By the end of this episode you’ll hear one very solid recommendation for fixing politics that was echoed by a number of MLAs from multiple parties. And while that recommendation was by no means a consensus recommendation, nobody we spoke with told us that it wasn’t worth trying.

And in politics, that’s rare.

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Episode Transcript

We asked former Nova Scotia politicians what they’d change about politics

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

This is the second-last episode in our journey through the experiences of former Nova Scotia MLAs. In this episode, we’re going to talk about what Nova Scotia MLAs had to say about how we can change politics in Nova Scotia.

We might be almost done telling the story of Nova Scotia’s former MLAs, but we’re definitely not done with podcasting. First, I want to tell you about the new podcast. Then, I want to tell you about what we’re going to do with Off Script.

The new podcast we’re going to launch soon is called Govern Yourself Accordingly. It’s a podcast for engaged citizens and public leaders who want to lead change through politics with their integrity intact. The podcast is not just for Nova Scotians, it’s for people engaged in politics everywhere, who are curious about how they can do that better.

There are some exciting guests planned for the first few episodes, and if you enjoy Off Script, we think you’ll really enjoy this show. We’re not quite ready to launch it yet, but one of the things we’d like to do is share an early episode with anybody interested.

There’s one catch. In exchange, you agree to leave us a rating (a one to five star ranking) and a review (a few words about what you think) on Apple Podcasts on the day the show launches. What you say and how you rank us is up to you.

If you’re interested, email with the subject line “Govern Yourself Accordingly” and we’ll hook you up with an early episode in exchange for an honest rating and review once the show goes live. We’ll send you an email so you know when to do it.

So, that’s Govern Yourself Accordingly. What’s going to happen with Off Script? We’re going to retire the story of former Nova Scotia MLAs and it’ll be there if anybody wants to go back to find it, but the podcasts future is going to be quite different. The show’s format will be mostly interview-based, because documentary-style podcasts are very time consuming to make.

This podcast is going to be a space for people from our corner of the world — not necessarily limited to Nova Scotia, but it will certainly have an Atlantic Maritime perspective. It’ll be a place where we can help share the stories, learnings, and experiences of people who are practicing politics in Nova Scotia — be they activists, elected officials, aspiring political candidates — that we otherwise wouldn’t get an opportunity to hear.

This podcast, we hope, will be a space where people can share what they’re learning and listeners have an opportunity to learn from one another so that we can be more effective, empathetic, and authentic citizens. Alright,  on to this week’s podcast.

Near the end of every interview we did with former MLAs, we asked them two questions. Two questions that are bound to be most interesting for those who are currently involved in politics in Nova Scotia or for those planning to get involved in politics.

One of those questions was about advice they would give to a future MLA, and the other question, which is the subject of this episode, is about the kind of changes they thought were necessary to improve Nova Scotia politics.

Almost four years ago, “The commission on building our new economy economy” (often simply referred to as the Ivany commission) released the “Now or Never” report  (often simply referred to as the Ivany report).

In that report, “A new politics” was the first of what the commissioners called ‘12 game-changer strategies’ that the Ivany commission recommended to Nova Scotians as a way of addressing our economic challenges.

The commissioners wrote that “it is difficult to imagine how … longer-term initiatives can be successfully implemented across two or more elections and possible changes in government and party leaders if we maintain ‘politics as usual’,’ and they stressed the importance of planning for economic growth on a 10-year planning horizon, not just ones that fit the conventional electoral cycle.

New solutions can’t happen with old politics, they said. Like or hate what the Ivany report had to say, it’s noteworthy for the fact that it has been roundly accepted across party lines as a report that articulated goals that were worth striving for.

But that recommendation, the recommendation of pursuing a new politics, the one recommendation atop all of the other recommendations, that is the one recommendation that has received the least attention from politicians despite getting top billing in the report, and nobody is pointing it out.

Here at Off Script, and at Springtide, we are interested in how politics can be done better in Nova Scotia, so as one of the final questions in our interviews with former MLAs, we did ask MLAs for their reflections on how what happens in the legislature, and politics more broadly could be improved.

There’s a catch-22 for active politicians talking about reform. If they’ve got power, there’s not much incentive for them to make any changes to the system that would change that — they’d risk losing it. And when a party is in opposition, they’re more likely to criticize the way we elect our representatives, or the way parliament or the legislature works.

