At the time this article was written George
Moody was member of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly. This is a revised
version of an address delivered to the 8th Canadian Regional Seminar held in
Ottawa in November 1982.
The role that government plays in the
day-to-day lives of people has changed dramatically in the last forty years.
This has brought about great changes in the expectations the electorate has of
government. Today, there are few areas into which the long hand of government
does not extend. Forty years ago, the entire Nova Scotia provincial budget was
less than seven million dollars; today the estimates for most single
departments are more than that. With this expansion of the government's role in
the ordinary citizen's life has come a change in the role of politicians.
Sometimes one wonders whether the individual
backbencher has any real role to play within the present system. I suppose if
one were sitting in opposition, the advantages of being on the government
backbench would seem quite evident. In the same way, the government backbencher
may look with envy toward cabinet ministers and all those politicians who make
up what the media are so fond of calling the 1nner circle".
For those who are not on the inside, it is
difficult to see and understand the great gulf between appearance and reality
in government. To the outsider it appears that, if you sit in government, then
you have a hand in every decision that the government makes. Such is not the
case. One of the most difficult tasks of the individual member is coming to
terms with this great divergence between the ideal and the fact. The day a
member first sits on the government backbench, a certain awareness must hit
him: his essential day-to-day business is not decision-making, but representation.
A member is elected to office because the
majority of voters believes that he will best represent their needs in the
government decision-making process. Politicians must be constantly cognisant
that, in Canada, our governmental system is representational. One of the most
positive roles government backbenchers play, on an individual basis, is that of
The backbench MLA on the government side of
the House finds himself in a more delicate, but perhaps more potent,
representational role than a member of the opposition. The government
backbencher, like the opposition member, can function as a critic; but for
obvious reasons, he usually carries out his responsibilities in a less public
manner. Government backbenchers generally have access on a confidential basis
to decision makers within the senior bureaucracy. They may attempt, in private,
to influence the Premier, ministers or public servants on matters of policy and
day-to-day administration. Obviously in this situation, the ability of the backbencher
to succeed depends to a great extent on how well he is able to articulate his
position and how well he is able to use the system to his advantage.
Backbenchers do not have to deal with the
nitty gritty aspects of running a specific government department. They are
likely to be in their ridings more often than are cabinet ministers.
Consequently, though not altogether deliberately, they become the eyes and ears
of government. They hear at first hand the electorate expressing its concerns
and reacting to government activities. These concerns and reactions they bring
to the attention of the premier and ministers, either on a one-to-one basis or
Representation, both direct and indirect, is
thus one positive role the government backbencher can play in the formulation
of policies and programs. For a backbencher to be effective, it is incumbent
upon him to learn how the system works. There are elected officials, in office
for many years, who still do not use the "system" as effectively as
they could, because they have never taken the time to understand it.
I have referred to what I feel is the
positive role the government backbencher plays on an individual basis. Let us
for a moment explore that same role when applied collectively. There is a
trend, both in Ottawa and in the provinces, to expand the use of legislative
committees in an effort to involve and draw upon the talents of backbenchers.
The committee system, when used properly, can be of service both to
backbenchers and to the government.
I will concentrate on special and advisory
committees rather than on standing committees of the House. There are obvious
differences between them; and the opportunities they offer backbenchers differ
measurably. Committees offer members the potential for tangible rewards for
effort expended. I can illustrate this thesis from two situations in which I
felt, as a government backbencher, that I had some positive influence on both
government policy and program formulation.
While sitting on an advisory committee
reviewing regulations associated with the Workmen's Compensation Act, I became
aware of and involved in an area that hitherto had been of only peripheral
interest to me. To make a very long story short, the committee came back to the
government with a list of recommendations for changes in how regulations are
made under the Act, and with a small change in focus towards workmen's
compensation policies. It is very satisfying to have one's ideas and suggestions
translated from paper to legislation, and to have one's views adopted as
Recently, I had the honour to sit on a
special committee studying the role volunteer firemen play in our communities.
Even before the final report was submitted, some changes were implemented at
the request of the firemen. The changes in themselves were not of major
importance. These small victories or accomplishments are, however, the
day-to-day business of the elected representative. In actual practice, few major
decisions or major changes in government policy and direction are ever made.
The little gains are sometimes considered the most important. Effective use of
the committee system is one real way the backbencher can make a positive
contribution in shaping government policy.
A government is only as strong as its
backbench. It is from this backbench that the government must draw its
ministers and it is upon this backbench that the government must depend to pass
its legislation. One often hears of caucus complaints about ministerial
isolation from caucus. There are always problems to contend with, but both the
executive and the backbencher should realize that they depend on each other.
Aside from being the constant link between
the ballot box and the corridors of power, backbenchers constitute a reservoir
of underused talent. This reservoir is being tapped more and more, with
positive results in the formulation of policy and programs. The backbencher
will always meet with frustration and disappointment. There are as well,
however, legitimate rewards. The equilibrium between the two is fragile: such
is the nature of the system. Through representation, through committee work,
and caucus, the backbencher has a variety of ways to contribute positively to
the formulation of government policy and programs. As the rules of the game
change, the future will no doubt offer still more opportunities.