This week we talk about the days and weeks following a provincial election and ask the question: how do you learn to be an member of the legislative assembly?

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Episode Transcript

How do you learn to be an MLA?

Mark Coffin: You’re listening to On the Record, Off Script. The podcast. My name is Mark Coffin, and I’m one of the hosts.

For the past two years, me and the Off Script team have been tracking down former members of the Nova Scotia legislature.

Whenever we found one, we invited them to take part in an exit interview. Exit interviews are conversations that employers have with their employees once they’ve left or decided to leave a job, to get answers to the questions that would be uncomfortable or unwelcome if the employee had to keep showing up to work in the weeks and months ahead.

We sat down with dozens of former MLAs, and had them reflect on their time in public life. We asked them to tell us about the good, the bad and the ugly of how Nova Scotia politics works from the inside.

All of our interviews were on the record, but what we heard didn’t sound much like the usual script.

Mark Coffin: Imagine it’s your first day at a new job. The job’s a complicated one. You’re one of the few people who have ever held it, and despite big expectations from the people you work with and serve, there’s no one place you can go to learn how to do it.

In a speech given to the PEI legislature the lone member of the Green Party expressed openly the challenges associated with doing that job.

Peter Bevan-Baker: Mr. Speaker, this is a good moment, perhaps, for me to describe what I imagine my job as a legislator to be. It’s a complicated and multifaceted vocation for sure. I won’t pretend that I have a really good handle on what it’s about only after a year and a half in the job. When I was a dentist I spent 33 years becoming familiar and good at that job. I used to go into the office in the morning and I would feel entirely confident that nothing that came before me would stymie me, would create an issue for me. I was familiar, I was comfortable with the job.

That is not true as I stand here as a legislator. I feel like I am learning extraordinarily fast and I have much to learn. But I do think that some aspects of our jobs are of paramount importance. The development, analysis, critiquing, and potential amendment of bills and motions is, for me, of ultimate importance. We are legislators. That is what we are here to do. When I first came to office I have to fully admit that I struggled with this. I’m not familiar, or was not, at that time, familiar with the language of legislation. I had nobody to turn to with whom to discuss the implications of the bills before me. I’m doing much better now, but I still feel that it’s something I have to learn, I have to get better at. I’m improving, but I’m getting better.

Mark Coffin: This week, we talk about what the days and weeks immediately following a new MLA’s election and ask the question: How do you learn to be an MLA?

Tim Olive: What a great question! You don’t learn how to be an MLA, you learn how to be a people person. If you’re a good people person it’s easier to be an MLA. If you’re approachable, if you learn to listen without talking before the people are finishing telling you what they want to tell you.

Gordon Balser: It’s a very complex thing, and I’d be the first to say I didn’t fully understand it.

Percy Paris: There’s no book. You’re thrown in. The next thing you know, you’re on your feet talking and you just do it.

Charlie Parker: People were helpful as best they could, but on many ways you had to learn as you went.

Graham Steele: I know, just from talking to people over the years, that the legislature, for most people, is a complete mystery. It’s not like any other thing they’ve done in their lives before. It has its unique rules, the way it works. It often takes people years to figure out how the legislature works and why it works the way it does.

Mark Coffin: The period just after an election is arguably the most important time in an MLA’s career. The approach that MLAs take to learning their job during these first few weeks in the House of Assembly and in their constituency can often define the rest of their time in office.

The majority of MLAs enter the House with no prior legislative experience.

Former NDP leader, Alexa McDonough recalls how she felt during those first crucial weeks.

Alexa McDonough: When I was the only member in there, it was kind of a solitary existence because I didn’t have a clue about the rules of the house. Actually a lot of that, you learn by precedence. There’s not a chapter in a book that just tells you everything you need to know.

Mark Coffin: As a rookie MLA, Alexa’s strength was working with people, and engaging with voters. She loved door knocking and talking about the issues, but house procedure was not her top priority. When she was first elected, she was the lone member of the NDP caucus and the only female MLA in the house.

The house of assembly is served by a team of legislative pages—assistants—usually university or college students who serve the speaker and members of the House of Assembly when it’s in session. They take messages to members who are sitting in the house, serve them water, and generally keep things moving smoothly.

