One of the sessions at the Twenty-Seventh Canadian Regional Seminar of
the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association featured a discussion of the
changing role of Members of Parliament and provincial legislators. The
following extracts from the discussion briefly describes how the work of
a legislator has changed in recent years. Wally Stiles represents Petitcodiac
in the New Brunswick Legislative Assembly; Don Boudria represents Glengarry-Prescott
Russell in the House of Commons; Bob Delaney represents Mississaugua West
in the Ontario Legislative Assembly, Yvonne Jones represents Cartwright-L'Anse
Au Clair in the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly; Lloyd Snelgrove
represents Vermillion-Lloydminster in the Alberta legislative Assembly,
Judy Streatch represents Chester-St. Margaret's in the Nova Scotia House
of Assembly and Alana DeLong represents Calgary-Bow in the Alberta Legislative
Wally Stiles (New Brunswick): I should preface my remarks by noting that
I come from a rural riding and sit on the Government side of the House.
In my opinion rural MLAs are subject to a much broader range of constituent
concerns due to the broad geographic area they represent.
In New Brunswick we recently received a report from the Commission on Legislative
Democracy. One entire section was devoted to enhancing the role of the
MLA. The Commission pointed out that in theory there are three roles
as trustees, as delegates or as party advocates.
In the trustee role the legislator relies on his or her own judgment even
if this conflicts with wishes of own constituents. As a delegate the legislators
reflects the wishes of the constituents even if that conflicts with his
or her own personal views. The political role is to act as advocate and
defender for your political party. At various times we probably perform
all of these roles although we may attach greater or less importance to
each of them.
Representative government goes back several hundred years but much has
changed in our respective provinces since we adopted our present institutions.
Governing is much more complex and the issues are much more far reaching.
Legislation and regulation are more comprehensive, and touch our lives
more than ever.
Society has also become more complex. We have diverse voices and they demand
to be heard. Regional and linguistic issues all require attention. The
media has had a great impact on government and on politics in general.
It plays a large role in deciding how we are perceived and what decisions
New technology like the cellular phone and the internet has given citizens
more power to communicate with each other and with their MLAs forcing governments
and legislators to become more responsive to voices outside the legislature.
Not so long ago a person was elected to be a legislator first and foremost.
Now it seems that local concerns need to be addressed first and the time
spent in the legislature itself is almost secondary, at least in the minds
of many members of the public. We have all had calls from constituents
wanting our help on a wide range of issues from hooking up a satellite
TV system to draining a local swamp to mention just a couple of examples
that have come to my office recently.
Let me conclude with some of the most frequent criticism leveled against
legislators. We are accused of not representing our constituents as much
as the parties. We are accused of playing to the media rather than working
to uncover information that is actually needed. Another frequent criticism
is that legislators are not accountable or that governments have too much
A lot of these criticisms reflect the changing expectations and have led
to a decline in trust in our political leaders and institutions. While
I do not have the answers to all these problems I know a number of legislators
are trying to address what has become known as the democratic deficit and
I look forward to the comments of others on this topic.
Don Boudria (House of Commons): Originally parliamentarians were legislators.
They were elected first and foremost to make laws. They were also representatives
in that they spoke to their constituents and then speak in the House.
Today, however, we are also ombudsman and this is a fairly new role never
envisaged by the Fathers of Confederation or earlier generations of politicians.
To assist us in this role we have, at the federal level, a number of constituency
assistants. This has had some unexpected consequences for the bureaucracy.
The prime example is immigration an area that normally should be looked
after by the bureaucracy. However, the MP has become an appeal office for
those with immigration problems. I am told that in many urban areas 90%
of the casework of my federal colleagues relates to immigration. It leads
me to wonder if the bureaucracy is taking their responsibility less seriously
because the MPs are there to try to fix up problems when they occur.
Let me give you some personal examples of how the interface with constituents
has greatly changed since my entry into politics. In 1981, as a provincial
member, I remember having someone explain a fax machine to me and how it
could be used in a political campaign. During the 1988 election I had a
cell phone, the size of a small suitcase, in my car. In the 1993 campaign
I had a portable, albeit rather weighty, call phone that I carried around.
Today I am wearing both a cell phone and blackberry which are so small
you probably cannot even see them. The result of all this technology is
that our jobs have changed dramatically. We receive messages from constituents
and urgent phone calls at any time of the day or night, even when we are
sitting in the Chamber. We are expected to react immediately and our constituents
are impatient if we do not get back to them.
