North·FEATURE

A hiring guide for voters in the upcoming N.W.T. territorial election

From meetings, to criticism, to more meetings - a look at what it takes to be an MLA in the Northwest Territories legislative assembly.

'You can sit back and sort of coast along...or it can be an 18-hour-a-day job,' says former premier

From meetings, to criticism, to more meetings - what does it take to be an MLA in the Northwest Territories legislative assembly? (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)

HELP WANTED: Politicians — term positions available for 19 people, starting Nov. 24. Salary ranges from $101,815 to $177,438 annually. Great benefits. Four-year term. Some travel required. Comes with support staff, office with lake view and pension (if hired for a second term). Previous political experience not necessary. Ability to participate in numerous meetings an asset. Flexible hours.

If Northwest Territories MLAs were hired the same way most jobs are filled that's what the help wanted ad might look like.

There are, of course, no help wanted ads for elected officials, but it's one of the few jobs that you get by doing something almost completely different from the job itself.

Election campaigns are typically the only time politicians knock on their constituents' doors, ask voters for their support, put up signs, hand out pamphlets, pore over checklists of voters and arrange rides for them.

The ones who win by doing all of that, spend much of their time in meetings, reading to prepare for meetings, poring over reports on meetings, and writing speeches for meetings.

Between elections, when they feel a need to hear what their constituents have to say, they don't knock on doors. They arrange a meeting.

So, how hard is the job?

"It's as hard as you want it to be," says former Premier Joe Handley.

"Once you're elected you can sit back and sort of coast along and enjoy the lunches in the back room and really not take anything seriously, not do a lot of work, or it can be an 18-hour-a-day job," he says.

'It's as hard as you want it to be," says former Premier Joe Handley, on the job of an MLA. (CBC)

Handley counts self-discipline as one of the things voters should look at carefully when considering who to vote for.

"There's nobody telling you when you go home at night that you have to read that stack of discussion papers or reports. It's easy to sit and watch a hockey game. But you have to discipline yourself, say 'Shut the TV off' or 'We're not going out tonight, I've got to do this work.'"

Wendy Bisaro agrees.

"It's a difficult job if you take it seriously because there's a huge amount of information to process," says the outgoing Frame Lake MLA.

She says humility is an important attribute for elected officials.

"Power corrupts, so people can quite easily lose touch with what's going on on the ground," Bisaro says.

"I was really lucky during my time over there that I had friends who reminded me quite regularly if my nose was getting a bit too high in the air, they'd make some comment that would bring me back down to earth."

The bigger picture

During election campaigns, the focus is almost entirely on the constituency. Bisaro and Handley say that MLAs must also be able to take a broader view of the impact their decisions will have outside their constituency.

'It's a difficult job if you take it seriously because there's a huge amount of information to process,' says Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro.
"In general, the MLAs that I've encountered, particularly in the 17th (assembly), focused way too much on their own riding and didn't think about the big picture," says Bisaro.

Handley puts it more bluntly.

"If you don't take that broader view, then you're very limited in the legislative assembly," he says.

"You come across as that whiny voice over there that's always talking about his own little corner of the territory."

Thick skin

Handley says MLAs also need to be good listeners and have a thick skin. One prerequisite for the job is the capacity to absorb criticism without taking it personally, even when it is personal.

He estimates that about half of the criticism MLAs level at one another is based on government policies. The other half is more Machiavellian, coming from a hidden agenda, such as getting a seat on cabinet.

The criticism is amplified by the media coverage. Handley says he was fully aware of the sacrifice he was making in terms of privacy when he ran for public office. He was not as aware of the effect that sacrifice was going to have on his family.

"Spouses, families feel very vulnerable because they can't do anything about it," says Handley. "It'll affect your children who suddenly at school will have other kids commenting on what was said about your dad or your mother in the media."

Candidates who have doubts about their ability to make the sacrifices required to do a good job have until 5 p.m. today to withdraw their nomination.

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