So, with all the experience the former MLAs we interviewed had under their belts, and none of the temptations of power around, why don’t we hear what they have to say?

Before we share what we heard from them, I want to give you a bit of a warning.

You’re going to hear some xMLAs who are frustrated with how we do politics. You’re going to hear from some who are not frustrated with how we do politics. You’ll hear some vague suggestions at what can change. You’re going to hear some very specific suggestions about what can change, and then you’ll hear other former MLAs tell you why those suggestions won’t work.

But by the end of this episode, you’ll hear one very solid recommendation that was echoed by a number of MLAs from multiple parties. And while this recommendation wasn’t by any means a consensus viewpoint, nobody told us that it wasn’t worth trying.

And in politics, an idea like that rare.

That recommendation is a clear, specific actionable recommendation that MLAs who sit in the legislature today could take if they wanted to, to make politics work better in our province — or at least give it a shot.

That’s at the end of todays episode.

To start, we’ll share what xMLAs had to say about the state of our politics.

Few MLAs were vocal defenders of the culture they were apart of, and the way of doing politics.

Most were actually craving solutions that could improve our politics. Francene Cosman: Well it would be nice to think we could do politics with more human-ness, you know? The business of opposition, and what appears to be an absolute fiasco in the House of people screeching back and forth… kids come into the gallery and think we’re five years old down there on the floor with all the scrapping and the yelling. There’s no semblance of what it really is about, when you go into the legislature and see it operating like that. I sense a lack of respect and humanity for another when we get in that house, bickering back and forth.

Danny Graham:  I don’t even know where to answer that! And it’s not just Nova Scotia. I don’t know of many jurisdictions that don’t have an unhealthy political environment. I don’t know them all, but all the ones that I’m aware of seem to have this insidious, acrimonious oppositional notion.

I’m not sure where I’d begin to list all the starting points for the solutions to all of this. The real starting point is to create a general acceptance that too much of it isn’t working, that it is too important for us to continue to fail at this level.  Our future could be fundamentally different if we had healthier institutions of public life. That is not, for a moment, to diminish the goodwill and best intentions of the many people who step into this. We need reformation in the worst way.  

The political institutions that we’re generally operating in are like a model T Ford from 100 years ago – they are completely outdated and we need to begin to open up to new innovations and new ways of designing our systems. That includes how we elect people, it includes how we conduct work in the legislature, and most fundamentally for me, it involves finding new ways to engage citizens between elections in things that matter to them.

Mark Coffin: Many of the xMLAs we spoke to were unsure of what the solution might be.

Alexa McDonough: I wish I had a really smart answer to that! I don’t think there’s a magic wand, there’s no magic bullet. More participation and opportunities for participation are important because then people get empowered and better informed.

Mark Coffin: Some MLAs were of the opinion that the way we see politics done, that’s just the way it it, and it’s the way it has to be.

Gordon Balser: I have no idea. I don’t know. It was that way when I arrived there — it was that way long before I arrived there — and it was that way long after I left. I think it will be that way for a long time to come. I’m not being facetious, I’m simply saying that I think that’s the way it is. It’s the nature of the democratic structure that we have.

Graham Steele: I wish I could think of easy answers and say if you just change these structures everything will be better. But I don’t actually believe that, and that’s why I say in my book. The ultimate conclusion of the book isn’t that politicians are going to change, they’re just responding to the environment we put them in. The only way we’re going to get politicians to behave differently is if voters vote for different reasons, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Mark Coffin: Many MLAs pointed at media for their role in generating the culture of politics that we see.

Mark Coffin: Looking at the way the legislature operates and the way politics operates in Nova Scotia, is there anything you’d change or like to see  improved?

Eleanor Norrie: I think that media has an awful lot to do with that, whether in how they portray it, or how people play it in the media. I’d like to see that [change] somehow or another.

I don’t know if want to say this or not, but they’re making a rockstar out of Justin Trudeau, which is very dangerous for him, personally. The media has a role to play, and if we could change anything it would be the relationship between the media and public, and the media and elected officials.

Mark Coffin: Some former MLAs talked about the attitudes and ideas that voters come to the table with, about politicians, and mused about where those ideas come from.

