"Legal Aid for Stuff You Can't Get Legal Aid For": Constituency Role Orientations among MLAs in Nova Scotia.

AuthorCockram, Louise

The role of elected members who serve in Westminster Parliaments is contested. While there is an assumption among some academics that the role of elected members is to hold government accountable,1 elected members do not necessarily share this view or act in ways that conform to this role orientation. This article enters the discussion of parliamentary role orientations by addressing the prominence of constituency service work among the attitudes and behavior of Members of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly. The author draws on a series of interviews with former MLAs in Nova Scotia where constituency service work emerged as a major theme in the careers of elected members.


Do we elect parliamentarians primarily to hold government accountable or to serve their constituency in other ways? The answer to this question depends greatly on whether you're posing it to academics or parliamentarians themselves. Drawing on 35 semi-structured interviews conducted with former Nova Scotia MLAs in the summer and fall of 2015, in this article I explore how constituency service work is often considered one of the most significant aspects of their role.

The interviews were conducted on behalf of a project entitled "On the Record, Off-Script," facilitated by Springtide. (2) The methodology for Off-Script drew heavily from Samara Canada's MP exit interview project, where the findings were published into the best-selling book Tragedy in the Commons.

Initially, the Off-Script project had broader research questions than finding out about the role orientations of MLAs. The prominence of constituency service work among MLAs in Nova Scotia was just an incidental finding. The Off-Script team was originally interested in why MLAs make certain decisions. For example, we asked about the context behind some of the things many Nova Scotians find objectionable, such as heckling in the House and the lack of collaboration between parties.

Then there were questions about the decision-making spaces such as cabinet, caucus, and the premier's office. These places are like black boxes; researchers and members of the public have little knowledge of what goes on in there. The Off-Script team also asked why the tone of the House seems so toxic? What are the experiences of women and racialized minorities in the House? And, are backbenchers as powerless in Nova Scotia as they seem to be in Ottawa?

The Off-Script team interviewed MLAs from the three parties with representation in Nova Scotia's Assembly: 7 Liberal members, 15 New Democratic Party members and 13 Progressive Conservative members. We also interviewed MLAs who served in a variety of positions in the House, including a mix of former backbenchers, cabinet ministers, premiers, and opposition and government MLAs). Due to the lack of former female MLAs, the ratio of male to female interviewees for our project (23 per cent female and 77 per cent male) had a gender distribution that was similar to that of the Nova Scotia Assembly over the past decade. Most of our interviewees had served within the past 20 years, in both the government and opposition, under different premiers and opposition leaders. Our team was very fortunate to have access to a large number of former MLAs who served during Darrell Dexter's NDP government from 2009-2013. These interviews provided more recent insights into the state of the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly and the attitudes and behavior of the MLAs who serve the people of Nova Scotia.

The most surprising finding from the interviews was the emphasis that the respondents placed on constituency service work, a term that refers to frontend service provision conducted for constituents by elected representatives or their staff. Constituency service work is conducted through the MLAs' constituency office and is facilitated by staff, but MLAs are often very involved in constituency service work. As one Nova Scotia ML A remarked: "you set up an office, you hire a constituency assistant, and he or she is on the front line dealing with the public, but, in reality, it all comes back to the MLA to, you know, to find a solution for somebody."

The respondents regaled us with stories about the services they provided to constituents, from the tale about the constituent who requested help from their MLA to heat their budgie's cage during the winter to the MLA who received a call from a woman about a blocked toilet. There were also more desperate concerns from constituents to which our respondents attended. For instance--there was a story of a low-income single mother who requested help from her MLA to feed her children. Another MLA spoke of helping to fast-track a constituent's mother to the top of a nursing home waiting list.

Perhaps an even more surprising finding was the proportion of MLAs who felt that constituency service work was the most important aspect of their role. During the interviews, the...

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