Just how exactly does an MLA get anything done at Province House? In this and the next few episodes of the Off Script podcast, we’re going to explore the nitty gritty of who has what kind of power to make things happen within the governmental structures at, and around, province house in Nova Scotia. We begin by exploring how an MLA on either side of the house can get something done.

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Episode Transcript

How Opposition vs. Government MLAs Get Things Done

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

In the next couple episodes of the Off Script podcast, we’re going to explore the nitty-gritty of who has what kind of power to make things happen within the government of Nova Scotia, in and around province house.

We’ll unpack how cabinet and the Premier’s Office work alongside ministers offices, and how the powers of executive decision-making are used in Nova Scotia politics.

This week we’ll explore how an MLA can get something done in the house, wherever they find themselves – be they on the opposition or on the government benches.

This episode of On the Record, Off Script is supported in part by Hello Fresh.

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This week we ask the question ‘how does an MLA on each side of the house approach getting something done?’

From a procedural perspective, all MLAs, government and opposition, have the same rights and privileges on the floor of the House of Assembly. But as we know from MLAs in previous episodes…

Yvonne Atwell: The house is a place of performance. That is not where the work gets done. We couldn’t put forth a bill because nobody would look at it, or read it. Even when it was something was was really good for the community.

Mark Parent: That was disappointing. I thought the legislature would be a place where everyone would come around and we’d debate like a debating society, and debate ideas and plans, and come up with good policies… no, it’s just theatre. No decisions are made there.

Mark Coffin: Whether we were talking to an opposition MLA, or a government MLA, if they wanted to get something done, they learned relatively quickly that it couldn’t get done through the legislature. An effective government MLA, as we’ve heard from those who have been in government, generally used behind-the-scenes channels to get something done.

We’re not talking about the small-scale things – like filling potholes, or helping a constituent get seen by a medical specialist – we’re talking about the bigger things; things that cost a lot of money, or perhaps require a law to be changed.

For example, when George Archibald was a backbencher in the governing party, and he wanted a new hospital for his riding.

Louise Cockram: So how did you get that hospital? How did you try and get that hospital in Kentville? Or was that something that had been kind of promised by the PCs anyway?

George Archibald: I talked to the Minister of Health. I wasn’t in cabinet. I talked to the cabinet ministers and I kept at it, and at it and I kept inviting whoever happened to be the minister of health to the valley and kept setting up meetings with the department and we just wore them down. It wasn’t something that was frivolous, it was something that was needed. It took four years, but after a while they agreed to do it. They always agreed. If you know what you want, and you go after it, you’re gonna get it, if it’s not silly. It’s like that all the time. I saw a need, I got it. There’s only one thing I wanted in my riding and that was hospital. They all knew it, and they got sick of me talking about it. You wear them down.

Louise Cockram: Did you speak about it in the house itself, as well as caucus?

George Archibald: Not so much, no. You can’t accomplish a whole lot in the house. It’s for fun and questions and stuff like that.

Mark Coffin: In an earlier episode we heard Pam Birdsall – a backbench MLA in the recent NDP government in Nova Scotia – share a similar story about her experience getting major funding to repair a road in her constituency used to transport Christmas trees. She first went to the minister, then to caucus. Her work to get this road work done never had to go through the legislature.

According to the xMLAs who tried to get things done from the backbenches of the governing party, initiating something in the legislature just didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

Their calls to the people who were making decisions – ministers, deputies, and the political staff of government – got a far warmer reception than someone from the opposition might get, so it made more sense to take care of those matters offline, our outside the theatre of the legislature.

Perhaps, if it were an issue of legislation, or major funding, that issue would eventually land on the house floor as legislation, or as part of a budget; but before it got to that point, it would have gotten the blessing of the minister responsible, and in some cases, cabinet and caucus.

For members of the opposition, it’s a bit different.

Before we explore what it is that MLAs can do at the legislature in opposition, it’s worth reflecting on what it is they would want to do.

Generally, they want two things:

They want an issue addressed, which could mean getting funding for a project, or program; or it could mean legislation that offers protections for a certain group of people, or advantages for a certain industry.

