs offer advice to today’s politicians

You’re listening to On the Record, Off Script and I’m your host, Mark Coffin.

At the end of every one of interviews with former MLAs we asked them two questions – how can we improve politics in Nova Scotia, and how would you advise someone considering running for public office or someone who recently became an MLA.

Last week you heard the answers xMLAs shared to the first of those two questions. This week, we share the answers to the second.

We didn’t ask them about how to win, or how to do the job well, but simply: what would your advice be to someone considering following in your footsteps?

In earlier episodes episodes, myself, Sandra and Louise have shared our own narrations or explanations throughout the episode. But in this episode, the question is a straightforward one, so I’m going to let the former MLAs do the talking.

I’ll be back at the end of the episode.

Eleanor Norrie: If anybody came to me and said do you think I should run? I would say yes. If you’ve been approached to run for any party or for any elected office and if you’re interested, I think it’s a terrific experience, the door opens very rarely to very few people in the world, and gives you an opportunity to really contribute to your community so do it.

Then if they say what advice do you give me when I run, is to be true to yourself. Decide what you want to accomplish, and go down that road.

Alexa McDonough: Be yourself. Don’t try to model yourself after what you think the ideal candidate might be because you’re already on the wrong path if that’s what you’re going to do. Do your homework. Know your own riding, know your party’s policies.

Marie Dechman: Make sure that your health is in perfect condition, number one. The amount of work that one has to do if you’re going to do the job properly, you must be in excellent health, and take care of yourself because the hours are very long. The pay might work out to a dollar an hour. I’m not sure what it would be, but, it is if you take your job seriously. Historically we’ve had a few members who haven’t done that, but they’re not usually very successful at what they do, because you have to work long hours and be prepared to study.

Peter Christie: My philosophies on those things are summed up in three phrases. First, you never take it personally. Second thing is, when someone is saying that “you’re the stupidest son of a bitch I ever saw in my life,” I assume they’re talking to the Minister of whatever, minister of finance, not me.

You have to divorce yourself, so you don’t take it personally. And you do NOT — I don’t care if it’s the Pope that’s phoning — if the Pope phones this house and starts to use bad language, I hang up. Very simple. I don’t care who it is.

So those are my three rules, and I started that when I was mayor. I did the same thing when the new MLAs were coming in, I just simply said the same thing to them.

Mark Coffin: How many times have you had to apply Rule No. 3?

Peter Christie: Probably three dozen?

Ramona Jennex: I would be honest. Because Maureen MacDonald was extremely honest with me. I’ve known Maureen for a very long time, and when she found out I was running she gave me the best advice. It was true, and it was hard advice. She said, “right up at the top you will find out who your friends are.” She said “be prepared.” I heard her say that, and within weeks of being an MLA, people who I had as friends partisan politics runs very deep in Nova Scotia – to this day still I’ve had no contact with them.

So, I would be honest with the person. You have to really want to affect positive change and if you feel in your soul you want to move forward, but if you feel if you can’t take the heat, be advised. It’s a hard road. Maureen told me that, and I accepted that. She said “you’ll find out who your friends are,” and you do. You make other friends, and that whole thing about — Mark, you probably know this — people on the floor; there are people on the floor in different parties that are good friends of mine. The people that are involved in politics aren’t as partisan with their friendships as what people perceive they are outside. There are some families that are so entrenched in [partisanship] that they can’t step aside and see that you’re more than your party. You are a person who happens to be.

Gary Burrill: I think it’s very important to know what it is you believe in. Know who it is you are and why it is that you’re doing this and to be very rock solid about this. I was grateful for myself, this might not be true for other people, I was grateful for myself to go into this and not being young. That I’d been around the horn enough to know now exactly what it is I think and I’m pretty tough to get talked out of it. I have some experience on holding onto my beliefs in the context in which they are in the minority. But I think that’s number one and I think that’s who we need to look for in our party too — people who know what it is they believe in, and who have given this some effect in their lives, and are interested in trying to give it a political effect.

Graham Steele: First thing I’d say is, read my book.

Then I’d say, read tragedy in the commons and then I’d say to them, you’re not better and smarter than the people quoted in tragedy in the commons. There’s a lot of really smart, really capable, really committed people who were there before you, and didn’t accomplish anywhere close to what they imagined they would accomplish, so don’t think you’re going to be any different. So, if you want to go into politics, I would say to the person, even knowing all of this, I’d say more power to you but go in with your eyes wide open. I would never say to somebody, don’t go into politics, I would say if you’re going to do it, go in with your eyes wide open about what the job entails.