Eleanor Norrie: In a lot of families, kids pick up negative attitudes about politics and politicians — cynical attitudes. I know where they come from but it’s not very helpful. It should be part of how we prepare citizens to live in this society and make it better, to empower them with a better understanding of how politics works, what the options are. It’s [up to] chance whether kids get that in school, for the most part.

Louise Cockram: If you had to give advice on how to improve Nova Scotia’s political system, what would that be?

George Archibald: The politicians have to become more congenial and more friendly to one another. The day the elections over, that’s when the parties have to disappear. Some of my best friends didn’t vote for me. Hard to believe, but they didn’t. Some people that weren’t friends, did vote for me. So the minute the election’s over, you have to throw out the politics of the party and get down to business and work together.

If they started working together and stopped being so nit-picky, like this stupid Senate business, I mean give it up. That’s doing more to harm politicians than anything, because when one politician is in trouble, they all are. Everybody in my riding thought I was the most honest guy in the world, but if I went to Antigonish they all thought ‘that’s the crook’. It’s a fact, because we had a guy that was made an example of, and kicked him out of the legislature, and I was up in his riding campaigning for our candidate, and they said ‘whew! You’re all just stealing too, you just made an example of our guy.’ So, people have that impression. When they do that their opinion of all politicians goes downhill.

Mark Coffin: And many spoke about the education system, and how we needed more education about politics in the curriculum.

Rodney MacDonald: I do believe that we need to do more to teach young people about the process of government, to understand the inner-workings of how it actually works, so that there perhaps won’t be so much blame on a politician or a party on what they decide. We need to engage them. If you’re trying to get someone involved in hockey, and they never visited a rink before, how can you expect them to understand hockey and want to play? You have to get them to visit the legislature. Pretty simple. There’s nothing more basic, in my mind. Every kid in Nova Scotia should go through that legislature. Every child. That’s number one. It’s so simple, and no one’s doing it, hardly at all.

Mark Coffin: What we’ll focus on for the remainder of this episode are the kind of things that are squarely in the hands of the politicians. Not the departments they manage, not the media that covers them or the voters that judge them, but the kind of things that, if one or many MLAs got together to try and change the way politics is done, they could get started on them

Here’s one idea:

Graham Steele: I’ll tell you one thing would be if there wasn’t such a focus on casework.

Every MLA has totally bought into the idea that the main job of an MLA is back in the constituency. They don’t have a chance to become subject matter experts. They don’t have a chance to get to know a lot about any particular topic.

Mark Coffin: That’s one idea. Unlike other ideas we heard, it’s one of the things that any MLA who hears this could decide to act on tomorrow. It doesn’t require the rest of the party to come along, it doesn’t require the leadership or others to endorse the idea, it doesn’t a require a change in the system. Most of the remaining ideas we heard were ideas that would’ve required some critical mass within the party, or within the legislature as a whole.

Like this one:

Howard Epstein: It would be a big step forward if parties stopped worrying so much about caucus discipline and allowed MLAs and MPs to speak out if they have different views. This is a good thing. There is a lot that is intangible about this. That is, tone is important.

It’s probably not helpful for MLAs to stand up and call their party leader an idiot, name calling is not all that helpful anyway, but the point is that where reasonable people can reasonably differ, they should be able to stand up and say what their different views are. Let’s take a recent example in Nova Scotia which has been the dispute over the film tax credit. There’s something that seems highly unlikely that their caucus would have been consulted about, but even if they were they found themselves in the middle of a big mistake. They clearly offended a lot of people, and individual MLAs are going to be at risk of losing their seats.

I’m sure not every MLA in the government caucus favoured the initial position, or even the modified government position. Let’s hope that some of them internally were saying what they thought to cabinet. But it wouldn’t have been fatal to the Liberal party if some of those MLAs were standing up publicly and saying “Gosh, you know this doesn’t seem to me like such a good idea, and I’m telling the premier and minister of finance that I hope they change it.”

I don’t see how that sinks the Liberal party. I don’t see how that is going to be fatal to Diana Whalen as minister of finance or Steven McNeil as the premier. It would show that there was a variety of opinions inside the party and there you are. It would signal to their constituents for the MLAs that their MLAs were trying to help them. Because otherwise, they don’t know, and they have to live with this. If they don’t say that, then their constituents are going to conclude rationally that their individual MLA supports this position – not a good thing for them electorally, I would’ve thought.