The second thing an opposition party wants is to move to a better political position than they are in right now. They want the kind of attention from voters that will mean they’ll get more votes in the next election, so that after the next election they can become the government, so that when they are the government, they can pass all of the bills they’d like to pass, so that they can fund all of the things they want to fund. In order to look good in the eyes of the voter, the opposition will either want to take some of the credit for the good things that the government does, or maintain an ability to point a finger at the bad things government has done.

These two things – getting an issue addressed, and gaining power – can be at odds with one another, especially in a minority legislature. Working closely with a government minister might get progress on one issue, but it isn’t always perceived as helpful come the next election.

To better understand when a politician might want to take one tact over another, and how they would do so, it helps to explore the difference for opposition politicians in a minority versus majority government situation.

Mark Parent:  In a minority government, you knew you were going to pass it. Or, it was some signature bill that you wanted to differentiate yourself from the opposition. In a minority government unless you have some commitment from one of the other parties to support you, it’s not going to go through. Minorities are very different from majorities in that way.

Mark Coffin: Mark Parent was Environment Minister when the Progressive Conservatives had a minority government under Rodney MacDonald, and depended on one of the opposition parties to support their legislation.

Mark Parent: You’d have those conversations before you got there.So when you got there it would be…as I say, theatre. The parties, if they’re going to support it, would position themselves to get the maximum benefit out of supporting it. You’d be having to, in a minority government, if you want to have support; playing that bit of “oh, we’re so grateful that the opposition…” that sort of stuff. But the decision was made beforehand.

Mark Coffin: As the opposition party in these sorts of situations, there was an opportunity to either get changes in the bill before agreeing to support it, or to get a commitment for something unrelated to the bill exchange for support.

Leonard Preyra: If you can get an influential person or group to say “this bill needs to pass,” a government in a minority situation will look at it and say “we hate this bill, we don’t want it, but if we do this, this budget might pass.”

Mark Coffin: Leonard underscored the point that, just like when an MLA from the government caucus wanted something done, the negotiations would happen behind the scenes, usually between each party’s House leader, before anything ever reached the floor.

Leonard: Any negotiation would take place between the house leaders. The MLAs don’t really get involved in those types of negotiations. The only negotiating you do is with your own party caucus. Generally, the parties don’t like MLAs negotiating privately across the floor. That’s not to say we don’t have relationships and we don’t talk to each other. I would often walk across the floor after I heard an MLA speak and say “I like that idea” or you know “where do you think you’re going to go with that or what do you want to do?” Especially when we were in government, we tried to incorporate some of that into legislation but by and large, that work in opposition happens between the house leaders and the leaders sometimes will get involved but mostly it’s the house leaders.

Mark Coffin: When it’s a majority government, the math changes the game entirely for the opposition MLAs. There’s no self-interest based incentive to work with the government, since the government doesn’t have to rely on the opposition to get their budgets and major pieces of legislation through the house.

There may be other incentives to work with opposition, and there are always a handful of pieces of legislation that start in the opposition benches and make their way through, but these pieces of legislation are the exceptions and not the rule.

Remember what we noted earlier about the goals of opposition MLAs, about what they generally wanted to do.

They wanted an issue addressed – in their community or the province at large; and they wanted to position themselves to be in a better place than they were. They wanted to move from the opposition side of the house, to being on the government side of the house.

Even someone with collaborative tendencies, and good people skills, skills that would be helpful in a minority situation, and most workplaces, using those skills isn’t necessarily rewarded for using those skills in relating to a majority government.

So a great deal of effort gets spent on using more competitive and adversarial tactics, where the desired outcome doesn’t necessarily put the party in a position to influence any short term progress, but may help them better associate themselves with a position in the press, and presumably for the next election.

The two main strategies opposition MLAs use to do this are questioning the government, and filibustering.

Both of these strategies can be employed in the house itself, and at committee.

Let’s start with questioning:

The two primary venues that the opposition has a chance to question the government – and the people who work for it – are the house during question period, and at the Public Accounts Committee.

You know what happens in Question Period – opposition MLAs question cabinet ministers and the premier; cabinet ministers and the premier aren’t necessarily being particularly forthcoming; both sides trying to present themselves in the most favourable way possible.