One of the fundamental issues we have is that people go into politics for the vaguest reasons and they have only the foggiest notion of what the actual job involves, it doesn’t help that there is no job description. So, people imagine, a fairly romantic idea about what they think an elected representative does. And if they actually get into it, they get so consumed by things like case work and they get so wrapped up in the political culture that it’s not long before they’ve forgotten why — or only have a vague recollection of why — they wanted to get into it in the first place. One of the lessons I learned from tragedy in the commons and I think this is absolutely right and really important is that a lot of experienced MPs looking back wished they had focused on a particular subject matter and said “that’s my thing, that’s what I’m going to work on.” Not something  vague.

I was talking to one of the candidates in the by-election the other day and he said wants to do more to help small businesses and I said “that’s so vague as to be meaningless.” [It has to be] something really specific like “I’m going to get this done” and then you work on that and you devote all of your legislative efforts to that. After all in the House of Commons you’re only one voice among, you know, what’s soon to be 364 people, ants in an anthill scurrying towards different directions so, you’ve got to be focused from day one on what you want to accomplish and then work on it and work on it and work on it. If you leave politics having accomplished that thing, that’s a good thing and you would have accomplished more than most members would. What most members do is they go on with a very vague idea, they get caught up in a hundred or a thousand different issues going on in their constituency of whatever and they end up accomplishing almost nothing that matters and so you can’t point your finger to any one thing and say that would never have happened if that member hadn’t been there. So as long as you’re focused and go in with a realistic idea of what the job involved, I’d say go ahead.

Howard Epstein: if they’re interested in being a candidate then they can be a candidate but that they have to recognise that it might be an uncomfortable situation in which they find themselves, but that it’s evolving all the time. There’s centralization of power in the hands of very few people, and others are told that they got elected because of the attractiveness of the leader. The time and effort of the party apparatus at large, their job is just to be the public face, the local public face, of the party. They’ll be told what to think, what to say, how to vote, and they’re given a role in a piece of theatre.

This is not healthy. In my view this is not much of a reflection of a healthy democracy. There have to be many more opportunities for active policy debate inside political parties. I think that will come. I think someone who is a political activist who is thinking about running, they shouldn’t be entirely discouraged but they should realize it’s going to be a bit of a slog.

Percy Paris: My advice has been and still is, do it. If you’re thinking about whether it’s something that you should do, don’t let my experiences be your experiences. There’s some things in life that you just got to go out and do for yourself. Maybe you’ve got a different temperament that I have and you can effect a change that maybe I couldn’t have. I encourage people to go in. What I don’t like in politics is it’s such a controlling nature. If they can’t control you, you become an outcast. They couldn’t control me.

Mark Parent: Like who?

Percy Paris: The opposition. If they can’t bully you, if you can’t be bullied and you’re not going to be controlled, then you become a target.

Mark Parent:  Keep your head down and work hard. Don’t take too seriously the criticism of the opposition because they’re going to oppose you on everything, no matter what. Take everything with a grain of salt, and remember even with the people in your own party, you’ve got to be careful. Ask yourself, what’s someone’s self-interest in that, and colour them.

Churchill has this wonderful story of a new MP sitting beside Churchill in the legislature and looking on saying “isn’t it wonderful to look out on the enemy” and Churchhill said “son, that’s the opposition, the enemy’s all around you.” Be careful of that too.

Don’t piss off the leader, try and work with the leader. If you have to work around him, do it very carefully. The other thing is don’t spend your own money, and don’t fund yourself. If you can’t win with other people’s money in an election, then don’t waste your own money on it. That would only apply because most of the people I’m talking to — I didn’t have much money as a church minister. If you were really wealthy I guess it wouldn’t matter to you, but people go in and they’ll spend a lot of money and lose thinking they’re going to win so you can’t take winning for granted at any stage.

The electorate’s very volatile now, and they’ve changed. When I was first in politics they’d come in and if they had a problem and you couldn’t help them, they’d get angry. Ten years later, they get angry at the start. You’d have to talk them down and then deal with the problem. There’s a change out there, and there’s change in party allegiances and parties coming in and out, and for a while we had minorities all the time.Then there’s this change where Harper perfected it based on the United States, where you appeal to a small group and you wedge politics and you actually antagonise people you don’t agree with. I’d tell them about that, and how things have changed.

I’d warn them about the legislature, how it can be deadly boring. It can be like watching paint dry at times. And to keep their priority on their family because that’s what’s going to be there after politics is gone.

Pam Birdsall: You have to do the best you can and leave it at that. People would say, ‘oh Pam you must have a really thick skin,’ and I would laugh and say, ‘no I have a teflon energy field.’ I just don’t let it stick to me, and if they’re throwing it I don’t let it stick. That has been the way I thought of myself my whole life, and the energy field just got a little more slippery.

