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

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

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

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

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

That is the struggle of learning to be an MLA.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want the full story? This article is an adapted excerpt from the weekly podcast.

Listen to this episode “How do you learn to be an MLA?” and subscribe to the podcast here.


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