David Olmstead represents
Mactaquac in the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly. A lawyer by training he
was first elected to the legislature in 1995. This is a revised version of a
presentation to the 17th CPA Regional Seminar held in Edmonton in
Members of the Legislative
Assembly have to be lawmakers, public speakers, ombudsmen, researches,
counsellors and friends to thousands of constituents. They have a tough,
sometimes thankless job, but there are many rewards for those who choose this
path. This article looks at the many facets of legislative life and makes
a number of suggestions for change, particularly in the way party caucus are
Every parliamentarian is an
observer, an interrogator, a speaker, and a voting member of a party, unless he
or she sits as an independent. We must be able to communicate, debate and
stand up for what we believe. We pass important legislation, but once we
put our support behind an issue, we must also be prepared to explain to the
voting public why we took that stand.
We are also called upon to serve
on various legislative committees and to be a part of public hearings.
Government Members are sometimes asked to stand in for a cabinet minister
who is unable to make an event, and MLAs on the government side are encouraged
to get involved in government departments. We can help set the political
agenda and guide the government to important policy decisions.
Unless sitting as an
independent, each MLA belong to a party caucus where all of the members of the
party gather to discuss current issues. Caucus is a forum to help us find
out which direction the party is taking, and if your party is lucky enough to
be in power, what plans the government has for the people of the province.
We must keep up with what is going on at home, across the province,
across the country, and around the world. Any of these issues could come
home to roost, so research skills are important.
We must also be good negotiators
for we deal with individuals, organizations, local governments, and
public-interest groups. We must be willing to listen to the concerns of
others and be tough enough to say no when necessary. Diplomatic skills
are a real asset in this job. We must also be conciliators. We need
a good knowledge of political process and structure to be able to help others
make their way through the many different levels of bureaucracy. We must
be attentive to the problems of others and be willing to roll up our sleeves and
help. Success here can be one of an elected member’s greatest rewards,
both personally and professionally.
Above all, we must be great
organizers able to convince an army of volunteers to work many long hours just
to support our bid for office. Once elected, we must keep that support
and stay focused on activities in the riding. That means attending many
local functions, party meetings, and setting up a solid organization to keep a
high profile in the community. Behind every good MLA there is an excellent
grassroots organization. Cultivating that support is one of our most important
This is definitely not a 9-to-5 job. When the
Legislature sits there are many long hours of debate and lots of work has to be
done once the sitting day is over.
When the House adjourns, we must
be visible in the riding and attend many local functions. Constituents
want their MLAs to be accessible, so it is not unusual to receive calls at odd
hours. In today’s technologically advanced world, we are easily reached
thanks to cell phones, computers, and fax machines. Even MLAs who live in
rural areas are easily tracked down.
Members set their own agenda and
figure out how many projects they want to take on. We can work extremely long
hours or skip events for some downtime, but we will be held accountable for our
actions. The public is the boss, and they will judge our performance
every four years or so in the voting booth. They will decide who keeps the
job and who does not. Unfortunately, even MLAs who give 110 percent are
at the mercy of the public and can be voted out in an instant if people are not
happy with the direction the party is taking.
We perform a juggling act every
single day. We must balance the needs of many with the tough decisions
made necessary by political reality. We must walk a fine line between
compassion and firmness. We must stand up and be counted and be willing
to open ourselves up to public criticism and be judged for our actions.
This all sounds very daunting,
but there are a lot of rewards. We can change lives as a result of
decisions made by government. We can help provide jobs for those who so
desperately need them, make health care accessible for the ill, help shape a
child’s life through education, and give a struggling family some relief when
they need a helping hand.
When I was first elected to the
legislature, one of the things that disappointed me was the way our own caucus
worked. I had come through a system on the school board where we had
tried to adopt so-called governance models where school boards actually talked
about educational issues as opposed to hiring bus drivers and deciding what
kind of tires to put on the buses. We learned that it was a lot of fun to
discuss substantive issues. So when I moved to the Liberal caucus in New
Brunswick, I assumed this would be where the action really was. I was
crushed to find out how difficult it was to discuss substantive issues in our
So when we had our leadership
convention, Camille Thériault courted me and one of the things I told him was
how disappointed I was with the caucus performance and how I would like to see
something done about it. He said that that was one of his intentions. I
did not support him, but he won, and put me on a committee to propose reforms
for our caucus. Over the summer, we came up with some ideas that I hope
will make the experience of backbenchers much more satisfying.
One proposal is to have more
frequent and regular meetings. As an objective, we proposed meetings
twice a month on a fixed day so we could just block it off on our calendars.
In the past, meetings have not been regular. When they were held,
we tended to get terribly overloaded agendas and not much time to discuss any
issue in detail.
