What is the job of an MLA?

Published on February 28, 2015

Today is the day the Tory bears have their picnic . . . and chose a new leader.

More than 2,000 Conservatives have already cast their ballots at the two advance polls. It will be interesting to see how many people will come to the convention. The forecast is promising a nice, not too cold, sunny day. Will people go skiing, snowmobiling or politicking?

The Conservatives don’t appear to be too awed by the Wade juggernaut. They sense there’s change in the air. The party seems to have renewed itself, and generally Conservatives appear quietly confident about their chances in the next election. However with the convention being televised, they need to pack the Field House at UPEI as a demonstration of their optimism.

There will be a spring election, likely on April 20 or 27. The Liberals have nominated candidates in more than half the ridings and the Conservatives aren’t far behind. The NDP and the Green Party are also getting their ducks in order.

We will soon be asked to chose a new government. Many of us will decide who we select as our MLA based on our views of their leader, without much consideration of the individual we actually mark the ballot for. Or, if you’re a traditional party stalwart you’ll vote without a thought for the leader or the MLA. Because you’ve always voted that way.

But, those old traditional voting patterns are breaking down, they are not nearly as prevalent as they once were. There are more and more swing voters, people with no party allegiance. They vote for the party they think will do the best job . . . or to punish the gang that’s already there.

Then there are the people who just don’t bother to vote. They hold the view it doesn’t matter who is in power. Politicians do little more than look after themselves and their friends. Even among those who vote, there are some who feel the same way. They vote, but they don’t expect much.

And, in an oblique sort of way, we are all responsible for this attitude. We never demand our politicians to do their jobs properly. Partly because of indifference, and mostly because we have no idea what the job of a Member of the Legislative Assembly entails, and this includes most MLAs themselves. Once elected, if they don’t get named to the cabinet, they make it up as they go along.

At a recent public meeting when two MLAs were asked to define their jobs, both essentially said the same thing. They primarily see themselves as ombudsmen, people who help their constituents deal with the complexities of modern government.

If that is the main function of an MLA, it would likely be more efficient, and certainly fairer to create a non-partisan ombudsman to intercede with government.

There are others who say an MLA’s job is to get stuff for the riding; schools, parks, paving, employment. Tangible stuff that you can see and feel.

Neither of the MLAs at that meeting talked about the work of the legislature itself. About what role they played in making laws, or amending legislation, or holding the executive branch accountable. The airy-fairy intangibles that were, in the beginning, the very reason the legislative assembly was created.

The executive branch is the cabinet. It was once the duty of every MLA, including government members, not in the cabinet, to hold the executive accountable. To demand the cabinet explain and account for its actions, is in theory, if not in practice, is still one of the main functions of all MLAs, including those of the governing party. By not doing this, their jobs seem irrelevant. The public is also at fault because we demand so little of them. Other than, where’s the lolly?

An example: The controversial immigrant nominee program. Cabinet insisted it was all above board, and it may have been. But, every time opposition MLAs wanted to question the bureaucrats administering the program, the cabinet said no. And the Liberal backbenchers who form the majority on the legislative committees also said no. They wouldn’t hold the executive branch accountable for its actions. The result is, that as fine as the nominee program might have been, there is a stench around it that won’t go away. The cabinet looks like they were covering something up, and they were aided and abetted by a legislature that didn’t do its job.

Conscientious MLAs wouldn’t have allowed this. However, it’s oft been said, we get the government we deserve.

Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: acholman@pei.eastlink.ca