This week on On the Record, Off Script we explore the dynamics of the Nova Scotia Legislature

People always seem to draw comparisons between politicians and school children when they visit the House. We have a couple of stories that relate to that:

the story of an MLA who refused to give school children tours of the House of Assembly while his colleagues were present;
a story from a former school teacher who tried her classroom management strategies on her colleagues;
We’ll also hear from:

two people who held down the Speaker’s chair; and
a story form a Cabinet Minister who admired fellow ministers who dodged questions, but tried his best to answer the ones that came his way.

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Episode Transcript

The Dynamics of the Nova Scotia Legislature

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

This week, we’re exploring the House of Assembly. The dynamics at play there, and a handful of stories that paint a picture of what it’s like to sit in the House of Assembly.

When anyone talks about the behavior of politicians in the House of Assembly, they always seem to draw comparisons to school children. This week we have a couple of stories that relate to that.

We’ll share the story of one MLA who refused to give school children tours of the House of Assembly while his fellow MLAs were present.

We will share a story from a former school teacher who tried to use some of the skills she learned for classroom management at province house, when her colleagues got unruly. Some worked, some didn’t.

And we’ll share stories from two people who held the role of Speaker, the person whose job it is to bring the House to order.

But first, we’ll share a perspective from a former Cabinet Minister who admired his those who artfully dodged questions in the House of Assembly, but tried his best to answer the questions that came his way honestly and truthfully.

Tim Olive: It used to drive one of my colleagues in the House – a fellow cabinet minister – nuts because my first question period when I got in the House, I studied. I mean, we have books with every issue you could talk about. If that’s the question, there’s the answer. There’s the background information, you can answer it anyway you like. They could tell us what’s there, which would be nice, but unfortunately they don’t.

Mark Coffin: That’s Tim Olive. Tim was a former MLA for Dartmouth from 1999 to 2003, a member of the PC party, and former minister of Natural Resources.  

Tim Olive: I go into the House and I’ve got two big binders, two of them. I sit at my desk, and not far from me is this cabinet minister. He says “what’s that?” and I say these are my reference books, it’s my first day of question period. He says “what you got those for?” I said, ‘so I can answer the question.’ Silly answer, right?

He said, “Tim, there’s something you don’t understand here. This is question period, not answer period.” I never forgot that.

Louise Cockram: What did he mean by that, do you think?

Tim Olive: You don’t give any answers. His particular philosophy was if you give them an answer, a true answer, it leads to another question, which you then have to give a true answer to because you’ve answered the first one. So now you have to keep telling the same story. If you don’t answer the question directly, you can go anywhere with the answer. You don’t have to answer the question at all, you can talk about anything. The speaker will call you on it and say “get back to the answer” which you won’t, and that’s probably the worst thing about the communications between the opposition and the government. It’s not the inability to answer the question, it’s the desire not to answer the question by government.

Mark Coffin: According to Tim, he always tried to answer the question, when he wanted to.

Tim Olive: And I never got in trouble. I didn’t get in trouble from my colleagues, no. They just said ‘here we go. Let’s just watch Tim get himself in a jam.’ Did I sometimes not answer the question? Yes, because I didn’t want to answer the question, that’s why. Because if I did answer the question I was probably divulging confidential information that I shouldn’t be – whether that’s to do with an individual or a contract or something to do with a lease, or whatever.

Mark Coffin: Tim told us that while he preferred to answer the questions that were asked, he still had an appreciation for some of the techniques used by those who avoided the questions.

Tim Olive: I gotta tell you this little anecdote. It’s beautiful, and if you talk to John Buchanan or Jack Isaac or any of the real old guys… we had a guy, Roger Bacon from up in Cumberland County. I don’t know if you ever knew Roger but Roger’s still alive, he’s blind now – God love him – but Roger was minister of agriculture.

It wouldn’t matter what question you asked him. It wouldn’t matter if it was about selling corn or sheep, horses, beef cattle, chickens, wouldn’t matter what it was. You ask him a question and he’d stand up, and you can go back in Hansard – just Google Roger Bacon and he’ll stand up, “Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for the question. I just want to know one thing, why don’t you like farmers? Why don’t you like farmers, why are you always picking on farmers?” He’d sit down.

The guy would sit up and say “Mr. Speaker, It’s not that I don’t like farmers, I’m trying to help the farmers,” this is the guy in opposition, “I’m trying to help the farmers resolve this issue.”

“Well you’re not helping…” he’d [Roger Bacon] stand up “well you’re not helping them by asking that kind of question, why don’t you like farmers?” and he’d sit back down. He did that all the time. He’d never ever answer a question, and everyone would say, “is this the time he’s going to answer the question?” and he never did. I shouldn’t say never – he did answer some questions – but his favourite line was if he didn’t want to answer some question, “why don’t you like farmers? What have you got against farmers, you don’t like cows, pigs, chickens?” and then he’d sit down.

