There are very few written rules that outline what is expected of MLAs once they take their jobs. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant expectations placed on them once they take office.

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Episode Transcript

Responsibilities negotiable for the job of Nova Scotia MLA

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

It’s been about a month since the Nova Scotia election, and a week and a half ago MLAs were sworn in at Province House.

Eddie Orrell: “I, Eddie Orrell, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the Queen, her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs, successors according to law. So help me God.”

Mark Coffin: There are some pretty specific expectations when a new MLA arrives at the House of Assembly. MLAs must bow towards the speaker’s chair, and the member speaking when they enter the house, cross the chamber, or take their seats.

When crossing the floor, they must not come between the member speaking, and the speaker’s chair, and there are rules about how they must move about the chamber depending on whether the Sergeant at Arms is moving the mace, or whether it’s sitting on the table that sits in the middle of the house.

The architecture of the legislature has an almost church, or temple-like feel to it, and when you watch MLAs walk about it, bowing and being mindful of their footsteps in order to follow these rules, this reinforces that feeling.

These are the most specific rules, and they represent some of the only written rules about how an MLA is to go about doing their job. Of course, the expectations of what MLAs should do in their role go beyond ceremonial functions that are written down, like bowing to the speaker upon entering the chamber. Ceremonial functions are written down in the house rule-book;  but many of the expectations placed on MLAs by party and constituents are not.

Eleanor Norrie: They’ll say, I mean you’ll hear it a lot, that your first job is to get re- elected. You know you get elected, so your first reason to be is to get re-elected. And I don’t know if that’s a road that I would take. I didn’t do anything to get re-elected, so I didn’t get re-elected.

Louise Cockram: What is the role of an MLA?

Art Donahue: Well, an MLA has a number of different roles…

Mark Coffin: That’s Art Donahue, former Progressive Conservative MLA for Halifax Citadel, and former Speaker of the House of Assembly.

Art Donahue: “First of all, he or she has to represent the people who elected him or her. He has to be a spokesperson for their interests. He has to familiarize himself with legislation as it is presented first of all in Caucus and then subsequently as he proceeds through the Legislature. He has to have a, you know, a good overview of government policy, what the government is trying to do– I’m assuming now he’s a government member, or he or she is a government member. If they’re an opposition member, then they have to familiarize themselves, with the– if I can put it this way – the negative side of what the government is proposing and so it’s a very varied kind of job.”

Mark Coffin: Art’s answer up to this point is a textbook explanation for what an MLA is supposed to do. They care about public policy and work towards making it better. It’s something we heard from a few MLAs that represented Halifax ridings, in part because there was less demand for their attention from constituents than in rural ridings. In rural ridings constituents expect their MLAs to focus on more local issues; issues that might otherwise be dealt with by a municipal government. And in urban ridings, the micro-local requests that MLAs receive are often passed onto their municipal counterpart.

Art Donahue: … and sometimes had to get involved in issues that were appropriate for the municipal level and refer those people to the aldermen—

Mark Coffin: Aldermen is the word they used to use before the word ‘councillor’ became dominant.

Art Donahue: I’ll say this. There is a difference in the work done by a member who represents a rural constituency and one representing an urban constituency. Because you have that other layer of government. The municipal government. A lot of problems that people have are related to issues that are dealt with at the municipal level. So an urban member does not get the same kind of demands that a rural member gets.

Mark Coffin: Here’s Charlie Parker, another former speaker, and NDP MLA from the riding of Pictou West, on the kind of demands a rural MLA gets.

Charlie Parker: When somebody calls you and says, “I’ve got no money left, my rent is overdue and I need heat or food for my children” you soon find the right contact within the department of social services. Or, if it’s a road issue, you soon find out who the local foreman is, or the manager for the local department of transportation.”

Gordon Balser: I had a group of volunteers and people would come to the MLA office and drop off their income tax returns. It was part of a national program but we set it up so that it was through the MLA office. We help people with letter writing a lot of your time is spent with things like workers compensation, community service issues take a tremendous amount of time. Things like the snow plow hit my mailbox, the bushes on the side of the road aren’t being cut, how come my road didn’t get graded this summer. Those kinds of things and obviously issues like doctor recruitment, hospital ER closures. Those things are very front of mind for people in rural Nova Scotia. Those kinds of things are not as prevalent for someone who’s an MLA in the metropolitan area.

Mark Coffin: The expectation from constituents of MLAs was to solve the problems people presented them with. And for most MLAs, they responded by working to meet that expectation.

Charlie Parker: It all comes back to the MLA to, you know, to find a solution for somebody.

David Nantes: They were mainly issues about if their constituents had a problem what could you do to solve it. That kind of thing. They weren’t earth shattering items or anything like that. They were day-to-day kind of people-related issues.

