Nova Scotia·Opinion

Want to influence the government? Many lobbyists don't know how, says Graham Steele

The Bill 59 Community Alliance is doing everything right to get what it wants from the provincial government.

Grass-roots organizations can learn from the work of the Bill 59 Community Alliance

Gerry Post (foreground) waits for his chance to testify at the law amendments committee on Bill 59. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Many people would like to influence government decision-making, but don't know how.

Last week the legislature saw a remarkable example of effective citizen action.

The Bill 59 Community Alliance made one of the best presentations to the legislature's law amendments committee I've ever seen — and I've seen many hundreds.

And that's only the public portion of its lobby efforts. The alliance has been working behind the scenes for months, and that unglamorous background work continues.

The group hasn't yet achieved what it wants, but it's doing everything right.

The power of numbers

Over the 20 years I've been following Nova Scotia politics, I've seen a lot of activists try to get something done. Most fail; only a few succeed. What accounts for the difference?

Successful citizen organizations exhibit three key features.

First, and most important, they bring the power of numbers.

Successful activists do the hard but necessary work of building grass-roots support.

This is fundamental. Politicians are motivated by their desire to be re-elected. There are other influences — like the desire to "do the right thing" or leave a legacy — but re-election is consistently at the top of their to-do list.

If you want to talk to a politician in a language they understand, talk to them about how many people will stake their vote on your issue.

That is easy to say, and very hard to do. That's why most citizen groups don't succeed. They make claims about numbers that they can't back up.

Politicians know. I assure you: they know.

Expertise and communication

The second key feature of successful citizen groups is expertise.

It's not enough to be passionate about a policy issue. Passion is not what fuels legislation.

Successful citizen groups bring more technical expertise to the issue than the politicians and their civil service policy advisers. They either have it internally, or they go out and get it.

They also know how to communicate that expertise effectively.

The decision-makers realize they have to rely on the citizen group to get it right.

Clear objectives

The third element of effective citizen action is having clear objectives.

When I was in politics, I was surprised at how unfocused citizen lobby groups could be. If you're fuzzy about what you want, fuzzy is what you'll get.

Successful citizen group have clear objectives and are firm, persistent and non-partisan in going after them.

Model of clarity

Now back to Bill 59 and the community alliance.

The alliance has been working from the moment the McNeil government hit the pause button on Bill 59 last November.

This is a disparate group with different interests but it knew it needed to forge a consensus if it was going to bring the power of numbers. So it did.

When the four alliance spokespersons appeared before the Law Amendments Committee last Thursday, they carried the endorsement of 35 organizations serving Nova Scotians with disabilities.

That's remarkable. That's the power of numbers.

To their own knowledge and experience, they added expertise from several professors at Dalhousie's law school. They were able to speak knowledgeably about accessibility law, both nationally and internationally.

And yet this expertise is worn lightly. The package presented to lawmakers included a statement of principles, a colour-coded annotation showing where changes needed to be made and a proposed preamble setting out the purpose of the new law.

Everything is a model of clarity. It was easy for the MLAs on the committee to see exactly what they need to do.

Powerful player

The Bill 59 Community Alliance is only a few months old, and has already become a powerful player in any discussion around the future of the Accessibility Act.

It is now difficult to imagine Bill 59 moving forward without the alliance's blessing.

That didn't happen by accident. It takes work. The alliance brought expertise and clear objectives, and above all, it invested the time it took to bring the power of numbers.

After the public hearings, Bill 59 has disappeared again into the back rooms of government for a rewrite.

It will emerge at some point in the spring sitting of the legislature, and only then will the Bill 59 Community Alliance know how effective it has been.

In the meantime, other activist organizations could take note: this is how it's done.


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.