My philosophy has always been the only thing you have control over in life are your own thoughts and your own reactions. That’s the only thing, and you can’t lose your mind about someone else acting in a way that just makes you crazy. You can lose your mind doing that but it doesn’t help your own physical health or mental health. You just gotta go, ‘okay, alright, there you are that’s your thought, fine,’ and walk away. Especially if you’re a politician, they go on a fishing trip — they want to lure you in to get a reaction. I’m just not willing to lose my energy on people that are playing around.

Danny Graham: It may sound gratuitous, but that I’ve given to everyone that has ever aspired to public office, especially high office where you could be more visible and criticized. This perspective is a more personal one than a professional one but I think it’s critical to whether or not someone ultimately does a good job.

In all of our lives, when criticized, we have some choices to consider any potential truth in what that criticism is. I incorporate it and reprofiled the way that we do things as result of the wisdom that came from that criticism. The flood of criticism is so heavy in public life that most people’s instincts are to put up this force field of deflection where all the incoming missiles, you’re just trying to knock them back so you continue to look or feel good in some fashion.

I suspect it is exhausting and it’s soul depleting for people in public life to have to do that on a consistent basis. It’s not sustainable. One of the few things that I was able to do that made a difference in some meaningful way was that I actually had a different metaphor than the force field.  I actually took everything in, but I defecated out all the lousy stuff that I didn’t think was valuable, and I retained the wisdom in the criticism as much as possible.

It was a very different way for me to process the questions and criticism that came in, and so let everything in, and I think as a result, remain lighter and more open and more available to different ways of considering how we could get things done.

Most of the advice that I give to people is get grounded as a person, get rid of your ego – I mean it’s hard to say get rid of your ego, but ego is the poison pill, and often it has a high frequency. It’s comin’ in strong when people start to offer for political office.

Louise Cockram: If you were to give anybody who was becoming an MLA advice, what would that advice be?

George Archibald: Don’t forget where you’re from and when you get a phone call remember that it’s the most important thing on that person’s agenda, so it’s gotta be the most important thing on yours.

It’s not the board of trade, or an organization, that gets you elected. It’s the people. You have to spend time with them, whether they’re rich or poor. I spent more time with poor people than rich people when I was in government — in opposition. They needed more, they wanted your help.

Mark: I guess nearing the end of the questions I’ve got up here, but I like the one I mentioned we like to wrap up with is, if you were either had an opportunity to do it all over again, or could advise somebody who wants to take the role of being the MLA for this place in the future, what are some of the tips you would offer them?

Wayne Adams: Just do your best and be true to yourself, quite frankly. One thing I’ve learned or adopted in the whole process is what you like to see a politician do for or for you, offer yourself in that regard.

You want to see meaningful change? Offer meaningful change. Lip service doesn’t. pay in the long run. I move around circles where I know people who are still cursing, condemning politicians from 25 years ago. And I’m thinking to myself, that’s not the legacy he wants to leave public office with because it’s a tough job, it’s a 20 hour a day job. That’s another thing in terms of going into it, you’ve got to mentally prepare yourself that your time is not your own time. You’ve got a media that are always looking for what they can find wrong with you, wrong with your personal life, not your political life.

Peter Christie: Once you start getting ahead of yourself or starting to think that you’re the answer to a maiden’s prayer, all of a sudden you’re not listening to what people are saying anymore. People get this thing, they start taking it too seriously and they start thinking that God put them on this Earth to lead people. That’s not the case.

Wayne Adams: Do it, but make sure you’ve got an exit strategy, in terms of income, like where are you going to land after you leave? Because you don’t know when you’re going to leave. That never entered my mind at all, I just figured I would just keep doing a good job, in terms of being voted out or not winning the election. That didn’t enter me, I mean it was there but it was like a sub-thought, I’d get around to it someday.

Pam Birdsall: Get out and know your people. Get out and learn as much as you can about your constituency, even if you think you know it. Even if you’ve been a community member, or you grew up in the area. I didn’t grow up in the area, but I moved here when I was 25, so more than half my life was spent here.

Listen to your constituents, do the very best you can and don’t hold out false hope for something that you know can’t happen. Be realistic. Explain the system or the process that would be involved to solve whatever problem the constituent has. Give them all your attention, and work really hard.

That’s what I would advise anyone in any role in their life. The four agreements: be impeccable with your word, don’t take it personally, don’t make assumptions, always do your best.

Mark Coffin: I have never been been a politician. I don’t know what it’s like to stand for public office, to win and serve as a lawmaker.

I have spent a good amount of time with people who have worked in politics. Staffers, the former MLAs you’ve heard form in these episodes, and many people who have served, or are currently serving in legislatures, the House of Commons, and on municipal councils today.

In the conversations we’ve shared on this program, and conversations I’ve had offline, one thing has come across is that many who serve in public office wrestle with being misunderstand, underappreciated and feeling overworked. It’s probably fair to say that the vocation of politics is a place where misunderstanding, underappreciation and overwork are endemic.