During those early days, the pages would often hand Alexa notes that were unsigned, with tips that helped her get things done while she was in the house.

Alexa McDonough: Help came from surprising places quite often. You know, I’d have a note arrive—and I sometimes wouldn’t even know where it has come from—saying, “In case you’re wondering, there is no rule that prevents you from doing the following” and I would think, wow who sent me that note? I hope they’re not making it up because I’m about to gratefully act on that hint. And in the end, sometimes that note came from some sympathetic person in the gallery. Do you know how that works in legislatures and parliament? Anybody can send a note to anybody sitting down there in their seat, from the gallery or from outside, through the pages.

Sometimes I didn’t know where those notes came from. Occasionally I’d learn that it was somebody in the legislative library that would send it, somebody on the speaker’s staff. And there were other times I never knew.

Mark Coffin: When MLAs like Alexa enter the house for the first time, they are faced with strange surroundings. The house is no ordinary workplace.

Louise Cockram, the co-writer and lead researcher of the Off Script podcast explains.

Louise Cockram: The Nova Scotia legislative assembly meets in Province House on Hollis Street in Halifax. Its large stone structure with Greek columns outside the entrance houses the longest serving legislature in the country.

Charles Dickens —THE Charles Dickens—visited Halifax in 1842, and stopped by Province House while he was here. In his book, American Notes, Dickens wrote about his visit to the house.

Mark Coffin: “It happened to be the opening of the Legislative Council and General Assembly, at which ceremonial the forms observed on the commencement of a new Session of Parliament in England were so closely copied, and so gravely presented on a small scale, that it was like looking at Westminster through the wrong end of a telescope.”

Louise Cockram: The inside of the assembly is equally dissimilar to an average office. The legislative library, with its multiple shelves of old books and librarian’s ladders looks like a room at Hogwarts. The red room which hosts most of the assembly’s formal events is a large space with drop lighting, intricately decorated ceilings and two large portraits of our long-dead monarch Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. (CORRECTION: King George III and Queen Charlotte.)

It is in the red room, where all MLAs are sworn in following an election.

Neil Ferguson, Swearing-in ceremony: I’d like to welcome all the members who are about to be sworn in, and all of the families and friends that are here today. This is a ceremony that is hundreds and hundreds of years old, and I want to say to the families, and particularly the children, that you should remember this day. Of the millions of people who have been born and lived in the over 250 years of democracy in this province, only a handful ever are elected by their communities to serve in such a high and honorable offices.

And you should think about that throughout the ceremony today.

Louise Cockram: Once a member is sworn in, they are officially the representative for their district in the House of Assembly.

Neil Ferguson, Swearing-in ceremony: Whereas by royal proclamation—

… then-general assembly of the province was dissolved, and it was ordered that writs of election…

… for the election of members to serve in the house of assembly…

… were made to the saids writs of election…

… Thirty-three government members have been elected…

… Seven members have been elected from the New Democratic Party…

… Eleven members of the Official Opposition have been elected. I’d ask each member to come forward and take the oath of allegiance and sign the role as a member of the House of Assembly…

Swearing-in ceremony: “I, Karla Michelle MacFarlane do swear…”

“I, Maureen MacDonald do swear that I will be faithful…”

“Moi, Chris d’Entremont…”

“I, Allan Rowe, do swear that I will be faithful…”

“… that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her majesty the Queen…”

“… sa majesté la Reine Elizabeth II…”

“… Queen Elizabeth II…”

“… her heirs and successors…”

“… her heirs and successors according to law…”

“… according to the law, so help me God.”

“… so help me God.”

“… so help me God.”


Louise Cockram: Of course, the most important room in the legislature is the chamber itself. This is where the MLAs debate and vote on legislation. The chamber is divided into two sets of desks that are set up to face one another. There are three rows of desks on either side, where MLAs sit during a session of the house. The opposition parties are on one side, and the government on the other.

