Q53. Do you have any advice for citizens presenting to the Law Amendments Committee on Bill 59 (Accessibility Act)?

The LAC hearings on Bill 59 will be much better than usual

A53. I have written posts on the Law Amendments Committee, how it really works, and some tips on how to make an effective presentation.

The LAC hearings that were held on March 2 and 3, 2017, on Bill 59 (Accessibility Act) had some unique features that made them better than most.

Bill 59 received first reading on November 2, 2016, second reading the following day, and moved on to the Law Amendments Committee on November 7, 2016.

Many presenters at the Law Amendments Committee were critical of the bill itself, and critical of the lack of facilities for persons with disabilities at the LAC hearings. It appears the government was taken aback by the criticism. As a result, the government decided not to move the bill any further in the five-step law-making process, at least in the Fall 2016 sitting of the House.

For the LAC hearings on March 2 and 3, 2017,  arrangements were made for American Sign Language interpreters, sighted guides, and Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), as well as a teleconferencing option. These arrangements are, at least in my experience, a first for the LAC.

It is extremely rare for the LAC to hold hearings outside of a legislative session. There was a distinct benefit for citizens wishing to appear at the Bill 59 hearings: the time pressure on government MLAs, which is one of the reasons the LAC process is normally so unsatisfactory for citizens, was entirely absent. All MLAs were polite and attentive and gave presenters every consideration. That, unfortunately, is not the norm.

At the conclusion of the LAC hearings, the government said it would take time to consider what amendments, if any, to make to Bill 59. The next step in the law-making process is Committee of the Whole House, and that cannot begin until the legislature is back in session.

My advice for advocates for persons with disabilities is to seek to be part of the decision-making about amendments before, during and after the LAC hearings. The real decision-makers on Bill 59 will not be the members of the LAC, but rather the minister, the minister’s staff, and the premier’s office staff. Meetings and other communications with those decision-makers can take place at any time. As I’ve explained in another post, a presentation at the LAC should not be the first or only step that advocates take.

Postscript: After this post was written, Bill 59 passed through Committee of the Whole House and third reading, and received Royal Assent on April 28, 2017. It is now the Accessibility Act, chapter 2 of the Acts of 2017. It comes into force on proclamation.

 

Q52. Do you have any advice for citizens about how to deal with reporters?

Build a relationship, and become known as a reliable speaker

A52. It’s very useful for citizens to know how the news media works at Province House.

I came away from my fifteen years in politics with a profound respect for reporters, and for the important role they play in maintaining democracy. That doesn’t mean I always agreed with them, or liked what they wrote, but their role is fundamental. They are professionals with standards and ethics who try every day to tell important stories in an engaging way.

For the citizen, the best reason to engage with reporters is because getting in the news will amplify your voice. If you stand on a busy street corner in downtown Halifax and shout “Listen to me!” you might get a dozen random people listening. If you deliver the same message in an interview or newscast on CBC’s Information Morning, you’ll have 100,000 citizens listening.

Here’s the most important thing you need to know: On a typical day at Province House when the legislature is sitting, there are dozens of different things going on. The reporters have to decide which one or two stories matter most to their audience, and then decide how to report those stories, all within their deadlines. They are under no obligation to choose the story you want, nor to report it the way you want.

Here are some other tips about how to engage effectively with reporters:

  1. Become known as a knowledgeable and reliable speaker on a given issue. That way, they will turn to you for comment whenever the issue comes up. It may take time for you to build a reputation, and it may take some practice for you to be able to talk about an issue in a way reporters can use.
  2. Build an ongoing relationship with reporters. Know their names, know who they work for, have a general idea of who their audience is, know how to contact them. Be helpful to them, by sharing information and insights. When the time comes to include you in a story, they’ll know who they’re dealing with.
  3. Try to understand what a reporter’s job is like. The more you know about what they’re trying to accomplish, the better you can figure out how to work within that framework to get your message out. For example, it’s no good to call a TV reporter at 5:00pm. Their news-gathering time is done for the day. Another example: don’t expect a reporter to do an investigative deep-dive on every little thing that bugs you. They don’t always have a lot of resources, and they have to choose carefully how to allocate the resources they do have.
  4. Try to understand what is likely to appeal to a reporter. A story might matter a lot to you, but it may not look so interesting or “doable” to a reporter. Remember that a reporter needs reliable sources and good evidence. The more you can do to supply those things, the more likely the reporter will pick up your story.