That’s just an example where there could be a reasonable articulation of different opinions without it being necessary to think about expelling someone from the caucus or disciplining them forever so they could never be considered for cabinet, or to be chair of caucus, or the whip. This should just be a normal part of doing business. That’s what it would look like, that’s a good starting point for people, for the party leadership — not to be so agitated about differing voices.

Mark Coffin: A handful of MLAs felt that a change in the voting system — the way we elect MLAs — might be helpful in fixing some of the problems with politics in Nova Scotia.

Art Donahue: When I was first elected — and for most of the time I was in the House — I was a very strong proponent of the first-past-the-post system. When I began working with the Parliamentary Association, I began to discover — well something I knew, but to got closer exposure to — not all electoral systems are first-past-the-post.

I became intrigued by the system that’s in place in New Zealand, the mixed-member proportional system. If there was a system that allowed for more diversity amongst the political makeup of the members who are elected, then perhaps some of the disillusionment might be mitigated.

Gary Burrill: Of course our electoral system is bankrupt. Some manner of proportional representation has to be a priority, it’s a big thing. This is an opportunity we missed.

There is sometimes the view that people regard this as deckchairs on the Titanic, they’re not that interested. I don’t think is true. I think there is a real hunger for developing a kind of integrity about the democratic process. This is one of the places we need to go.

Mark Parent:  I mean, proportional voting could be a good thing. It could be good but then it could be bad. I would think some system of proportional voting that forced you to speak to larger than 30 per cent [of the voting population]. That’s the trouble with Canada now, we have a three party system where you can win with 33 per cent all the time. Then when you only have 56 per cent voting, you’re winning with 22 per cent of the vote. So some system of proportional voting.

Mark Coffin: One of the motivators for the MLAs that thought proportional representation would be worth trying in Nova Scotia, was the idea that in countries and state where it’s used, it tends to create a more collaborative kind of politics, where parties are forced to work together more often. But amongst former MLAs, there were also many skeptics about what that system would mean for Nova Scotia politics, and whether coalition governments would work here.

Gordon Balser: I don’t think that can happen given the structure of our [system]. Interestingly enough, when I was the minister  of the department of energy, I spent a lot of time in conversation and dealing with countries outside of Canada and a lot of them have democracies but are very much founded on coalition governments.

I said, “how in fact do you get anything done, because you have fifteen different parties that are all sitting around the table with something to say.” And the answer was that most of that kind of decision making takes place outside of the public forum. So, when you actually present the information to the public, everybody gets a little piece of it so that they can all say we’re winners. Here it doesn’t seem to fold that way.

Graham Steele: What will happen if we change the voting system is that politicians will simply learn what is rewarded under the new voting system, and that’s what they’ll do. If it means they have to suck up to party leaders who devise the list, that’s what they’ll do. Whatever behavior is rewarded by the voting system, that’s where the politicians will put their effort.

I just don’t know of any voting system that rewards people for doing good legislative work, doing good public policy work. But as I said, public policy will still happen, governing will still go on, it’s just our MLAs will not be involved in it.

Mark Coffin: One solution that we heard a great deal about was the committee system at the House of Assembly.

If you’re a regular listener of the Off Script podcast, you’ll know that there were two committees that MLAs noted as being particularly useful: The Law Amendments Committee; and the Public Accounts Committee.

The Law Amendments Committee is the place where bills can be refined as they’re moving their way through the legislature, and where members of the public can say something about if we like it, or hate it.

The Public Accounts Committee is where people are called before the legislature — typically senior civil servants — to answer questions about the departments and agencies they run. There’s a lot of opportunity for facts and figures to be exposed that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day.

But when it came to the other committees of the House of Assembly — virtually every other committee — MLAs didn’t think the committees were set up in a way that was helpful at all for the government, or the opposition.

Graham Steele: The committee system in Nova Scotia is stupid. It is absolutely, stupidly useless, with the occasional exception of the public accounts committee.