I was reading a letter recently by one of my predecessors who was the member
in 1910. He said he was going on a constituency tour and he would be back
in a month. Today we can now be found anywhere. I am expected to visit
every part of my constituency and be back in Ottawa for the start of proceedings
the next day.
Another point I would like to make is how difficult it is for our constituents
to know what is federal jurisdiction and what is provincial or municipal
jurisdiction. They cannot be expected to know this and we have to be prepared
to help them make their way through the maze of government departments
and programmes. Paradoxically it seems that through this ombudsman role,
people feel more connected to legislators at the very time they complain
of being alienated from politics.
Bob Delaney (Ontario): I have a few observations on another way our role
as legislators has changed at least in my party. We made some significant
changes in the way we select candidates. This relates to the balance between
candidates who are the choice of the party establishment and those who
are chosen out of what is sometimes called anarchy at the riding association
level. In any event, this new process gave us a number of very capable
members on both the front and backbenches. The Premier therefore, expanded
the number of members who have access to cabinet committees. We now have
a system whereby legislators sit on every single cabinet level committee.
Having several additional pairs of eyes during the prelegislative process
has helped the government and the bureaucracy to avoid mistakes. I know
from personal experience that certain potential problems have been brought
to the government's attention and changes were made before the bills were
introduced into the legislature. It is easier, sometimes, for members who
have not been involved in departmental discussions and decisions to take
a keen and fresh look at legislation.
There have also been changes in the way our caucus is organized. Mondays
are reserved for legislative strategy sessions. Ministries give briefings
on their legislation. The entire cabinet including the Premier is usually
present for these meetings. This allows the ordinary member to have a say
and perhaps even some influence. There have been other changes as well
such as allowing the committee chairs more latitude in pursuing their mandate.
Yvonne Jones (Newfoundland and Labrador): I represent a rural district
in the north far removed from the capital and the expectations from me
are different than for those members living closer to St. John's. They
do not see me as a law maker or a policy maker. They see me as a person
there to help them through every single situation that could possibly arise
in their domestic or business life.
The demands also change depending on the economic situation of my constituents.
When the fisheries is in crisis or when unemployment rises, so too do the
expectations of my constituents. They send me their resumés and they expect
me to get them a job.
Because I live in a remote region we do not have a lot of government offices
in my riding. So constituents depend on me to act as liaison for them with
the government be it provincial or federal. For example, I not only check
on their housing applications I end up doing the applications for my constituents.
I do everything from finding medical services to dealing with problems
of the fisheries. As more services are centralized in urban areas the more
demands we will face as rural members.
Lloyd Snelgrove (Alberta): I am sure everyone of us has had days when
we wonder what in the world were we thinking when we went into politics.
However, ultimately it is about making a difference in peoples' lives and
I know we have all been stopped on the street and thanked for helping one
of our constituents.
I have found a great change in the five years I have been a member. My
predecessor was a minister and he was often called upon to cut services
so people tended to not go and see him. When I started as a newly elected
member I was surprised to see that constituents were not lined up to see
me. But slowly it started to change. My office became known for its ability
to either solve problems or at least, put people in touch with those who
I receive about 3,500 phone calls a year to my office. I originally hired
someone to work part time from 9 to 3 but she now puts in over 60 hours
a week. We always ask people what they expect from our office and often,
in fact about 50 per cent of the time, people want to see me to express
their views on a particular subject. They want me as their elected member
to be aware of their concerns of the important issues of the day.
People need to be connected to the right government department. You cannot
tell people that is not your jurisdiction. You have to try to connect people
with the right office regardless of the jurisdiction.
Judy Streatch (Nova Scotia): I would not presume to put my three months
of legislative experience against the thirty plus years of some members
but I do have a rather unique perspective on this matter of helping constituents
deal with problems from other jurisdictions. My partner is actually a member
of the House of Commons. So whatever the question, one or the other of
us should be able to come up with an answer. In fact we share a constituency
office and staff and are able to bring together the resources of both levels
of government. As you can imagine having two politicians in the family
makes for a very hectic schedule but I think it has worked well so far
for our constituents. Of course, I am not suggesting this arrangement for
Alana DeLong (Alberta): I just want to make one comment on the need for
training for members. I have noticed as a new MLA the lack of information
we are provided. I come from the Information Technology sector and people
are expected to get several weeks of training per year to keep up with
their industry. We have MLAs coming into a totally new job and some like
me have never been in politics before. Yet in terms of training to become
a representative you are left on your own. We need to think more about
the kind of training that members need in terms of making speeches and
in terms of how-to handle staff and in general how-to be better representatives