Graham Steele: What does an MLA do all summer?

Did you ever wonder what your MLA does all summer? Frankly, there’s no way to know.
When the House isn’t sitting — in other words, most of the time — the job is whatever the MLA makes of it, says Graham Steele. (CBC)

Did you ever wonder what your MLA does all summer?

Frankly, there’s no way to know.

Being an MLA is a strange job. An MLA is neither employed nor self-employed. MLAs fit in a tiny third category, along with judges and a handful of others, known as "public office holders."

The usual workplace disciplines don't apply.

If you're an employee, discipline comes from the fact that the boss is watching. If you don't show up for work as a teacher, or a nurse, or behind the retail counter, the boss notices fast and consequences follow.

If you're self-employed, the formula is simple: no work, no income.

Not so for an MLA.  

No matter what an MLA does, or doesn’t do, the paycheques keep rolling in — and despite their grumbling, our MLAs are well paid for what they do.

MLAs sat for 7 out of 52 weeks

The one thing that only an MLA can do is sit in the House of Assembly, passing laws and examining budgets — that's the core of the job. Nobody else is allowed in the chamber. Nobody else can speak. Nobody else can vote.

And yet our legislature meets so little. Under the new Liberal government, the House met for two weeks last fall and another five weeks this spring. So when the House reconvenes for its next sitting, probably around the end of October, the MLAs will have been in session for a grand total of seven weeks out of 52. That should concern us all.

When the House isn't sitting — in other words, most of the time — the job is whatever the MLA makes of it. There's no job description, and nobody's watching. Human nature being what it is, some MLAs respond to this lack of structure with imagination, perspiration and inspiration.

Others, not so much.

An MLA also has no fixed vacation entitlement, so the MLA can be away as much or as little as they choose. No vacation? Two weeks? Eight weeks? It's up to them. If they don't turn up to the office, nobody's keeping score.

And then there are the trips. Holy travel points, Batman, but our politicians love going on taxpayer-funded trips.  

There is no official record of MLA travel, which is convenient for the MLAs, because I think regular folks would be shocked if they saw how many trips our MLAs go on.

A true 'boondoggle' to rein in

Some trips are useful, but most aren't, certainly not in proportion to the cost and time. If the premier is looking for a true boondoggle to rein in, he might shift his gaze from Lunenburg harbour to the Halifax airport departure lounge.

Let's be fair, though, when the legislature's not sitting and they're not travelling, our MLAs keep busy doing two key tasks, whether it's summer or winter. 

The first task is "casework," which is trying to solve problems that individual constituents are having with the government.

Casework takes up most of an MLA's time.  

When I was an MLA, the casework didn't let up over the summer. This is useful work, although it's not what we're thinking of when we're in the voting booth. There are good casework MLAs, and bad ones, in every party.

The second task is to get around the constituency and talk to people. The MLAs show up here, there, and everywhere, they show interest and concern, they murmur pleasing words, and they move on.

The county fair, the church supper, the parade, the festival, the market: whatever's going on, the MLA is there. 

MLAs consider this to be the bread-and-butter of their jobs.

The tasks that keep our MLAs busy over the summer — casework and the social circuit — are not what we elect MLAs for, but it's what the job of an MLA has become. Lawmaking and budget-making, which is what we really elect them for, are minuscule pieces of an MLA’s life.

So if you see your MLA around the constituency this summer, chances are it will be in a social setting. Stop and say hello, and tell them what's on your mind. 

And if you don't see your MLA this summer, where is she or he? You'll never know and nobody's telling.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.