Mark Coffin: Not everyone accepted this idea that it was their job as MLA to solve the problems their constituents came to them with.

Tim Olive, a former PC MLA, explains how he handled these kind of issues. Issues where constituents weren’t simply looking for a legislative solutions when they landed on his desk.

Tim Olive: Well there’s so many things an MLA’s involved in, to say what’s the primary role or the ideal role. Really it’s communication and not solving issues but being able to move the process of the issue through the system intelligently. And I say intelligently because if you take on an issue that a constituent has, you don’t take it on and tell them up front, “I can solve this” because there’s a good chance you can’t.

I would not be the one that resolves that problem, but I would make sure that this lady was able to talk to the people that can. That’s the sign of a good politician. And I think that’s what a politician’s primary role is. And they need to be able to do that for everybody. They need to be able to have that communication regardless of the politics, with everybody.

Mark Coffin: If you’re like me, when you hear these stories, part of your reaction might be to roll your eyes on the notion that an MLA takes on  the responsibility for many of the things a lot of us probably do on our own.

I file my own taxes, I take the time to figure out which level of government is responsible for something before I pick up the phone, and I’d fix my own mailbox if the plow hit it, and I wait in line until it’s my turn, or I speak up on my own behalf when I need a better or quicker service than the one the front-line worker is willing to provide.

And that likely contributes to the bias I bring to a story like this. I think MLAs should be spending more time on crafting good legislation, and critiquing bad legislation in order to make it better.

But when Louise asked George Archibald what the ideal role for an MLA is, his answer, and his explanation gave me some pause.

George Archibald: He answers his phone, his emails, and represent the people. See, it’s funny. I had a guy working for me one time and somebody on welfare called with a problem, didn’t pay any attention to them. Well those people, you have to pay attention to. When somebody calls an MLA, sometimes they call on Saturday and you’re like, “Geez, why are they calling on a Saturday?”

Well, the reason they wait until Saturday is it’s been bugging them on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, and finally they built up the nerve to call you.

Mark Coffin: According to George, for most people their knee-jerk response when faced with a problem, isn’t to pick up the phone and dial a total stranger to ask for help.

So in order for them to get to the point of calling someone in elected office for help, things can’t be going that well for them.

George Archibald: For an awful lot of people it’s a big deal when they call their MLA, and the MLA better make that a big deal too, no matter how ridiculous it is. It seems to the MLA to the person on the other end of the phone or you’re meeting with, and it’s not ridiculous, it’s not simple. I mean, it’s little things. Something small that maybe you wouldn’t even think about. But that was bugging them and they call you and you better pay attention and you better call them back. And that was the only thing I ever promised is, “I’ll call you back”. When I got elected they didn’t have internet, they didn’t have email. We had a telephone, fax machines and things like that. It wasn’t a mobile phone either, it was a landline. So they couldn’t get a hold of you 24 hours a day. It was important that if they did call, you’d call them back and leave a message.

Mark Coffin: It sounds important. And so does law making and public policy making. Here’s Alexa McDonough reflecting on how she thought about the balance of these two elements of the job.

Alexa McDonough: I have a hard time saying sort of primary, secondary because I think it’s not either-or, it’s both-and. It’s both to represent your own constituents who elect you, but also to the best of your ability to honestly and ably represent. Acting consistent with the policies that your party put forward to the public.

But I think it’s a both-and thing, it’s not either-or. The success of a politician is probably whether they get the right blend of that. The right balance in that.

You’re expected to be consistently acting in a responsible leadership fashion. At the most local level, around the most local concerns around garbage disposal, all the way to global issues, there’s a lot of complexity in all that.

Mark Coffin: What would the breakdown be of when people are coming into your office for something? It sounds like some people are coming in for help with something like healthcare issues. [That] versus [when] they come in and have opinions about how certain things in the government should run even if it doesn’t directly affect them. What proportion of which would you—

Jamie Muir: Didn’t get a lot of that. You get that at the hockey games, but no, not too many people came into the office unless they had a complaint about some particular issue. You didn’t get too many people coming in [saying] “I just wanted to share these ideas with you.”

Mark Coffin: Back to the podcast in a moment. Off Script is made possible thanks to the contributions of listeners like you. You can contribute as a monthly supporter of the podcast at for as little as $5, $8 or $12 a month.

Mike Nunn is one of those donors. Here’s why Mike decide to support the podcast…

Mike Nunn: I chose to support this podcast because it opens up the experience of candidates and elected MLAs to the average voter. This gives a different perspective on how the legislative assembly in Nova Scotia operates, that isn’t available elsewhere. This podcast, along with Springtide’s other initiatives, are enabling conversations on how to improve our political process.

I’m happy to support Off Script, and I’d like to thank Mark and Sandra for their efforts.

Mark Coffin: Thank you Mike, and to all the donors who make this podcast possible.

