In this episode, we explore the issue former MLAs told us they heard more about than anything else from their constituents.

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Episode Transcript

Road politics in Nova Scotia

Mark Coffin: Roads.

As Nova Scotians they connect us to one another. As a resource economy, roads have been essential for taking goods from sellers to buyers.

They take fish, produce, lumber and livestock to market, from one part of the province to another, and along with rail and ocean shipping they bring those products to the rest of the world.

It’s roads that bring us to Nova Scotia’s most awe-inspiring people and places.

They take us to the homes and workplaces of former members of the legislative assembly who we spoke to for this podcast. Children spend hours on roads in rural Nova Scotia each week getting to and from school. When emergency strikes, highways are critical for ensuring paramedics, firefighters and police can safely and quickly make it to the people who need help.

While it’s easy to take them for granted, roads are public spaces that our communities have been built around. How we go about constructing and maintaining roads is an important public policy issue for Nova Scotia.

Maybe even the most important public policy issue?

That’s what we were lead to believe from our conversations with former MLAs in Nova Scotia, who repeatedly named roads as the issue constituents brought them more often than any other. But we couldn’t help but wonder—in a province where there is a shortage of young people, a sputtering economy, and a pretty big question mark over the future of rural communities (the places most of these roads lead to) does our political obsession with roads pay off?

In this episode of On the Record, Off Script, we explore.

Alexa McDonough: People who were willing to identify with the party in power would be given the commitment of having the road paved.

Charlie Parker: One of the most important things was to keep roads in good shape. Your role is as a lobbyist.

Gordon Balser: The party of the day that was in power created employment opportunities for those people that were loyal supporters.

Pam Birdsall: This road has about $5 million dollars worth of money connected to the road.

Danny Graham: People asking why am I not talking about paving roads and pocketbook issues?

Yvonne Atwell: They would have a pothole and they would call you because you want your pothole fixed, then some people in Preston who were looking for a turkey for Christmas dinner.

[Sound of truck passing by]

Mark Coffin: You’re listening to On the Record, Off Script, a podcast documentary project based on conversations we’ve had with former Nova Scotia MLAs.

Each week, we dig into one small piece of politics, from the perspective of people who ran for, were elected to and served in the Nova Scotia legislature. What makes these conversations worth listening in on is that it happened at a point in time when – for the most part – our interview subjects had no plans on returning to public office, and fewer reasons to filter out what they might say.

Compared to many sitting politicians, they may sound a little more direct, a little less polite, and reveal an unseen perspective on politics.

And this week, we talk about roads.

We never planned on asking XMLAs about roads.

But in interview after interview, the topic kept coming up.

Here’s how it happened:

A few of the people we interviewed named roads as being the most common issue brought to them by constituents. Ramona Jennex, a former NDP MLA from the Annapolis Valley, was one of those MLAs.

Ramona Jennex: Everywhere you go when you’re the MLA, even though there’s no job description, constituents expect their MLA to be available. Maybe it’s different from rural to urban [areas], I’m not 100 per cent sure. They would immediately tell you something they wanted you to know and generally, over 50 per cent of the time, it was roads.

Mark Coffin: There were a handful of other MLAs who said similar things who put roads on the top of the list of issues the constituents brought them.

Most xMLAs didn’t explicitly tell us that roads were the most common issue that was brought to them. The issue of roads was nearly every MLA’s go-to example when we asked them a broader question about being the MLA, and representing their communities.

Here’s what I mean. This is Pam Birdsall, the former MLA from the Mahone Bay Area.

Pam Birdsall: We would talk around the caucus table about roads for example. Roads was the perfect thing, because our strength in opposition was urban. When we all came on it was the rural vote that made us government, and in rural communities roads are paramount.

People would say, “Well don’t go down the liberal road.” I would ask, “What’s the Liberal road?” and they said, “That’s the road that the Liberals paved before the election ten years ago, and they just put tar down on gravel, making a terrible road. Then the Tories came in and didn’t touch the road because the Liberals had done it.” I said, “are you kidding me?”

