Once the cheers subside, and volunteers and supporters go home, the enormity of the task sets in. The morning after, the victor will continue fielding calls, and if she or he is active on social media, it will take weeks to get through the congratulatory messages. There will be the odd note of derision as well, but that comes with the territory.
Several weeks usually elapse between the election and when MLAs are sworn in. This is a time for reflection, and prompt organization. It can seem daunting, and as if one is on an island in his or her constituency. If a new member is part of a recognized party, contact from the party HQ and caucus staff will happen within days of winning.
Legislative Assembly staff, those who are impartial and do not work for the government or the political parties, will make contact to discuss helping the MLA establish an office, and to discuss personal human resource matters.
Provincial MLAs receive a jarring reminder that budgets are slender. During this writer’s brief stint in office, the annual budget was $40,000. Many criticize this amount (and would lament any number above zero) but that cash must pay for staff, rent, heat, lights, phone, internet and supplies, including furniture. Frugality is the key. Fortunately, Assembly personnel are helpful professionals who calmly guide MLAs through the budgetary realities and offer advice. They are an invaluable resource who work in the shadows, and never get the credit they deserve.
New MLAs will receive many calls and notes from individuals seeking to join the office staff. When such callers are active supporters, it is especially hard to not give a positive answer. But the reality is the new member must be comfortable with his or her new hire. A symbiotic relationship is a must. This person will know your files, and confidential information about government decisions and constituency matters relating to individuals, non-profits and businesses. Trust is obviously necessary.
This statement will undoubtedly draw ire, but I believe one’s constituency staff ought to carry the same political affiliation of the Member. It is pivotal for the proper functioning of an MLA, who operates in a political environment. It is perfectly legitimate to require philosophical compatibility in various workplaces, and public office should be no different.
Hiring well and establishing an office quickly are vital since the demands of the job are realized almost immediately. The case work starts. A typical constituency day can involve everything from disability claims, to reviewing business proposals, and lobbying from municipal governments. There is an expectation of immediate assistance, which is not unwarranted: Every member runs on a commitment to community service and responsiveness. From words to action.
MLAs and cabinet ministers in New Brunswick are typically sworn in on the same day, though this is not always the case. There are two distinct processes. Prior to the swearing-in, new and returning MLAs, on the government side, will wait anxiously by the phone, in hopes that the Premier will call offering a cabinet role. Very few admit this, but everyone does it. Any call that is not the Premier’s Office is frustrating, since no one wishes to miss the call from the leader. When such a call does not come in, members are resigned to their fate, and often turn their hopes to legislative committee roles or other parliamentary roles such as deputy speaker, whip or caucus chair.
Nothing is quite as exhilarating and frightening as delivering one’s maiden speech in the Legislative Assembly. To be surrounded by peers, many of whom have served for multiple terms. Moreover, being on film and in full view of the press gallery makes it doubly daunting.
But once the jitters subside, there is no greater feeling than representing one’s region in the Legislative Assembly. It is a reminder that the seat may be occupied by one, but it is a symbol of everyone the MLA represents.
The Greek playwright Sophocles wrote, “This is man’s highest end, to others’ service, all his powers to bend.”
Serving is not easy, but it remains a singular honour and a reminder of the democracy we are fortunate to have, and must always strive to preserve.
Wes McLean is a Senior Consultant with Capital Hill Group, who has worked with conservative governments in Ottawa, New Brunswick and Manitoba, most recently as Deputy Chief of Staff to Premier Blaine Higgs. He served as a New Brunswick MLA from 2010-2014.