We encourage you to be like Mike and visit Every donation goes directly to the costs of creating the Off Script podcast.  And if you donate more than $25 in a year, you’ll get a tax receipt for your charitable donation to Springtide, the organization I run that produces the Off Script podcast.

Okay, back to the podcast.

When Louise sat down with Clarrie MacKinnon, a former NDP MLA, he shared what the constituency side of the job looked like for him as a backbench MLA. Sandra Hannebohm brings us Clarrie’s story.

Sandra Hanebohm: Clarrie MacKinnon served as the MLA for Pictou-East from 2006-2013.

As a backbencher, Clarrie spent his time helping his constituents access and navigate government services.

When there was someone who needed help and government services weren’t going to cut it, he often just did what he could to provide the service himself.

Clarrie MacKinnon: We had a lot of people going through hard times. They would get notices that their power bills were behind and then they would get a notice saying their power was going to be disconnected on such and such a date and often it was. So you would be on the phone trying to get someone’s power hooked up. Somebody has two or three children and the power is turned off in their house and I mean that is major to them, right?

As an MLA you end up with a situation like a woman coming to me on a friday – late friday afternoon, 5 o’clock afternoon, crying, you know, her children – there was no food in the house right? You say, ‘Okay now, we understand your situation it’s too late to get a hold of somebody in community services to try to get you helped out. The food bank isn’t opening until whatever, Tuesday or so on. Here’s what we’re going to do.’  So you take your wallet out and you say, ‘Here’s a 20 dollar bill that will get you some pork chops or something for supper. Tea if you need tea or something. But 20 bucks should get you some supper. I’ll be at your house tomorrow morning with some groceries.’

Down in our freezer there were three packages of bacon and two of them go into the Sobeys bag.

My son is a hunter and has enjoyed hunting for many years and there were lots of sausages and so on in the freezer – deer and pork combined. And I remember filling up two bags. And my constituency assistant, who didn’t have very much money – still doesn’t, lost his job when I lost mine – he went to Foodland and bought the food and so on. So we arrived with four bags of groceries to this woman on Saturday morning. So, there are things you do as an MLA that nobody thinks that an MLA would be involved in such things.

There is gratification in helping people. The more people you help the better you feel yourself because you feel your role is more important.

Sandra Hannebohm: Constituency work was central to how Clarrie viewed his job. It sounds like this is one of many stories about the people he helped while he was MLA.

Clarrie MacKinnon: The ideal role of an MLA I believe is to lobby for your constituents, and that can be lobbying whether you are in opposition or government.

Sandra Hannebohm: With few exceptions, the MLAs we interviewed told us that their main job was to serve people in the constituency

Clarrie MacKinnon: An MLA can do a lot of marvelous things. We had a contact that we used to call repeatedly in Nova Scotia Power and say, “These people are in desperate straights. Let’s work something out over the next three or four months for them to bring this power bill down. Hook up their power. Don’t disconnect it.” All of those kinds of things.

Just taking an electric heater out of your own house and giving it to somebody that had run out of oil, to use an example. People coming back and saying, “Look we are so thankful because we have a budgie, and we put that heater that you loaned us under the budgie cage.”

They didn’t put it in their bedrooms. They put it under the budgie cage to keep the budgie alive in the cold. In the cold night without oil. They still had electricity, so they could plug in a heater. Those are the types of things that an MLA does.

Mark Coffin: The job of an MLA or member of parliament is a job like no other. In the constituency, the expectations constituents have of their MLAs to be problem solvers are high and constant, but there is plenty of room to be creative.

In the legislature, the expectations of MLAs are fairly minimal but highly specific. Vote with your party, speak when it’s your turn, support the leadership, don’t forget to bow when you walk across the floor of the assembly, and watch out for the mace.

Of course, just because the expectations of an MLA in the legislature aren’t clear, this hasn’t stopped some people from imagining what an ideal legislature might look like.

One of the earliest thinkers on this topic was the 19th century’s Walter Bagehot –  a philosopher, economist and journalist who wrote about the British constitution, parliament and monarchy. Of course, that’s where our system came from. He supposed that there were five functions that were pre-requisites for the parliament to perform well.

First, it must elect a ministry well. This is to say that the cabinet and head of government (premier in our case) must have the confidence of the house.

This and the other four functions of a parliament are what Bagehot proposed for a legislative body, not for individual MPs, or MLAs. But it just makes good sense that, by extension, MLAs and MPs would have to approach their jobs with these functions in mind in order for the larger legislature or parliament to do its job well.

Second, they must legislate well.

Third, they must teach the nation well.

Fourth, they must express the nation’s will well.

And fifth, they must bring matters to the nation’s attention well.

