Nova Scotia·Opinion

Allan Rowe gone far too soon

The death of a sitting MLA hits their legislative colleagues hard. I know, because I’ve experienced it three times.

'I am struck by the positive tone and spirit that Allan brought to the House'

Dartmouth South MLA Allan Rowe and his wife Yvonne during an anniversary dinner in 2014. (Facebook)

The death of a sitting MLA hits their legislative colleagues hard. I know, because I’ve experienced it three times.

Our political culture encourages an unhealthy amount of pettiness, play-acting, and mud-slinging. The spiritual emptiness of politics is most obvious in the legislature, where it's mostly stylized theatre, but it carries over into other parts of an MLA’s work too. It’s just the way things are done.

And then someone dies, or becomes very ill. It’s a shocking reminder for MLAs of their mortality, and of the shallowness of whatever might be that day’s political hot potato.

It’s particularly shocking when a member is stricken on the floor of the House, in the midst of proceedings, as happened in the House of Commons in 1998 with popular Liberal MP Shaughnessy Cohen, or in our own legislature with John Holm and Paul MacEwan. Holm and MacEwan recovered from their aneurysms. Sadly, Cohen died shortly after being stricken.

This week, Dartmouth South MLA Allan Rowe died. He suffered an aneurysm at home a few weeks ago, apparently after shovelling an earlier round of this awful snow. He passed away early Monday.

Allan’s death was doubly shocking, both because of its suddenness, and because he was only 58 years old.

The death of a sitting MLA is rare enough, though certainly not unknown. Since Confederation, it has happened 46 times.

I have known the last three MLAs to die in office—Michael Baker (PC, Lunenburg) in 2009, John Chataway (PC, Chester–St. Margaret’s) in 2004, and Eileen O’Connell (NDP, Halifax Fairview) in 2000.  

I worked with Eileen as a caucus staff person from 1998 until her death, and was first elected in the by-election held to fill the vacancy. Michael and John were my colleagues in the legislature from the time I was elected until their respective passings.

All of this experience tells me that Allan’s passing with create a sombre mood when the House of Assembly reconvenes next week. For a brief time—too brief—there will be a gravity to the proceedings, because our MLAs will have been sharply reminded of what really matters.

Allan Rowe stood a chance to make a difference. He was an MLA for only 17 months, though, and the political culture is too deep and destructive to be affected by a single individual, certainly over such a short period. We will never know what more he might have accomplished.

The CBC’s legislative reporter Jean Laroche compiled a long list of social media  reactions to Allan’s death. The heartfelt tributes spoke of a  kind, decent, respected person. Many similar tributes were paid from across the  political spectrum and from around the province, and to them I add my own.

'Positive tone'

With the help of the marvellous Open House technology I’ve taken a look at everything Allan said in the House of Assembly since he first took  his seat in November 2013.  

It’s not a lot, both because of his short tenure, and because government backbenchers aren’t given much latitude to speak. 

But there’s enough for me to say this: I am struck by the positive tone and spirit that Allan brought to the House. There’s the very occasional partisan jab, but they are gentle by political standards and said, I’m sure, with a twinkle. And it was all said in that lovely, deep voice honed during 30 years in broadcast journalism—the voice that we will not hear again.

With the help of Open House, let me give the last word to Allan. On April 10, 2014, he reflected on the sudden passing of former federal finance minister, Jim Flaherty, and said:

“…it gave me an opportunity to reflect on all of our lives here and the fact that we are here to spend some time on this Earth and perhaps do the best we can to try and achieve what we think is the right thing to achieve, to do the best we can for ourselves and for the people around us. 

"In the case of all of us in this House, it's for all of our constituents; it's for the people of Nova Scotia.”

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.