If you can do that, that’s an art. There are lots of cabinet ministers that can do that, and have over the years – answer a question with a question – which you’re not allowed to do, by the way.

That’s how they did it. You’d say, “when was the last time you were on a farm” if it was Roger, then he’d sit down.

Gary Burrill: In the legislature, I took the approach that I would take every day with me, some work. When each person rose to speak, I would listen and see if they were saying anything, and if they were saying anything at all – if it were stupid, or if I disagreed with it – if they were saying anything at all, I would listen. If they were saying nothing, I would do my work. I got an enormous amount of work done.

Mark Coffin: Gary Burrill is now the leader of the NDP, and serving as an MLA for Halifax Chebucto, but when we interviewed him he was a former MLA, who’d returned to his career as a church minister.

Gary Burrill: As you probably know, at least a quarter of legislative time is taken up with what I call the “Happy Birthday Hour” where the legislators get up and read these various resolutions.

Mark Coffin: The Happy Birthday Hour, as Gary called it, is used for everything from actually wishing people ‘Happy Birthday’ to celebrating new businesses just opened, and old businesses that have been opened for a long time.

Each MLA does this for the business  in a members constituency. If you start looking for them, you’ll actually see these resolutions framed in some of the establishments that have had resolutions read about them. They’re printed on very official looking paper, and it gets sent by the MLA to the constituent.

Of course, nobody back home is paying attention when the resolution is read, but they get the fancy looking paper. I’m not sure if the frame comes with it, or if that’s something that you’ve got to do yourself. They look nice.

Gary Burrill: The purpose of these resolutions could be accomplished without taking this public hour. They could all be tabled and published in Hansard. This would have lent a new tone of seriousness to matters.

Mark Coffin: My understanding is that in the last four or five years, the amount time taken up by these resolutions has been drastically reduced.

Gary Burrill: I placed a lot of emphasis in my work as an MLA on bringing groups of children to the legislature to talk about what democracy means and how it functions in Nova Scotia.

[Playful music begins]

Mark Coffin: When Gary was an MLA – the first time – he had a program where he would speak to classes at public schools, and then the class would come to visit him for a tour of the legislature.

Gary Burrill: I made sure to never do it when the legislature was there, because I was talking to them about a serious matter. I didn’t wish them to waste their time watching the legislators themselves. So I always did it when the room was empty.

We’d have the children come in the room and we would conduct a debate, and participate in doing something in the chamber itself, but I didn’t think that kind of democratic education project would be enhanced at all by their observing their legislators.

Mark Coffin: According to Gary, the tone of the legislature lacked a seriousness of purpose, and in his view, in order to instill that seriousness amongst legislators, it takes an intentional effort.

[Playful music ends]

Gary Burrill: It’s like everything else, it doesn’t look after itself, it needs nurturing, organisation, support, adjustment, consideration and seriousness of purpose in the public discourse has not received this as it needs to in Nova Scotia. But this is all amenable to solution.

I always thought it would be a wonderful thing for a new Speaker to say “all discourse conducted henceforward is going to be conducted with respect. Anything that happens that is disrespectful – it’s always disrespectful to speak when another person is speaking – it will be utterly unabided, this is where we are”. This could be done. I mean this is exactly what we do in every community meeting in the province.

I wouldn’t attempt to run a church meeting with the level of dysfunction and disorder that the legislature runs with, you wouldn’t be able to accomplish the Church’s business.

Ramona Jennex: It wasn’t an environment where I was comfortable when people were adversarial, or if there was heckling. And I had a great deal of difficulty not answering a comment that would fly across from the other side.

[Somber music begins]

Mark Coffin: Ramona Jennex was one of Gary’s colleagues in caucus. She was the MLA for king’s south, the riding that covers Wolfville, and also the education minister.

Before entering politics, she was a school teacher. The two stories we’ll share here are told from that perspective. One where her classroom management strategies turned out to not be so useful in the house, and another where they actually worked in her favour, and got her an apology from a member of the opposition.

Ramona Jennex: I also had a great deal of difficulty talking over the noise. I was being coached to try to ignore it and keep on talking because, as you know, the noise that an MLA hears on the floor of the Legislature is not recorded in Hansard; it would have to be at an extreme level to get caught on the mic, so as you’re speaking, your voice goes in the mic. That’s what their hearing in the sound booth, that’s what gets recorded in Hansard. So, if you stop at any time, no one understands why you’ve stopped talking.

[Somber music ends]

As a teacher, what teachers generally do when there’s an uproar is, you just wait until the tone settles a bit. I had to learn to talk over a great deal of noise. I found that distracting, and a little bit problematic. I still had to, but it was something that I didn’t get used to doing.