Bagehot believed that a strong parliament, or legislature in our case, was one that the executive of government was accountable to, that took its role in lawmaking seriously, and held a responsibility both for educating the public, expressing its will, and in focusing the public’s attention on what mattered most.

This is the classic textbook definition of the role of a legislature, and by extension the members of that legislature. But it’s not something we heard a great deal about.

There were two things that Bagehot did not mention; and perhaps could not have predicted would become a part of the role of representatives at the time of riding.

The first, which you’ve already hear about, was the MLA as a sort of case worker. Someone who hears people’s problems—legislative or not—and tries to resolve them.

The second, which we haven’t explored, was the validating and affirming role an MLA has in a community. Many of the MLAs we interviewed considered the presence of an MLA at a community event to be important as a way of expressing that this person, this group or this project they were visiting mattered.

Gary Burrill: If a community is acknowledging an anniversary of someone’s service say in the fire department and you’re able to come as the MLA, this is an uplifting of the matter that the MLA has attended. If you’re able to say a few words and if you’re able to say these with some level of sincerity, this a kind of passing of symbolic power to the people themselves, this affirming. This is a wonderful joy, and you’re doing that all the time. So many MLAs speak about the burden of attending birthday parties, and give another certificate at a 90th birthday. I just find it a hoot, it’s a blast. It’s a wonderful opportunity. I have some of that sort of symbolic affirming capacity, that’s part of what happens with a minister in a community, but it’s that, underlined in capital letters as an MLA. It’s a greater power, it’s a big joy.

Mark Coffin: According to the MLAs we spoke with, these events take up a huge amount of time. When the legislature is in session, MLAs feel conflicted about missing out on them and take a lot of heat doing so from their constituents.

MLAs and political staff do a good job at describing the reality of the world they are living and working in. When we asked most MLAs what the ideal role of an MLA would be, the answer we got was more about the actual role they performed than anything different than it.

David Nantes: The basic role of an MLA will never change. It’s to represent your constituents. That’s the basic role. There obviously is a role to play in the direction and functioning of the province as a whole, but the main role is to represent the people in your own constituency.

Gordon Balser: There is no job description that quantifies or qualifies the role of an MLA. I think the only way to truly appreciate what the job requires, is to become an MLA.

Mark Coffin: But some MLAs took us up on the invitation to think of what might be possible. Former PC Environment Minister Mark Parent, did so by sharing some of the frustrations about the strict control facing MLAs and MPs when they take their jobs:

Mark Parent: When I went into politics, I had a thin skin and a tender heart. What you need is a thick skin but keep the tender heart. Most people get a thick skin and a tough heart.

If we could reform politics and get it back to more greater democracy, I think it would have greater respect. It’s just frustrating in that it’s become so dictatorial that we live in a democracy, and at the centre of it is a dictatorship. It’s a contradiction.

Mark Coffin: Another one who took us up on that question was former Liberal leader and Halifax Citadel MLA, Danny Graham.

Mark Coffin: How would you describe the role of an MLA, the ideal role of an MLA to someone who’s just entering the job?

Danny Graham: There is a real need for them to explicitly be asked to consider best practices for public policy from other jurisdictions across a wide variety of subject areas: economic, cultural, social, environmental kind of issues, political, reform. I think there needs to be a more explicit expectation on our MLAs to be curious about how things work and what are the best practices from other jurisdictions and begin to advocate for them here. Yeah, that would be largely it.

Mark Coffin: Walter Bagehot lived and wrote about the ideal roles of a parliament at a time when voting rights were limited to a wealthy few, when literacy rates were substantially lower than they are now, and before the advent of many modern technologies, and social norms.

It’s understandable that the role of MLAs and MPs have changed since then.

Voting rights have expanded to include many of those who were initially excluded from participating in the elections.

It makes sense that those who make the laws are spending more of their time focused on helping the people in their communities who have traditionally been neglected, than once might’ve been the case.

And, traditionally, the way that MLAs have helped those people has been offline. By making a call and using the title of MLA to ask for someone’s power to be kept on, so that it won’t be shut off on a cold night.

But are there other ways an MLA can help, perhaps ways that get to the root of systemic problems like poverty, and inequality in our communities? Or as one new MLA I recently spoke with said, are there other “superpowers” that come with the job?

A new crop of Nova Scotia lawmakers are just beginning to adjust to holding the title of MLA inside and outside of the legislature. It’s worth each of them taking the time to reflect on how an MLA can effectively use the power that comes with public office for the greater good.

And it’s worth each of us as voters, and their constituents, doing the same.

Thanks for listening to this episode of On the record, off script.

This episode was written and produced by me, Mark Coffin.

And it was edited by Louise Cockram, the research lead for the Off Script  project.

Sound production help came from Sandra Hannebohm.

The theme music is from Josh Spacek at Incompetech, and the rest of the music you heard comes from Kevin MacLeod at Incompetech.

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