 

 

 

 

 

Q47. Do you have any advice on how a citizen can have an impact on the budget?

The earlier a citizen gets involved in the budget process, the better

A47. It takes months to put together the annual budget. If you, as a citizen, want to have an impact on what’s in it, you have to get involved early. If you wait until Budget Day, it’s too late—the budget never changes after it’s introduced.

The annual budget is introduced early in the spring sitting of the House of Assembly. That’s typically at the end of March or beginning of April. Civil servants and politicians start building the budget back in the fall. By three weeks before Budget Day, all important decisions have been made. Your window of opportunity, then, is September to early March.

The budget-building process is overseen by the Treasury & Policy Board (TPB) for spending, and the Department of Finance for revenue.

TPB is a committee of the Cabinet. It has its own staff, whose offices are in One Government Place. TPB staff are separate from departmental staff. For a civil servant, it is quite prestigious to work at TPB.

The current chair of TPB is Karen Casey, who is the education minister and the MLA for the constituency of Colchester North. There are five other ministers (Whalen, Samson, Delorey, Kasoulis and Furey).

Most citizens have never heard of TPB, and have no idea what it does. And yet it is by far the most important unit of government when it comes to making budget decisions. A citizen who wants to have an impact on the budget needs to be familiar with how TPB works, who its members are, and who is on staff.

In the fall of each year, the TPB sends out a call to government departments and agencies for budget submissions for the next fiscal year. (The fiscal year begins on April 1st.)  The call includes any broad guidelines. For example, the call might say something like “overall budgets for next fiscal year cannot go up by more than 1.0% over the current fiscal year” or “prepare two budgets, one with no increase over the current fiscal year and one with a 5% reduction.”

It is at this early stage that you, the citizen, can have the most impact on a budget. The department or agency will put together its proposed budget for consideration by TPB. If an existing program is to be maintained, changed or eliminated, or if a new program is to be introduced, this is when the decisions are made (subject always to TPB approval). To have an impact, you will have to be in touch with senior management of the department or agency. If you don’t know who to contact, I would suggest enlisting an MLA (either your own MLA or another sympathetic MLA) as a guide and champion.

You are going to have more of an impact if you can demonstrate knowledge of the subject, and (especially) an understanding of the financial implications of what’s being requested. You have to do your homework.

Once the budget is introduced in the House of Assembly, it’s too late to make any changes. At that point, you can seek information from departmental officials, or perhaps ask an opposition MLA to ask certain questions during the budget debate.  Those are limited options.

If you don’t get what you’re hoping for in this year’s budget, there’s always next year, because the process starts all over again in the fall. Keep working. Be persistent. Persistence is the most powerful force in politics.

 

Q43. Do you have any advice on how citizens can engage with committees?

Most committees don’t function well; there are better ways to get things done

A43. My general advice to citizens is that legislative committees don’t function well in Nova Scotia, and so it is not a good use of citizens’ time to try to engage with them. There are more effective ways for citizens to get things done.

The only committee that puts the citizen at the centre of its hearings is the Law Amendments Committee (LAC). It is possible for a citizen to make an impactful presentation at the LAC, but the citizen should also be realistic about how the LAC really works. Appearing at the LAC should be a last resort, not the only thing the citizen does.

The Public Accounts Committee is usually considered the most important committee, but it never hears directly from citizens. The witnesses are almost always senior administrators of government departments and agencies. A citizen with a concern about the spending of public money can be more effective by contacting directly the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, or an MLA who is likely to be sympathetic.