While I haven’t been a politician, I can relate with having each of those feelings from time to time, as I’m sure most listeners can. For many, circumstances beyond their own control will make those feelings unshakably stronger than for others.

When I think of who I am when I feel misunderstood, underappreciated and overworked – I’m not at my best. When I listen to the advice offered by former MLAs, I hear tips and strategies for self-protection. Figure out a way to deal with the criticism coming your way. Figure out how you’ll earn an income once you leave politics.

For some xMLAs it felt like they were offering survival advice, and for others it seemed like their advice came with the recognition that in order to serve the public, you need to have your own shit figured out first.

Much of the advice shared by former MLAs to future ones will no doubt be heard as hokey, vague and simplistic, and maybe for some it is.

Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr. was an associate justice for the supreme court of the United States. He once wrote “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

I’ve thought of that quote often while working on this series. I’ve thought of it not only when it comes to the words of advice that we heard from former MLAs, but also in how we describe and analyze the political arena.

The political arena is an important space, and when you consider the importance of the issues we expect those in it to deal with, and mix in their political identities, and personalities – it’s a complex one too.

Whenever I think I’ve understood something in politics, whenever I think I’ve understood why something has turned out to be the way it is, I immediately ask myself: Now am I on the near side or the far side of complexity? I hope, more often than not, that I’m on the far side. But I’m not sure. When it comes to the longer story of former MLAs, the story we started telling back in 2016, I think we’re on the far side of it now.

But it’s important to recognize that for us — for me as a narrator on this journey and you as a listener —  we haven’t been inside of it. We’ve been observing it.  We haven’t wrestled with the complexity of holding public office.

We’re used to hearing a polished story of what public life is about, and in this podcast we’ve done our best to share a less polished version of that story. Our first episode was called road map, but the map we’ve shared is not the terrain, it’s just one version of the map. Hopefully a more complete version than whatever you might’ve been holding onto before.

That’s it, that’s the end of this story we’ve been telling with former MLAs.  We will  as we mentioned in past weeks  be continuing to podcast on this channel. In the future, this podcast will be about supporting and learning from the people in Nova Scotian politics, democracy and activism today, with interviews and features that are a bit more timely.

Next week we’re also launching a new podcast called “Govern Yourself Accordingly” a podcast for engaged citizens and public leaders that want to make change through politics with their integrity intact.

We’re aiming for that podcast to have a broader-than-Nova-Scotia-appeal. If you’d like to get an early listen to what we’ve got lined up and hear to a couple of our early episodes, in exchange for an honest itunes rating and review on launch day, send me a note at

Before we go today, before we end this episode, before we set down the story of former MLAs, there are some thank yous in order.

First – to Louise Cockram who was the driving force behind this project from well before we’d done the first interview, handled so much of the coordination of the interviews and the organizing it takes to pull a project like this together, doing everything from writing, editing, transcribing and coordinating volunteer transcribers. She’s been busy lately at Carleton University working on her PhD, but I believe has some plans in the works to publish some of the results from these interviews in an upcoming academic article. A big thank you to Louise for everything she’s done for this project.

Sandra Hannebohm – who you’ll remember from hosting a series of episodes back in the Spring, and making some cameos on the show before and after. Sandra has been just as helpful behind the scenes when she hasn’t been in front of the microphone. You haven’t heard much from her lately, as she started the journalism program at King’s College. You will however, hear her make an appearance on our first episode of the Govern Yourself Accordingly podcast next Tuesday.

Latie George – she worked with us this summer and produced some of the episodes during that time —  which I probably forgot to record in the credits —  so thank you, Latie.

And thanks to the transcribing team of volunteers. Thank you to the folks – many of them students – who donated their time to transcribe the interviews you’ve heard over the past year. Those people are: Emma Halupka, Ingrid Deon, Allyn Boyes, Kiley Burke, Hyla Silburt, Sandra Hannebohm, Keeghan White, Lauren Isabelle, and Sarah Watson.

And thank you to our donors. There are a bunch of you, and I’m not entirely sure how privacy law works, but I don’t want to name you on the podcast for fear of discovering at a later date that I broke some law, or violated your trust, but thank you. Your support has made this podcast possible, and each time we saw a donation trickle in, it gave a little extra boost of motivation to get the episode across the line that week.

If this has been valuable for you, consider making a contribution at

A big thank you to the people without whom this show wouldn’t have been possible, the Former MLAs who freely participated in these interviews, and Jeremy Akerman in particular, the president of the xMLAs association, for encouraging his members to participate.

And thanks to our listeners, and everyone I just mentioned, for your patience with me over the last year as I figured out how to work this podcasting gear that is all over my desk.

And we’ll just let the tuba take us out.


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