Mark Coffin: Roads were important, and we heard this from many rural MLAs. We’ll come back to Pam’s story in a moment.

Louise Cockram: What would say is the ideal role of an MLA?

Clarrie MacKinnon: The ideal role of an MLA I believe is to lobbying for your constituents and that can be lobbying whether you are in opposition or government. In a rural constituency, as mine was, one of the most important things was to keep roads in good shape.

Mark Coffin: Was there a tension between those constituency issues that were very specific to different neighbourhoods and the big picture issues it sounded like you were interested in working on?

Marie Dechman: No, because when you’re an MLA you have to multi-task. Especially if you’re a minister and you’re an MLA, and you have a million things to do. But no one thing is more important. In the views of your constituents, that road is the most is the most important thing in their lives. They don’t care about what you’re voting on, this big picture of whatever red tape about small business, that road is what they want done.

Mark Coffin: So, what happens when an MLA brings a roads issue – often about a very specific road, with a very specific solution in mind, to Province House?

Back to Pam Birdsall’s story. Pam’s story falls into the category of “Best Case Scenario”.

Pam Birdsall: I had an issue with Stanhope Road, it’s a road up in New Germany. There’s a lot of christmas tree growing activity. In this area, on the highway, you’ll see a “balsam fir capital of the world” sign.

Mark Coffin: Pam developed a relationship with some of the Christmas tree growers in her riding, and took a strong interest in the industry. Going to conferences, learning about how their business functions.

Pam Birdsall: They’d say, “Pam, what about this?” So one day I got a call from someone who said, “We went to Toronto and we have a big contract that will change our business entirely, but the road getting to our woodlot is so bad, it turns to mud. These big trucks, they’re up to their axles in mud.” The condition of the road really was going to make or break their livelihood. [He said] “You gotta drive in the truck with me and see this, Pam.”

So I went up and drove and looked at everything, and they said, “Look at the transportation [department]. They put gravel at the top of the road, [it] all washed down in the rain, and now it’s in the gutter. That doesn’t do me any good.”


Mark Coffin: Pam gets out of the truck, and sits down with the tree-growers, and asks them to work with her on a plan she can take back to caucus and the ministers responsible for the road.

Pam Birdsall: So we whipped it together in two days. I went to caucus with aerial views of the area, and everything marked out approximate values of $2 million in this area a year. So I’m able to say, “Look, this road has about $5 million dollars worth of money connected to the road. If we can’t fix this there’s a big problem. These are my constituents, what are we going to do?”

So I talked to the minister of transportation, then to his deputy, and then we worked it out with our superintendent. We worked it all down and I said, “What I need from you being the christmas tree guys, 2 kilometers in from the road a hundred feet beyond that, what’s required?”

I said, “I need a recipe, you need mostly ditching. If you need mostly ditching, there’s all that gravel [in the ditch] that can go back on the road. Right?” So we transformed the road in a way that had never been done before, in a way that made sense. I listened to my people, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

That was a perfect example of being so involved in the community that they could pick up the phone and say, “Pam you gotta come” and they all had my cell number. I loved that, it was really like rubbing my hands together and being like, “Yes, let’s find a solution to this!”

Mark Coffin: That’s Pam Birdsall’s story. It is an example of the best case scenario of what happens when an MLA brings their constituents’ road concerns to Province House. She (quite literally) saved Christmas for the tree farmers on the Stanhope Road.

Pam’s efforts and the help she managed to provide to her constituents illustrates the importance of road maintenance on public issues. In this case that issue is economic development and business success. It’s not just about having the convenience of a smooth ride to and from work. Decent roads, Ramona Jennex argues, are the rural equivalent of having a reliable public transportation system in urban areas.

Ramona Jennex: Because we don’t have public transportation outside of metro. We’re really lucky, in King’s County we have King’s transit—does the main route, does Wolfville, and you can get from point A to point B. But people live up the mountain and we’ve got a lot of roads in King’s County, and if they’re not well maintained people’s car’s get beat up quite badly. It’s their investment, and it’s their way they get to work, so that was the biggest concern.