There are five standing committees that focus on a policy area: Community Services, Economic Development, Human Resources, Resources, and Veterans Affairs. Notice that there is no committee to deal with big departments like Health, Justice and Environment. The Human Resources Committee covers education issues.

There are several reasons why the five subject-matter standing committees are ineffective:

  1. They meet only once per month at most, and not at all in the summer. That’s too few meetings to develop any real momentum or expertise.
  2. The committees all have a majority of government MLAs. The agenda is set by majority vote. As a result, difficult or controversial items are rarely placed on the agenda. The government MLAs usually want only good-news stories that highlight some positive aspect of government policy.
  3. MLAs’ perception is that they do not get any electoral reward from their committee work, and so they don’t invest much effort in the committee’s work. They go, they listen attentively and politely, then they leave. Nothing changes.
  4. The committees rarely receive media coverage. This is the result of points 1, 2 and 3 above, but also reinforces MLAs’ lack of interest.

I have never seen one of the five policy-oriented standing committees have any influence on government policy, and I’ve been watching Nova Scotia politics for a long time. That is why I recommend citizens pursue more effective avenues: approach MLAs, departments, ministers, reporters, the Auditor General, or the Ombudsman. Appearing before a subject-matter standing committee does not add value.

A select committee is different. A select committee is established because the government isn’t sure what to do on a specific policy issue, and is (usually) interested in hearing what recommendations the MLAs on the committee can come up with. A citizen who is interested in the subject-matter of a select committee would be well-advised to send a written submission to the committee, and if possible, to make a verbal submission at a committee hearing.

Nova Scotia currently has no select committees.

Q36. Do you have any advice on how to make a good presentation to the Law Amendments Committee?

Speak from the heart and speak to the bill

A36. The Law Amendments Committee is the one place in the five-stage law-making process where the citizen takes centre stage.

I’ve written separate posts about what the LAC is and how the LAC really works. I’ve also written a post about the unique features of the LAC hearings on Bill 59.

If you would like to make a presentation to the LAC, you should register by calling the Office of the Legislative Counsel at 902-424-8941. You can also register by sending an e-mail to Legc.office@novascotia.ca, but my experience is that a phone call is better. Anyone wishing to submit a written or video presentation may do so by e-mail.

If you decide to make a presentation to the LAC, what should you say?

I was an MLA for 12 years. I participated in dozens of LAC hearings, and heard hundreds of submissions. I still can’t give you a perfect template. A lot depends on the situation.

Let me be frank: My experience is that the vast majority of presentations to the LAC don’t result in changes to a bill. I have seen it happen only twice. By the time the government is ready to introduce a bill, it has usually made up its mind, has heard all the key stakeholders, knows all the major objections to the bill, and wants to move it through the LAC as quickly as possible. I don’t want to discourage you, but that’s the reality of how the House of Assembly operates.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to make a presentation to the LAC:

  1. You never know what will happen until you try.
  2. You’re a citizen and you have the right to be heard.
  3. You may inspire someone in the room.
  4. You may influence someone in the room.
  5. Play the long game. Even if you don’t get everything you want on this bill, you may start the ball rolling on a longer-term impact, such as repealing or amending the bill in the future.

The best way to have an impact on a bill is to be well-connected to the department that is developing the policy that is behind the bill. That way, you’ll have influence on what moves forward and what doesn’t. You might be able to influence what is in a bill before it ever gets to first reading.

I know that’s not always possible. Sometimes you don’t know about a bill before first reading. If that happens, don’t wait for the Law Amendments Committee. Get in touch with your MLA right away. Get in touch with the minister. Get in touch with the department. Presenting to the LAC should be your last resort, not the only thing you do.