But the second area where MLAs get to ask questions is in the committee on public accounts.

In the public accounts committee, members of the committee can compel virtually anyone before the committee in order to testify. Opposition MLAs tend to focus on deputy ministers, and senior civil servants within the bureaucracy, but they can also compel testimony from others as well – arms-length agencies, like Nova Scotia Business Inc.; officers of the legislature, like the Auditor General, or even professional associations like Doctors Nova Scotia. These are some of the folks that have recently gone to be witnesses in front of the committee.

Much like a court – the testimony collected from a witness to such a committee is done under oath.

The people who are asked to come before the committee are generally not elected officials, and there is a greater necessity to give full and more truthful answers than one is required to give in question period.

MLAs on the committee also have more time to question witnesses. Like a courtroom lawyer who carefully plans their questions, if an MLA is patient enough, and talented enough, they can lead a witness into a place where all the MLA is doing is asking questions, while the witness fills in the gaps that will fill the next day’s newspapers.  

Former NDP MLA, and finance minister Graham Steele was one of the people who other MLAs and journalists regarded as skillful at Public Accounts Committee during his time in opposition.

Graham Steele: I was on the public accounts committee from early on and It was the one committee that the reporters would attend and I knew if I did a good job there, I would get in the news. So for me, doing a good job in the legislative work had a political purpose, had an electoral purpose. It helped me raise my profile.

Mark Coffin: His experience working as a lawyer gave him the background he needed to do well at that committee.

Graham Steele: I was very comfortable with laws – dealing with laws and legislation. I’d been a litigation lawyer, so I was very comfortable questioning people; how to be prepared for it if people were giving you evasive answers, how to deal with it.

Mark Coffin: The point of questioning – in question period, or in the public accounts committee – was to expose a government’s mis-steps on a particular issue, or information that previously concealed from the public.  

Questioning, in its simplest form, helps the opposition partys expose the worst about a government, presumably so that voters know what they’re getting if they should elect that government again.

The other key tactic available to opposition parties is filibustering.

[Music begins]

Questioning happens all the time in the legislature. But filibustering? Filibustering is much less common, though much more dramatic. It takes more of a commitment, and a whole party to execute.

Filibustering happens when MLAs use the rules and procedures of the House and it’s committees to delay the passage of a bill they oppose.

It is meant to show the voters just how much an opposition party cares about an issue. It’s meant to show that they’re willing to stay up at all hours of the night, and hold the government’s feet to the fire until they ‘do the right thing’, and to draw prolonged attention to the fact that the government is doing ‘the wrong thing’.

It’s not much of a tactic for changing the government’s position on an issue. We didn’t hear many MLAs talk about filibustering, and it wasn’t a question we asked them about directly. But if you watch the legislature enough, you’ll see that it happens, and they all partake in it.

There are two main places that filibustering happens in the Nova Scotia legislature.

The first place is in the house itself.

[Music ends]

Robert Chisholm: We could talk an hour every time we stood up to debate a bill, at different stages.

Mark Coffin: That’s Robert Chisholm, talking about his experience after he was first elected in the early 1990s, as a three-person NDP caucus.

Robert Chisholm: The privatization of Nova Scotia Power happened back then. We debated that… I don’t know if it was 24 hours a day, but it was at least until midnight on many days. We debated, and debated, and debated. John Holme picked up a telephone book and spoke for an hour about some names.

Mark Coffin: Filibustering isn’t glamorous work, but MLAs staying up around the clock – reading phone books – is a story.

Robert Chisholm: We had a great research team. We had all these files and all this material. You couldn’t be repetitious. The speaker would try to reign you in, in terms of being repetitious and making the same arguments. So you really had to be creative and focused, but at the same time, long-winded. So we filibustered. I’ve got a McKinnon [political] cartoon on my wall of Alexa [MacDonough] and John [Holme] and I – The Filibusters.

Mark Coffin: Would that get anything done? Would the government cave in to avoid having to listen to you filibuster?

Robert Chisholm: I don’t remember. We did it to draw attention to the issue, that was what we always did. There’s always the argument ‘what in the hell are you doin’, why are you doing this, nobody cares’. But if you believe in the issue enough, you try to slow it down and hope that something will intervene, hope that the other side will get to annoyed at you that they’ll make some changes.