And food for thought in that regard: I’ve often said that rural MLAs have a larger workload than urban MLAs because of the road issue. In some respects, it makes sense to have rural ridings perhaps smaller in population, so they can deal with all that extra work. But, in a rural riding like Pictou-West or King’s-West, that’s an extra responsibility that MLAs have in those ridings which takes a lot of their time and effort.

Mark Coffin: Should urban ridings be smaller, and rural ridings bigger so MLA’s can look after the roads? While this was the only time we heard that particular recommendation, it wasn’t uncommon to hear MLAs equate their own workload with the level of constituency specific work that was waiting for them on their desks back in their constituency.

I asked Rodney MacDonald about that. He is the former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, and former premier of Nova Scotia. He was the MLA for the riding of Inverness, which is one of the largest ridings by geographic area in the province, so he knows about roads because he has a lot of them.

I asked him a question that often gets asked when we talk about MLAs doing the kind of work we’ve described them doing on roads. Lobbying for their specific roads, instead of say, a better road-maintenance policy for the province as a whole.

Mark Coffin: Political scientists say that MLAs, MPs, spend too much time in their constituency. Their real job is as lawmakers. It sounds like that’s one of the biggest burdens.

Rodney MacDonald: Well, I would say they read that in a book somewhere. They really don’t understand.

It’s like saying if you’re a carpenter, your real job is simply to build a house. All the other parts of how you build the house don’t matter. Well, to me, in order to truly understand it, you have to live it. In principle that’s what the job of an MLA is, as a lawmaker. But in practicality that’s not the case. It’s part of the responsibility. To say otherwise is not really to understand the job.

(Awkward laughter)

Mark Coffin: Whenever I listen back to the recordings from our interviews and hear laughter like that that I don’t understand, I try to think of why. Usually it’s because we were doing the interviews in someone’s home, and one of their pets did something silly or cute. In this case, I’m not sure. There were no pets in the interview.

Rodney MacDonald: It’s just the reality of it. If you happen to represent a riding where there is very little health care issues, or very little road issues, or economic development isn’t a problem, then your type of perspective on that may be very different.

Mark Coffin: Regardless of where an MLA lived – rural or urban Nova Scotia, their ability to get the roads in their constituency paved seemed to depend less on what part of the province they came from, and had more to do with what side of the house of assembly they sat on.

Clarrie MacKinnon: Constituencies used to get almost the same amount of money for filling potholes and that kind of thing.

Mark Coffin: That’s Clarrie MacKinnon, a former NDP backbencher who has served on both the opposition and the government sides of the house.

If the problem was just a pothole, or a minor repair, most MLAs could have influence by requesting a repair from staff at the department of transportation and infrastructure renewal. That was fairly equitable, Clarrie tells us. But his efforts at getting, say, a road paved as an opposition MLA were often fruitless.

Clarrie MacKinnon: There’s a fundamental difference [between] being in government and not being in government. It was great when I was in government. It was horrible when I was in opposition.

Louise Cockram: So you mean the government—

Clarrie MacKinnon: Looks after it’s constituency. That happens federally, as well.

Mark Coffin: But there were ways for MLAs who weren’t a part of the government to bring money into their constituency.

During the 2013 provincial election, allegations of secret backroom deals between the government and opposition party to get roads paved arose during the campaign.

Shortly after the election was called, Maureen MacDonald, a longtime MLA for the NDP and cabinet minister, made a strong allegation about collusion between the Liberals and the PCs that helped the government before the NDP did.

In case you weren’t following politics at that time of the 2013 election, you only need to know one thing for this story to make sense. It was well understood that the campaign was really a battle between Darrell Dexter’s NDPthe governing party struggling in the pollsand Stephen McNeil’s Liberals, whose support was steadily growing during their final years as official opposition to Dexter’s NDP. Here’s what Maureen MacDonald said back then.

Maureen MacDonald: In 2008, Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil agreed to support conservative Rodney MacDonald’s minority budget and capital plan. He said the Liberals would support the budget exchange for a number of concessions, such as medical training seats and a vast in funding.