The first row on each side is spaced exactly two sword-lengths apart, a throwback to the assembly’s Westminster heritage, and the period of time the building was constructed in. At the end of the chamber, in the middle of the two rows, there is a raised dais, where the speaker presides over debate in the house. Until recently, the speaker would climb the stairs to the dais to sit in a regal, throne-like chair. But the current speaker of the House, Kevin Murphy, serves from a wheelchair. After he was elected, the house was renovated, and a long ramp was installed to allow him to easily rise to the same place previous speakers have served from, and to do so from his wheelchair.

Following an election, before any legislation is introduced, and before any debate happens, the new government’s throne speech is given.

“Please rise!”

Louise Cockram: The speech is written by the government but delivered by the Lieutenant Governor, the Queen’s representative in Nova Scotia.

Louise Cockram: The Lieutenant Governor delivers the throne speech in the Speaker’s chair in full military regalia and a triangle hat. All MLAs are present and the gallery above the chamber is usually filled with invite-only guests, chosen by MLAs.

Lieutenant Governor: Welcome to the first session of the 61st General Assembly. On June 9th of this year, Nova Scotians made a decisive and historic choice…

Louise Cockram: Because he visited on the opening day of the Legislature, Dickens witnessed the throne speech in 1842.

Mark Coffin: ‘The Governor, as her Majesty’s representative, delivered what may be called the speech from the throne. He said what he had to say manfully and well. The military band outside the building struck up ‘God Save the Queen’ with great vigor before his excellency had quite finished. The people shouted. The ins rubbed their hands, the outs shaked their heads… The government party said there was never such a good speech. The opposition declared there was never such a bad one. The Speaker and members of the House of Assembly withdrew from the bar to say a great deal among themselves and do a little. In short, everything went on and promised to go on just as it does at home upon the like occasions.’

Louise Cockram: MLAs have an extraordinary workplace and an extraordinary responsibility that only a few people in Nova Scotia ever get to wield.

Mark Coffin: Your podcast will continue in a moment…

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Mark Coffin: Being an MLA is a career like no other. The expectations are high but the amount of formal training available is low. When we asked MLAs about whether there should be some form of formal training, most told us that there really was no way to prepare for a job like this. And that some unpreparedness—fresh eyes—might be good!

Nevertheless, MLAs are expected to have some level of comfort and competence in a wide range of activities. They generally fit into three categories: The expectations placed on them and their constituency, the expectations placed on them by their party and the expectations related to being a lawmaker.

Let’s start with constituency expectations.

In the districts they were elected by and for, an MLA is expected to set up an office to serve their constituents, so they’ll have to find a suitable space. They’ll also need to hire a staff person to serve as their constituency assistant.

There are three main things that people are looking for at the constituency level. Help access in government services like social assistance, or student loan support. Fixes for local problems like potholes, or a school that’s facing closure. And lastly, they are looking for the MLAs presence at events—grand openings of new buildings built by community organizations or businesses, birthday parties, concerts, festivals and community meetings…

They’re expected to be at political events too, but this was not what dominated their calendars.

Some people in the constituency – and I’d consider myself one of them – will approach their MLA about policy issues, and their party’s position on certain pieces of legislation. But from what we heard, when the phone rings, or a constituent walks in the door, policy conversations are far less common than those other three. Most people wanted help getting access to a government service, a fix for a specific issue, or an RSVP to an event they were hosting.

The next set of expectations on MLAs is the expectation that their party has of them.

Mark Coffin: When an MLA arrives in Halifax, their primary channel for accessing the legislature is the party they belong to. Unlike in Ottawa, where each member of parliament has an office in one of many federal buildings scattered across town, each MLA’s office is apart of the larger office space rented by their parties.

Even the swearing-in ceremony is done by party. All of this is not only symbolic, but serves to socialize expectations the party has of its member MLAs. The idea that MLAs are, as one MLA put it, the object of the sentence, and not the subject of the sentence that describes their activities. The subject is the party—the party leadership, to be exact.

While it might have been the voters in each MLA’s constituency that brought them to the legislature, it’s the party they belong to that determines their fate in the legislature, and the expectations aren’t always small ones. These expectations will be greater for any MLA who finds themselves on the government benches.

MLAs in opposition have far more latitude to critique and question the government.