Mark Coffin: The second place filibustering can happen, is in the Law Amendments Committee. At its best, the Law Amendments Committee is a place where any regular Joe can come and speak on a piece of legislation as it moves through the House of Assembly. As its name suggests, it’s a chance for MLAs to revisit a piece of legislation and propose amendments based on what they hear from citizens and experts.

Art Donahue: A bill after second reading, would get referred to the Law Amendments Committee and the Law Amendments Committee would hold public hearings on the bill, where the public had an opportunity to come and present their views on the legislation to the members of the Law Amendments Committee.

Mark Coffin: Sometimes there would actually be amendments that would be entertained at the committee as a result of the issues raised by the public.

Howard Epstein: I’ve always learned things from members of the public who came to comment on pieces of legislation as it went through. That is a very valuable part of how we run our legislature. For the most part, the three parties in my experience dealt reasonably with each other around the law amendments table. The opposition parties had their amendments and we would debate them, there would be responses and we would go back and forth. For the most part, it was a decent process.

Mark Coffin: But it was rare that meaningful changes were introduced at this point.

Leonard Preyra: By and large, no, the process is more about refining legislation and the opposition might make some suggestions, and they have different degrees of commitment to the changes they’re proposing. But, no – if you go to law amendments you’ll find that most of the bills go through at one sitting.

Mark Coffin: Unchanged?

Leonard: Unchanged, yeah.

Mark Coffin: To be clear, we heard from xMLAs that the Law Amendments Committee is a legitimate space where discussion and debate on legislation and changes to it are entertained. But that doesn’t mean it’s a space where filibustering can’t take place.

Filibustering happens when anybody takes an action that delays, or obstructs something from happening that really can’t be prevented. It too has a history as a legitimate form of protest.

But an inclusive definition of filibustering would include some of testimony that happens at Law Amendments Committee. It’s just that in this case, it’s up to citizens to do the filibustering. Opposition parties do two things that help turn legitimate work at Law Amendments into an example of filibustering.

They can go out of their way to ensure that there is a full roster of citizens ready to present to the committee on the bill they’re trying to protest.

Second, opposition MLAs can help maximize the amount of time a witness testifies for, by asking as many questions as their time will allow for, while government MLAs very often remain silent, asking no questions of those witnesses.

When this happens, the government MLAs will have to step in and limit the number of presenters and even the amount of time they may present for. It’s inevitable, but in that sense, stacking the list with speakers opposed to a bill ensures that it’s the government who must take action to limit debate, and act as a silencer – something that is unlikely to play well in the press.

Filibustering – in the legislature, or at committee – is in one sense is a demonstration of the absolute power that a majority government has in the legislature in Nova Scotia.

It shows that all that a minority party can do is delay the actions of the majority government.

On the other hand, it’s also a demonstration of the limits to that power; that even when a government has its mind made up, there are still protections for the minority voice, to ensure that if the majority is going ahead with something that’s not okay with the minority of lawmakers, the minority can make it inconvenient for them and ensure that their voices are on the record – even if they’re just reading pages in a phone book.

That is this week’s episode of On the Record, Off Script. Thanks for listening. If you haven’t subscribed yet, make sure to do so. You do that with Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, or any of the other podcasting-catching apps.

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We’ll be back with a new episode next week. We’ve only got a handful of episodes left in the story of former MLAs.

After that, I’m curious what people currently listening to the show would find interesting. Springtide is committed to helping people lead and make change in politics with their integrity intact. We’re looking to broaden our scope and our audience, to people who are interested in politics, but more than what happens in the legislature.

Shortly, we’ll be coming out with a podcast called Govern Yourself Accordingly, which is meant to reach a much broader audience than Nova Scotia. We’re also interested in keeping what we’re doing in Nova Scotia alive and supported through this podcast.

So if you’re in Nova Scotia – and I assume most of you are –  and there are things you want to learn or hear about, conversations you’d like to listen in on, we want to know what would be helpful for your own engagement and awareness that you can bring into your political life here in Nova Scotia.

Feel free to send an email to us at offscript@springtide.ngo.


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