Mark Coffin: But sometimes the lessons Ramona learned from managing a classroom were useful to her in the legislature.  

[Playful music begins]

Ramona Jennex: It’s each person’s responsibility to make sure that your members mind their manners. There’s the school teacher in me – and I have to tell you – Jaime Bailllie, who sat directly across from me, said something that was a little bit… edgy. I looked at him. He got up and apologized!

I never said a word but he met me in the chamber and said, “I could tell from the look on your face that I disappointed you.” It was that teacher kind of thing.

Then he said, ‘I realized myself, that was really out of turn’ and he apologized.

The only way it’s going to change is when people recognize themselves that they have to behave. There’s no need for that drama. It doesn’t play well for the people in the public. It just makes it toxic and it just makes it harder to do the work.

Mark Coffin: Ramona Jennex suggested that it’s each person’s responsibility to raise the level of decorum in the legislature.

[Playful music ends]

While I doubt anybody would disagree with that, it’s without a doubt a great responsibility for one member of the house in particular.

Art Donahue: You asked if I ever had to eject a member from the house, and the answer is no.

[Curious music begins]

Mark Coffin: Art Donahue the was Speaker of the House of Assembly from 1981 to 1991 and an MLA for Halifax Citadel with the Progressive Conservative party.

Art Donahue: In the 10 years that I was Speaker, I did not have to name a member, as they say, and ask them to leave. I came very close one time. Vince MacLean, who was the leader of the Liberal party and the leader of the opposition at the time, got involved in a very very vigorous argument with one of the members of cabinet and used some language that was clearly unparliamentary.

Mark Coffin: As the speaker, it would have been Art’s responsibility to not only remove unruly members from the House, but bring them to order before they got to the point of needing to be removed.

Art Donahue: The decorum of the members was pretty good, I would say.

Louise Cockram: So you didn’t have any heckling or–

Art Donahue: Oh yes, there was heckling! But heckling is just part of the process and as long as it didn’t get out of hand, it would fit into the routine.

Louise Cockram: So there’s not any rule in the standing orders that says the House has to be silent when a member is speaking or…?

[Curious music ends]

Art Donahue: There is a rule that says that, yes, the member who has the floor is supposed to be the only one who’s heard. Now, that rule is honoured more in the breach that in the observance, but, as long as the interjections aren’t completely out of order they are considered to be part of the regular course of proceedings.

Mark Coffin: Art told us – as did many MLAs – that the decorum would begin to deteriorate as an election approached.

Art Donahue: If it was time for an election to be called in the not too distant future, then things would get a little rowdier and the opposition were anxious to make their points and show what a terrible government was in office. It would get a little more vigorous and a little rowdier at those times, too.

Charlie Parker: On occasion, you have to kick somebody out of the chamber, if they’re just not going to obey the rules. I only had that experience once, where I had to ask somebody to leave and he was escorted out. He was an opposition member. But I certainly brought people to order from time to time, or cut them off so that we weren’t going any further with that topic.

Mark Coffin: That’s Charlie Parker. He was the speaker of the house from 2009 – 2011. He was the MLA for Pictou West. His take on the decorum in the house of Assembly is not unlike the way we’ve heard most people describe it.

Charlie Parker: Kindergarten children could do better than this. There’s some truth in that. I don’t know what it is, I guess it’s just the group mentality. You become partisan. It can create an atmosphere that is not normal, run-of-the-mill, everyday activities in your life.

When you bring all these people within the confines of a certain political belief or party, there’s the other guys over there that are of another political party – who are not a whole lot different than you are – but in that atmosphere the partisanship becomes blown up more so than ever. It’s in that legislative chamber more than anywhere else where you would find it in everyday life.

I don’t know that there’s a way to combat that, but it’s that partisanship. Maybe people aren’t all that partisan as an individual, but when they get with others of a similar stripe, against people on the other side, it seems to create an atmosphere that’s adversarial. It’s probably more adversarial than ever. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, but it’s the reality.  

Mark Coffin: Most of the MLAs we spoke to seem to agree that the tone of the legislature has worsened over time.

[Somber music begins]

Charlie Parker would have been one of the more recent speakers. He said there aren’t many parliaments or legislatures anywhere that have figured it out.

Charlie Parker: It’s not an easy job, being the Speaker, and I think if you asked anybody that’s been in that role, they’ll tell you that. I’ve heard it described like you’re trying to herd cats.

it’s a balancing act to keep that discipline and keep the decorum in there as best you can. It’s same in Ottawa, in the parliament, and it’s same in other legislatures, so there has to be some way to bring more decorum to that public institution.

Mark Coffin: Charlie also seemed to believe that it wasn’t the people that were the problem, but something about the legislative environment itself.