When an MLA is on the government side, their party expects them to toe the line with decisions they might not have been a part of.

Finally, there are the responsibilities an MLA has as a lawmaker in the House of Assembly. At the level of the constituency, and the party there are unspoken rules and conventions, but very few written, hard and fast rules. There’s no job description for any of it. You just do what your constituents expect of you, what your party expects of you, and you hope those two things aren’t at odds with one another.

In the House of Assembly there still isn’t a job description, but there are rules that explain how things are done. In many ways, the expectations of MLAs in the house of assembly are more clear than the expectations in any other part of their job. There are plenty of things an MLA can do in their constituency, but not all of those things require a person to be an MLA. They can champion local issues, they can get access to decision-makers within the provincial bureaucracy, and have people answer their phone calls that might not answer the average citizen’s phone calls. But the one thing an MLA can do that no other person can do, is the work that happens in the legislature. This includes proposing new laws. They can cast votes for and against new laws proposed by the government and other members of the house, they can ask direct questions to the government, and push certain issues into the spotlight. They can work within the rules of the House of Assembly, and its committees, to make certain changes and use the leverage they have as a lawmaker to negotiate with other MLAs.

These are the things that MLAs can do that nobody else can. But it would be an exaggeration to say that they are ‘expectations’ placed on the MLA. An MLA can get pretty far without putting much time into these duties.

Graham Steele, former NDP finance minister, explains…

Graham Steele: Okay, so here’s the reality of the life of somebody who is in the Nova Scotia legislature and I assume in parliament. Usually, the thing that you want the most is to get re-elected. Your voters, you learn very quickly, have no idea what is going on in the legislature. You can work your pretty little brains out to be the best legislator ever, and the people at home don’t care. That’s not what they’re voting for.

There’s an expression that is used in Halifax, and I assume there is an equivalent in Alberta and in Ottawa. That is, “There are no votes in Halifax.” If you come from a seat from outside of Halifax, you want to spend as little time as possible in Halifax because your voters are all back home.

You spend your time diligently doing the constituency work, going to bat for people, going to the fire hall, getting to know people—just being around, being friendly, being helpful, everybody knows who you are. If the voters don’t place any value on the work you do in the legislature, and if all the votes are preordained anyway because your party leadership has decided what your party stance is, why would you spend any time on the legislation?

Mark Coffin: If, like Graham says, there isn’t much reward for doing the work of a lawmaker, why would anyone who is new to the game do it?

Many people would disagree with that. I would disagree with that. When I vote, that’s exactly what I am thinking about, and maybe you are too. But I know from the conversations we’ve had with former MLAs, that among Nova Scotians, we are in the minority.

If it’s not something that is rewarded, there still are, without a doubt, people in Province House who are there because they want to change the law.

Mark Coffin: How did you go about learning to fulfill that role as sort of, the lawmaker for this area?

Jamie Muir: Okay, I should confess this . . . it’s probably not good, as a person who was in cabinet for 10 years . . . I never really did understand how the house worked.

Mark Coffin: That’s Jamie Muir, who was a minister in the Progressive Conservative governments lead by Premiers John Hamm and Rodney MacDonald.

We’ve played this clip a few times. Once at the beginning of the episode, and in some of the promotion we’ve been doing for the podcast. If you’re wondering why we both giggled while I was asking my question, it’s because his dog starting doing something funny during the interview.

We played this clip because it grabs your attention, but not necessarily for the reason you might think.

Jamie’s no dummy. Before entering politics, he was a professor at the Teacher’s College in Truro. During his 10 years in cabinet, he just never bothered learning the rules of the house.

Jamie Muir: I mean, there’s a set of rules and procedures on how that place worked. I really wasn’t interested in that whole lot. We had a couple guys like Ron Russell when he was speaker, and these guys that were really interested in this. We had a house leader who knew about that. All this business of first reading, second reading, third reading and all of that . . . I just did what they told me! If you asked me how it worked, I’d refer you to somebody [else].