However we know that the Liberals and Mr. McNeil actually struck a secret backroom deal that led to the Liberals voting for the 2008 budget. A budget that put the HST back on home electricity.

A secret sweetener that until today was hidden from Nova Scotians in exchange for putting the HST back on every family’s home electricity bill, Stephen McNeil received four million dollars worth of road paving for six MLAs.

Mark Coffin: When she says four million in road paving for six MLAs she means, four million dollars in road paving for the ridings those MLAs served.

The evidence she cited was an email obtained from a freedom of information request.

We looked at that email and the names of the “to” and “from” sections are redacted. But what you can tell is that the message is from an employee in the provincial department of Transportation and Public Works.

The email names the roads that should be paved, all of them in ridings served by Liberals (although the email didn’t say that) and this happened during a time when the Progressive Conservative government was in power, and looking for one of the opposition parties to support its budget so it wouldn’t be defeated and go to an election.

It’s certainly not conclusive that there was bribery, or secret deal-making going on. The email doesn’t mention that this is happening in exchange for a vote in favour of the budget, but it also doesn’t look good for the Liberals or the PCs. It’s difficult to prove. Road politics has a long history in Nova Scotia and part of what has made it challenging to defeat lately is that it all hinges on motive.

Allegations like this are hard to prove because it involves proving motive. Why did certain roads get paved and not others? That kind of information isn’t necessarily recorded in public policy decisions. It’s hard to prove.

Hard to prove, of course, unless you have an MLA who has sat on both sides of the house who can explain exactly how it worked for them.

Clarrie MacKinnon: Well, being an MLA in opposition is not as much fun as being an MLA in government.

Mark Coffin: Clarrie MacKinnon was one of Maureen MacDonald’s colleagues in the NDP, and he explained that it wasn’t until he sat on the government benches that he started seeing some of the roads in his riding get paved.

Clarrie MacKinnon: [During] my years in opposition, I didn’t get much road work. [During] my years in government I had quite a few contracts for paving substantial sections of road. That has gone on in this province forever. It’s less than it used to be, but it’s still there.

Mark Coffin: Someone who was able to speak to how it used to be was former NDP leader, Alexa McDonough, who only ever served on the opposition side of the house. During her time, the preferential treatment of government-held constituencies with more road work was rarely disguised as anything other than exactly what it was.

Alexa McDonough: There was a lot of vote buying behavior that went on. There were several different ways that the parties engaged, particularly the party in power used their power to engage in the vote-buying that would perpetuate their power so people who were willing to identify with the party would be given the commitment of having the road paved, or having their snow ploughed. It happened. It wasn’t idle promises that were made, those things were delivered.

Mark Coffin: The deal was to vote for the winning party, and you’d get better treatment from that party. Vote for someone else, and you wouldn’t. It was to the party’s benefit to make it obvious so the voters would know you were holding up your end of the bargain. Even when MLA’s didn’t use the term vote-buying, this preferential treatment was understood by the way they described how roadwork happened in their communities. In some cases, they could trace back to their understanding of politics to their earliest engagement with party politics in Nova Scotia.

Louise Cockram:  When did you first start to get involved in politics?

Gordon Balser: I grew up in a family of conservatives traditionally, and it was a time when the party of the day that was in power [had] created employment opportunities for those people who were loyal supporters. So my family saw politics as necessary in terms of road work, construction, those kinds of things. We were politically aware.

Pam Birdsall: Everyone knows that back in the day—and we’re not talking that far back—if a Liberal government came in, all the Tories that worked in transportation were fired the next day. They knew they didn’t have a job, and they would switch. Good heavens, Nova Scotia! I had family in Dartmouth in the ‘30s—they built roads and they were all Liberals, and they ended up being very wealthy.

Mark Coffin: Many of the MLAs we spoke with seem convinced that vote-buying has declined since the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the level of influence individual MLAs have over which roads get paved, particularly the influence held by members of the governing party, isn’t as strong anymore.