Charlie Parker: Initially people say, ‘I’m gonna talk about the issues in my riding and bring issues forward that are important to the people there.’ But then, the badgering back-and-forth happens, and they lose that innocence of just being there to represent the people. They become almost a mechanism of the party, or a representative of a political party which may or may not be different than the other political party. It’s us against them, and it becomes adversarial.

I don’t know if there’s some way to change that. One suggestion that I’ve heard is, we need more women in the legislature – they’re less adversarial, less likely to do that cat -calling and bickering back-and-forth. That may well be true.

That may be one possible solution, to have a better gender balance. But most MLAs do change in that regard in that they go in with the best interests of their constituents. I’m not saying that they don’t still have that, but they also gain that partisanship that they probably didn’t have before.

[Somber music ends]

Louise Cockram: Was that your experience? Did you change?

Charlie Parker: I probably changed some, yeah. And just a little bit, I tried not to.

Mark Coffin: By the end of his time in the legislature, Charlie left the role of Speaker and served out the remainder of his days in the House of Assembly as the minister of natural resources. He stopped being the referee for question period, and became the target of the questions being asked by the opposition. Charlie Parker: From time-to-time, in the heat of the moment you get a really sharp question coming at you in question period, and maybe you’re almost just as sharp back in your answer. It’s just part of that toing-and-froing in the legislature that creates that kind of atmosphere. You might holler something, and in an ordinary meeting you would never do that, but because of the nature of that ‘bear pit’ or whatever you want to call it, it’s easy enough for members to get carried away, and I can’t say that I’m totally innocent in that regard either.

[Theme music begins]

Mark Coffin: In an earlier episode, we shared how MLAs learned the ropes of their new jobs. There is typically one session at the House of Assembly for orientation, and not much else.

There was a transcript published in the Hansard for one of these day-long sessions in 2003.

A former PC cabinet minister, Murray Scott, then-speaker of the house, offered the following advice to MLAs:

“If you don’t remember anything, remember that whatever happens in the Legislature, whatever happens in the Legislative assembly as far as issues being debated and issues on behalf of your constituency or critic areas, leave it there. When you come out of there, we’re all MLAs for the province, we’re representing our own constituencies. Don’t carry that with you when you come out of there.”

Later in the same transcript, Roderick MacArthur, then Chief Clerk of the legislative assembly, offers his word of warning to MLAs:

“The house is the only House that’s never a home. It may be a lively and scintillating arena, often theatrical, but one is never totally at ease here, and that includes the clerks by the way. There is always a certain edginess to the place and it’s something you get used to.”

The two images one is left with when reading these sections of the transcript are this notion that the house is governed by this general sense of dis-ease within the legislature, and the idea that outside of the legislature, things are better, that people can be friends again.

I once heard a member of parliament use the all-too-Canadian metaphor of a hockey rink. There are two teams, who are constantly trying to score points with one another while they’re on the ice, or in the house. But when they’re off the ice, they’re all collegial. They’re buddy-buddy.

Sports analogies were rampant in our conversations with former MLAs about what happens in the House of Assembly and in politics in Nova Scotia. Actions in the legislature are about scoring points.

Progress is throwing your opponent off his game – making him mis-speak, or reveal more than he planned; exposing the fact that she doesn’t have an answer to your question, or using the rules of the House to exhaust or delay the other team.

Sports analogies are tough to stomach if you’re not a partisan.

If you are a partisan, specifically a hyper-partisan – somebody so partisan that the only direction worth considering is the one put forth by your own party – then sports analogies aren’t tough to stomach at all. They make perfect sense.

If you’re a hyper-partisan, then sports analogies not only make perfect sense, but you can build a political strategy around them.

But they’re tough to stomach if you aren’t a hyper-partisan. If you don’t buy into the idea that any single party has a monopoly on good ideas.

If you don’t buy into this idea, the idea of the house  being the place where the conflict happens, and that MPs and MLAs can be friendly, and collegial only outside the house, like members of opposite hockey teams, that’s also quite a challenging to stomach.

It means one of two things – that the value is placed on the relationships between MPs and MLAs for some reason other than their ability to put those relationships to work for the interests of all Nova Scotians, or all Canadians. Or, perhaps it means that those relationships are being put to use in the making of public policy decisions on behalf of Nova Scotians, but what happens in the House of Assembly is just for show.

So which is it?

Based on our conversations with former MLAs, and conversations I have with current MLAs, it is a little bit of both.  

[Theme music fades]

[Theme music begins]

Mark Coffin: Thanks for listening to this episode of Off Script. We’ll be back next Wednesday with another special episode, and in the meantime we encourage you to subscribe to On the Record, Off Script in Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts from.

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[Theme music fades out]


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