Quite frankly, there were an awful lot of people in the legislature who are like I was in those days. I’m not saying that we did not read the bills and study them, but in terms of house procedures, there’s a way that thing works and I really wasn’t particularly interested in how it worked. I wanted to get things done. We had people who knew how it worked and told us what to do, and that’s fine.

Mark Coffin: It sound like it was more like, if there was something you or your caucus wanted to get done there would be somebody whose job it was to figure out—

Jamie Muir: How to get it done!

Mark Coffin: Some of the people who became MLAs had backgrounds in law, or at another level of politics. Those folks had experience working with process, policy and procedure. But others didn’t. Even those who had experience with those things still felt some discomfort when they arrived at their seats in the house.

We asked all the xMLAs two questions: What was it like to enter the house for the first time? And how did you learn to be an MLA?

George Moody was plenty comfortable speaking in public, but there was something about the house that he and his seatmate, felt overwhelmed about when they finally stood up to speak.

George Moody: I was very nervous. I think I’ll never forget the first time I had to speak, I was very nervous.

One of the things of having been a school teacher and a principal, you learn very quickly to speak in front of an audience, so it’s not quite so bad as if you never had to speak publicly before. But Terry Donahoe, he was a lawyer, and when he first spoke he was just as nervous as I was. We had a little chat afterwards about ‘How come this place takes on a different—you’re nervous here when you’ve spoken in court or in front of the public before?’

George Archibald: You know, when you come in in the legislature you don’t know anybody… You know there were two guys in my legisla- you know when I got elected, and they both had beards. You know it was six months before I really knew who was who.

Michele Raymond: Pretty quickly you’re introduced to the rest of the caucus. I mean when I say you are introduced I mean you know who they are but you know, there is a caucus meeting. And some basic terms are set out which are things like you are going to need to set up a constituency office, you will need your own telephone line…

Charlie Parker: If I recall there was like a one-day training session put on for MLAs in the red room in the legislature.

Michele Raymond: … where the Speaker’s office staff explain a little bit about how the House works. There is a house rule book which is very very helpful, I mean there are rules of procedure and they’re really not that complicated, so it’s just like a little style-book, it’s not a whole lot else.

Howard Epstein: For the most part it was a question of watching others and learning as you went along. I don’t know if it can be much different. I think that’s just the way of it. You have to find your path in the process. The formal rules are not all that hard to learn. You’re given a little booklet. The booklet has all the rules…

Charlie Parker: But none of that actually prepares you for the workload that you need to do as an MLA.

Mark Coffin: In caucuses with more seasoned members, new MLAs found it useful to receive advice from their more experienced colleagues. Former premier Rodney MacDonald appreciated the support he got from his caucus colleagues after he won his first election as MLA at the age of 27.

Rodney MacDonald: Angus MacIssac from Antigonish had been elected before as well, and elected as a young person. And he was a huge help to me. So I would meet weekly with Angus MacIssac and Ron Chisholm from Guysborough. Every Wednesday we would meet for breakfast. We would meet at the Bluenose restaurant, faithfully for years. Most of my political career was meeting them for breakfast every week.

Mark Coffin: How much you learn and the quality of what you learn in a caucus setting really depends on the willingness of your party to offer it.

And the party itself and the members in it all have some agenda, but that’s a whole topic for another episode.

For now, we’ll explore how MLAs put their training into practice.

Charlie Parker: People were helpful as best they could, but on many ways you had to learn as you went.

Louise Cockram: So when you finally did get elected, how did you learn to be an MLA? How did you learn the rules of the House? How did you learn the other aspects?

Gordon Balser: More by osmosis or accident than anything else…

Mark Coffin: Graham Steele found out through interactions with his colleagues that the house was a daunting place for them, even after the orientation period.

Graham Steele: Now I know, just from talking to people over the years that the legislature is for most people is a complete mystery. It’s not like anything they’ve done in their lives before. It has its unique rules, just, you know the way it works. And it often takes people years to figure out how the legislature works and why it works the way it does.

Mark Coffin: Graham was in a unique position when he entered the House. As we heard in a previous episode, he had been the head of research for the NDP caucus, and had previously trained and worked as a lawyer.