But most of the MLAs that said this are ones that have been out of politics for a while. Pam Birdsall’s efforts to get the Christmas tree growers a better road didn’t sound like vote-buying. It sounded like someone working hard for something they cared about. But if an equally caring, equally hard-working member of an opposition couldn’t wield the same level of influence over the road repair in their constituency, is this not just a more dignified version of the favoritism and parochialism that vote-buying is born from?

Vote-buying implies that the primary motive for doing something is to get votes when the time for re-election comes around. Let’s be clear: none of the XMLAs told us that’s why they did any of the things they did as an MLA. That doesn’t mean that the promise of votes from the people their work helped didn’t influence the work they chose to focus on in their constituencies.

So it’s fair to say road politics in Nova Scotia is an issue that’s history is rife with vote-buying, parochialism, and pork-barrel politics. Sometimes roads genuinely do need improvement, and that improvement can have a dramatic impact on people’s lives and the economic opportunities for their communities.

But we also got the impression that it wasn’t always just about need. Not all the requests that came through an MLA’s office were like the Christmas tree-farmers, where they could point to an opportunity that wouldn’t exist without a better road.

Sometimes we got the impression that the requests MLAs got for road repair were more about want than need. Sometimes those two things overlap, but when the two are at odds with one another, the way a voter marks their ballot has a lot more to do with want than need.

The work most MLAs described doing on roads was very specific work. They focused on repairing very specific roads, almost always in their own constituency.

Few, if any MLAs, talked to us about working to ensure the province’s overall approach to road maintenance was sound. Instead they talked about their own constituencies. A proactive, big picture approach like this might see MLAs working for legislation and programs that would see some fairness in how road maintenance was prioritized. But the approach we heard about was reactive.

This road needs gravel,

That pothole needs filling,

This whole road is horrible.

Aren’t other people better positioned to take care of those sorts of complaints?

Doesn’t an MLA have more important things to focus on? Don’t they wield some kind of power bigger than directing a road crew around their riding?

Maurice Smith: I think that role is much overdone. I had a woman called me because she had a blocked toilet.

In rural communities—and I can’t speak to anything other than that—people depend on their MLA for absolutely everything. That’s not why you got elected, you got elected to represent the people in the house, as far as I’m concerned. There’s much too much time spent on things like, “I want my road paved” or “I want my garbage picked up on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.” You’re told that’s what you’re supposed to do, you wanna to keep everybody happy so you can get re-elected.

Gordon Balser: It’s the nature of the beast. The people just do not appreciate the role of an MLA, simply because it’s so nebulous. It goes from, “Where’s my doctor” to “my son’s student loan didn’t come through” to “How come they didn’t chloride my road?” to “How come the fishing season didn’t open at this time?”

You don’t pick up a piece of paper and say, “This is what an MLA does.” He does what has to be done, because as Graham said in his book, once you’re elected a lot of your focus has been on getting re-elected.

Mark Coffin: Roads, doctor recruitment, helping constituents navigate government programs, these are all things that represent a citizen’s direct interaction with government. It’s natural for people who aren’t happy with these services to go to their representatives within the system to go reach the top or what they perceive to be the top.

On the other hand, MLAs are lawmakers. They’re the only people that can move, and approve new legislation. Someone else can, at the end of the day, take your complaint about the bumpy road. But the one thing that MLAs can do that nobody else can is make laws.

The power that political parties wield in the lawmaking processsomething we explored in last week’s episodecan make intervening in road repair an attractive part of an MLA’s job.

This is Graham Steele.

Graham Steele: They do it because they like it. Down at the legislature it’s so hard to see what difference you’re making. You’re just another bum in the chair down at the legislature. You vote the way you’re supposed to vote, you go home. It’s really hard to change policies, and programs are a lot more complicated than you expected.