Howard Epstein: I would say that we have a relatively weak committee system, for example. But partly that’s because governments try to minimize their exposure through the committee system, and in a majority situation they can do that. They can make sure the committees deal with topics that aren’t likely to embarrass the government, and that’s part of their objective, and that’s understandable.

Gordon Balser: I would say committees are not really a power to do anything other than to meet for people to hear their concerns. But as far as making some, you have an agenda item, all that happens is that we’ll take that back to discuss it. In my experience, nothing really changed. Other than the person had the hearing of the day.

Gary Burrill: The agenda of the committees is actually quite — not in all committees, but often — quite random. The members will meet and they’ll say “What will we talk about at our meetings?”

“Well, this is the community services committee, I’m kinda interested in the living wage, what do you say we spend a day on the living wage?”

“Alright, living wage one day.”

“I’m interested in foster parents, let’s do a day on foster parents.”

It’s really quite random. It’s epiphenomenal, it’s shadows on the wall. It’s not the real show. It has no real organic connection to what’s really going on, and this deprives it of its blood and its oxygen. That makes it not work.

Mark Parent: The veterans committee in particular, I don’t even know why we have a veterans committee. It was established as a federal sort of thing, so basically we’re spending time on how to make the veterans feel good. We had no legislation going through the house on veterans affairs besides symbolic stuff because [most of it] was handled federally. But it was a popular committee to be on because everyone wants to be supportive of the vets.

Graham Steele: There’s no subject matter expertise, they meet very irregularly, the topics are random, there’s no staff support for research. The members don’t develop any expertise, they don’t have any serious research support. If somebody were designing a system to guarantee that committees would be effective, it would look like Nova Scotia’s.

Howard Epstein: It’s possible for a committee, even with the majority of its members coming from the majority party, which is typically the case, to examine seriously an area of government activity and be critical of something without it being seen as somehow disloyal to the government, or embarrassing.

Critical studies can be undertaken.

Graham Steele: And if we had committees that covered all of government, somebody could be a member of the same committee for ten years and become the expert on a particular issue. There’d be a chance for a more meaningful discussion.

Howard Epstein: There could be more staff to back them up and do the research and identify potential problem areas and identify potential problem areas that might need a good hard look. That’s one of the the big advantages of the US congressional committee system, or even the UK. Almost all these committees have serious staffing, they have lawyers, they have researchers and they are able to identify topics that would benefit from some public airing. Then the committee members usually take their job seriously, in the sense of being interested in trying to solve problems or at least identify them.

Mark Coffin: I’ve been working on democratic reform and politics education in Nova Scotia for close to five years now.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who disagree on how to improve politics, and there are plenty of people who believe that everything is working fine.

Among those that don’t believe things are working fine, there is plenty of disagreement about what should be done to fix it. I can understand why other people might not be excited about this, but for me, when a handful of former MLAs from different parties float an idea about reforming the committees of the legislature so that they are more empowered to execute their responsibilities as lawmakers, and there’s not any obvious opposition to the idea, I get all kinds of warm fuzzies.

Samara Canada is the national group that conducts interviews with former Members of Parliament, and their work is part of what inspired our podcast.

In their exit interviews, former MPs told them that one of the most meaningful places they could do the work of a lawmaker was in the committee system. The issues they were tasked with addressing were well enough defined, and the partisanship that often shows up in the House of Commons seemed to be less present at committee.

Committees that reflect the responsibilities of the government in question create an opportunity for lawmakers to seriously dig into the issues facing citizens that government has the power to address.

When you think of the key issues that a provincial government is responsible for — health and education — and you look at the list of committees in the Nova Scotia legislature, there are no committees where either of those issues naturally land.

Redesigning the committee system, might not be the best way to improve politics in Nova Scotia, and it’s certainly not the only one. But if we take the opinions of former MLAs as a proxy for what current MLAs are thinking, then there is probably some appetite for change.

And as promised at the beginning of the episode. If it’s something that MLAs feel compelled to act on, there’s nothing stopping them from starting the process today.

Thanks for listening to this episode of On the Record, Off Script.

We will be back next Wednesday for our final episode in the story of Nova Scotia’s former MLAs.

As noted at the beginning of the podcast, that is definitely not the final episode of this show.

Make sure to tune in, and if you haven’t had a chance to do so yet, rate and review the podcast in Apple Podcasts. It seriously helps the show.  

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