Graham Steele: I was very comfortable with laws and legislation. I’d been a litigation lawyer, so I was very comfortable questioning people—what you had to do a good job of questioning people.

Mark Coffin: Graham’s legal expertise and his experience as a former staffer put him in good stead to understand how the House works. He soon found out through interactions with his fellow MLAs that learning how to operate in the constituency said a lot about how they perceived their role.

Graham Steele: Most MLAs though are not in their comfort zone dealing with that stuff.

Mark Coffin: ‘Stuff’ meaning work in the legislature.

For most MLAs, understanding the rules of the house was secondary to their constituency responsibilities.

Graham Steele: They’re in their comfort zone back home in the constituency. So in a weird way I was doing exactly what they were doing just I’m an odd enough duck as a politician that my comfort zone was spending more time in the legislature. But I also knew that that’s not where the votes are – you know apart from raising my public profile.

Mark Coffin: Constituency duties were consistently a top priority for most MLAs we spoke with. So it makes sense that this is one of the first things they took it upon themselves to learn.

Tim Olive: You don’t learn how to be an MLA, you learn how to be a people person.

Mark Coffin: Sometimes, even when we explicitly asked about how they learned to fulfill their legislative roles, we still heard about the constituency.

Louise Cockram: In terms of learning the rules of the Legislative Assembly, did you—did the assembly provide any training for that or was that something that was also kind of…

Charlie Parker: The job is multifaceted, and one of the main responsibilities is looking after your constituents and all their various issues and concerns. Most people are reasonable in that regard. The other aspect is, you’re representing them in the legislature in Halifax, so your maiden speech is always expected of an MLA. You get up and talk about your riding, and the people, and the positives and the not-so-positives that are important to the residents.

There’s no formal training or course that you can take that I’m aware of that allows you to say, ‘Here’s the role of an MLA. Here’s what you need to do.’

But you soon learn, because when somebody calls you and says, “I’ve got no money left, my rent is overdue, and I need heat, you know, 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 or whatever.

Mark Coffin: Here’s what MLAs told us about how they learned to do their jobs.

All of the recent MLAs we spoke with got some form of training from the clerk’s office on how the house works.

Most had an orientation with their parties, and the parties provided formal and informal mentorship opportunities with senior MLAs. The end result of all that training seemed to lead MLAs to learn how to help their constituents, and leave the lawmaking, the question-writing, and navigation of house procedure to the experts. This didn’t mean they wouldn’t take part in those activities, but it did mean that they were generally relying on someone else’s expertise, rather than their own.

MLAs talked about their approach to learning the ropes of the house of assembly in much the same way that many of us talk about doing our taxes: Most people hate filing their taxes.

If you’re someone that can afford to, you probably get someone else to do it for you. The MLAs we spoke with were never convinced that the effort they might put into learning the rules of the house would bring pay-offs in the form of the kinds of things they wanted to get done as MLA.

For some, that was getting re-elected.

For others, it was making policy change.

For most, it was a bit of both.

In either case, the house wasn’t seen as the place where that work began.

It’s not just the rules of the house that matter, it’s the dynamics of the house – the unseen incentives structure that give MLAs more satisfaction for doing work that didn’t revolve around the legislature itself, despite the fact that nobody else has the lawmaking power an MLA has.

Because of these incentives, most MLAs prioritized learning about how to serve their constituents at home, and followed the lead of their party when it came to what to do with Halifax.

Parties play a huge role in the experience of an MLA in the legislature, and throughout the Nova Scotia political system. In the next episode of the Off Script podcast, that’s what we’ll explore.

Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Off Script podcast.

This is the last of our standard episodes for 2016. We’ll air special episodes for the next two tuesdays – special episodes are shorter episodes that are a bit easier to produce, typically involve an extended interview, speech or story from a single person. Sometimes that person is a former MLA, and sometimes they’re not.

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This episode Off Script was written and produced by Louise Cockram and me, Mark Coffin, and with the support of many volunteer transcribers.

The theme music you’ve heard in this podcast comes from Josh Spacek at; and the other music you heard comes from Kevin MacLeod at Incompetech.

Thank you to the association of xMLAs, and all MLAs who participated in our interviews!


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