There’s things that might have been important to you, and you get into politics and people say to you, “No, we’re not doing that, that’s a dumb idea. Forget it, just drop it.” At the legislature it’s hard to put your finger on what difference you’re making. What are you doing that couldn’t be done by somebody else sitting in the same chair? Back at the constituency office, when you’ve fixed somebody’s problem it makes you feel good. You’ve helped somebody, you’ve done a good thing, and that becomes addictive after a while. That becomes the meaning that MLAs find in their jobs.

Mark Coffin: In the last segment of today’s podcast, we talked with two MLAs who tried to pivot the focus away from roads, and onto topics they felt were more important.

Danny Graham, the former Liberal party leader and Halifax MLA describes his experience with proposing some unconventional ideas in his party’s platform in the 2003 election.

Danny Graham: I came forward with a policy that I thought set the foundation for the work we were going to do as a party and as a government and it was called citizen centered democracy. It was about realigning the relationship between citizens and government. I thought the biggest challenge wasn’t people’s mistrust of government, it was government’s mistrust of people. So by creating a fundamentally different alignment between government and citizens we were going to create a new way of being which would lead to better policies and all of these other things.

In the course of making the case for that, I drew some analysis that spoke to what the issues and challenges were for Nova Scotians. I released this in October of 2002 to head scratching and criticism by the parties, and head scratching in some corners of our [own] party, with people asking why am I not talking about paving roads and pocketbook issues that sort of matter to Nova Scotians?

That policy eventually made its way into the red book that was our platform in the 2003 election, but it was on the back pages of where everybody thought it was, because it just wasn’t where Nova Scotians seemed to be, despite what I thought of the importance of it.

Mark Coffin: There’s certainly some debate among scholars, and even amongst MLAs about how much time should be devoted to hyper-local constituency issues, and some would argue that an MLA’s sole and primary job is to look after their constituents.

So, even if that’s how you feel and as an MLA, you are of the mind that you should champion the everyday issues people in your community are facing, does it logically follow that roads should be a priority?

Not for Yvonne Atwell, the former MLA for the district of Preston.

Yvonne Atwell: I don’t think that you can represent a community like the African Nova Scotian community in the collective way, with other areas like Porter’s Lake and Lake Echo that are medium to upper-income levels in terms of economics, [while] the Prestons are [in] a lower economic position.

Mark Coffin: Yvonne was the first (and has so far been the only) female African Nova Scotian to serve as an MLA in the province. The income gap, and opportunity gap between the two communities that were a part of her constituency brought some contrast to the road repair issues that we heard dominated constituency work faced by other MLAs.

Yvonne Atwell: I used to have a hard time with people calling me from those areas and they had potholes in front of their door. In front of the road they’d have a boat or a small plane in their shed around Porter’s Lake. They would have a pothole and they would call you because they want their pothole fixed. Then some people in Preston were looking for a turkey for Christmas dinner. It’s very hard to even try to bring some equality, because both people had an issue that was important to them. You deal with it the best way you know how to deal with it, right?

Mark Coffin: The role of an MLA is an unclear one, with few concrete requirements or expectations. It’s hard to tell if you’re doing it right.

You might thinka job with no requirements sounds like a sweet gig, right? Plenty of time to relax, enjoy work life balance, spend time with your family and friends. But most of the people we talked to had the opposite experience. Not having clear expectations or requirements meant that it was difficult to say no to certain things. Many MLAs described working countless hours on evenings and weekends, in addition to working a full day at their constituency office, with the legislature, and sometimes both.

When you have someone in a leadership position, like an MLA’s job, and there’s few written expectations and responsibilities for them to follow, but the public expectations are huge, you get a recipe for confusion and stress.

And of course, even if you don’t want to attend to the issues that land on your desk as an MLA, or you don’t think they matter, it’s hard to ignore the very obvious fact that behind each of those issues is a voter, and their potential support in the next election is attached to it.

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Off Script podcast. Tune in next week for a special episode of the podcast, and in another two weeks for a standard full episode.

Off Script is produced by Springtide, a registered charity working to make democracy better here in Nova Scotia.

This episode was written by me and Louise Cockram.

If you liked what you heard and plan to keep on listening, consider becoming a donor for as little as $3 per month. You can do that at



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