To help make discussions more
efficient, we decided to recognize that there are three kinds of issues that
tend to come up in caucus. We have policy issues, provincial issues, and
local issues. A lot of caucus meetings were taken up with individual MLAs
fighting it out with the minister on something that was pretty local.
Sometimes a local issue has a provincial aspect and you can talk about it
in the main caucus, but generally local issues should not be taken to caucus.
If a member wants to raise an
issue, he or she is encouraged to circulate some sort of a position paper to
the rest of the caucus, so they can come into the meeting prepared for what
that person wants to say and to have thought about it, so discussion will be
We also want ministers to
provide policy backgrounders if they are going to bring policy discussions to
caucus. Backgrounders would be provided a week in advance. Typically, a
minister comes in with a policy that has probably been generated from the civil
service. They know a lot more about it than any of the MLAs do, so we
tend not to get much of a discussion. So we are encouraging the ministers
to give us information before they ever come to us.
Thirdly, we want the ministers,
at least twice yearly, to come in and tell us what their departments are about.
What issues are they dealing with? What directions do they want to
take? Often as MLAs, we first hear about decisions on the
street, which is really embarrassing. We have also, with regard to
cabinet committees, decided that there should be three MLAs on each of the two
Cabinet committees - Policy and Priorities, and Board of Management - to give
the backbench government members a closer tie to what is going on at the
We started a system of
legislative assistants but some departments appointed a legislative assistant
without a defined mandate. This has not worked very well for a number of
reasons. The legislative assistant needs to have a meaningful role with
clear responsibilities clearly understood by ministers and senior bureaucracy.
The legislative assistant cannot be expected to be a second minister,
fully acquainted with all the department’s files, able to step into the
minister’s role at any moment. Beyond the difficulty of being as fully
briefed as the minister, the legislative assistant is a different individual
and may provide a different public response than the minister, with a resulting
perception of confusion.
There are, however, useful
services that the legislative assistant can perform. He or she can assist
in meeting with special-interest groups on behalf of the minister to receive
their concerns and advise the minister accordingly. A particular and
valuable role would be handling of new departmental initiatives in policy and
legislation. The legislative assistant could work with senior bureaucrats
on developing the initiative, attending all the briefings on the subject.
The legislative assistant could chair a caucus committee to examine the
initiative and report on caucus feedback to the minister. Then the legislative
assistant could join the minister to present the initiative to the cabinet
committee, and at a later date, to caucus.
Another role is as government
members’ liaison with the department. In that capacity the legislative
assistant could also chair a caucus committee in the field of the department.
For example, a caucus committee on education would be chaired by the
legislative assistant assigned to education. Legislative assistants can
be chosen by the Premier to provide a gender, linguistic, or regional balance
in a ministerial appointment. For example, a Francophone minister could be
assisted by an Anglophone legislative assistant and vice versa.
The legislative assistant should
be reasonably compensated out of the departmental budget. For example,
the legislative assistant could be provided with the same remuneration provided
during sittings of the House for travel, accommodation, and meals, at the same
rate as the Legislature, but paid from the departmental budget up to an annual
prescribed limit. Obviously, the legislative assistant would not be
compensated while the Legislature is sitting.
Despite some negative aspects, a political career is one of
the most rewarding and satisfying experiences a person can ever have, and that
is a pretty good reason to get involved.
I have been legislative
assistant in a couple of departments, and it really is tough. The problem
for the Member is to use constructively and penetrate the department. The
Minister is key to giving the legislative assistant a useful role. I found that
the project system seemed to work. In the Department of Natural Resources
and Energy, I was given a project to upgrade the hunting and fishing guide
system. That seemed to work quite well. It is a nice notion to have
a legislative assistant, but it clearly needs some structure to work.
I mentioned departmental
committees. These are generally ad hoc, convened to deal with
particular initiatives or issues. We have found, particularly in
education, that the role of the legislative assistant is a good way for MLAs’
concerns to get to the minister.
Those are our proposals to
reform the caucus, but we have also done one other thing to improve the lot of
our legislators. Our constituency allowance has gone up from $6,000 to
about $15,000. That has enabled me to have a full-time person answering
my phone and dealing with a number of problems I would not otherwise have time
to deal with. My assistant works in a consulting business and I am just one
more dedicated line in their office. The phone is answered: “David
Olmstead’s constituency office”. He is very interested in politics, and
gives me a full day’s coverage in the office. There is a human being
answering the phone all the time. This is a huge improvement over the way
I was doing it before, because when I came back home after a day meeting with
constituents, the phone was backed up with calls. Often I could never
catch up. I remember that one of my colleagues, when we first got
elected, said that she considered we had been given a really tough job without
the resources to deal with it. I think that is true. It is a lot
better now; although we still, obviously, do not have the same level of help
that a minister has.
The role of the private member
varies throughout the Commonwealth. However, we all do have a common
objective: to serve our constituents to the best of our ability. I believe
caucus reforms can help us very much in this aim.