If you do decide to present to the Law Amendments Committee, start by reading my post about how the LAC really works. Here is some advice about how to be more impactful:

  1. Speak from the heart. Tell your story and how the bill is likely to affect you, whether positively or negatively.
  2. If you’re an expert, demonstrate your expertise. Propose specific amendments and relate them back to your expertise.
  3. Don’t be nervous. You’re the citizen. Remember that all the MLAs on the LAC work for you. They should be nervous of you, not the other way around.
  4. Try not to read your presentation. If you have something in writing, you can circulate it. When you’re speaking, try to look the MLAs in the eye.
  5. Make sure you know what’s in the bill. The purpose of the Law Amendments Committee is to determine if any changes should be made to the bill. If you don’t know what’s in the bill, your presentation isn’t likely to be effective.

Good luck. And thanks for being an active citizen.

 

Q28. What can I do if my MLA is unavailable due to illness, or if I have no MLA?

There’s usually someone you can turn to for help

A28. Everybody in Nova Scotia lives in a constituency, and so everybody has an MLA. There are many ways to communicate effectively with your MLA.

In rare cases, your MLA may be unavailable due to illness or other cause, or there may be a vacancy because your MLA resigns or dies. Even so, there’s usually someone you can turn to for help.

Let’s deal with illness first.

How long can an MLA be off work? Indefinitely. An MLA does not have a job or an employer in the traditional sense. In legal terms, an MLA is an “office-holder”. So there is no boss, no fixed vacation, no sick days, and no employment insurance. The MLA holds the position until the MLA retires, resigns, dies, or is defeated in an election.

Every MLA has a constituency office and a constituency assistant (CA). Even if the MLA is unavailable, the office continues to operate. The CAs are often very experienced and knowledgeable—sometimes more than the MLA! Just about the only thing a CA cannot do is actually attend the House of Assembly in the MLA’s place.

So your best bet, even if the MLA is off sick, is to continue to work with that MLA’s constituency assistant.

The situation is a little different if an MLA resigns or dies.

In these cases, the constituency office has to start shutting down. They may choose not to take on any new cases. There has to be a by-election to fill the vacancy, but it can take as long as twelve months for a by-election to be held.

Often the party of the former MLA will try very hard to continue to offer constituency services. One way of doing so is for a nearby MLA to cover the former MLA’s constituency as well as their own. Another way is to offer constituency services out of the caucus office.

In fact, a citizen may contact any MLA for assistance, at any time. Most people will start by contacting their own MLA, but there is no requirement that they do so. It is up to each MLA to decide whether, and to what extent, they will serve residents of other constituencies.

When I was an MLA, I would sometimes get calls from people outside my constituency. They would say things like “I can’t get an answer from my MLA”or “I heard about you and I like you” or “I’d prefer that someone from your party help me”. Whatever the reason, I’d usually encourage them to work with their own MLA. I was usually plenty busy with my own constituents. But sometimes I would say yes. Every MLA is different that way.

 

 

Q13. How can I communicate effectively with my MLA?

10 tips that will help you be a more effective citizen

A13. Here are 10 tips on effective communications with your MLA:

1. A personal visit is best. Make an appointment at their office. If you just drop in, they may not be there. That doesn’t count. There is nothing more powerful in politics than a face-to-face conversation between citizen and representative.

2. If you can’t go to their office, ask them to come to see you. Yes, really. Sit in your kitchen, make them tea, and deliver your message face-to-face.

3. If a personal visit isn’t possible, phone. It’s okay to leave a message, but only to ask the MLA to call back. Be persistent until they do in fact call back.

4. Voicemails and e-mails aren’t very effective. They’re too easy to delete and/or ignore, especially if the e-mail is a form letter. They’re okay as a supplement to 1, 2 or 3, but they can’t be the only thing you do.

5. Petitions are even less effective than e-mails. Go ahead and sign them, but don’t forget about 1, 2, 3 and 4.

6. If you’re going to organize a protest outside an MLA’s office, be sure to do it at a time when they’re going to be there. Arrange it with them in advance. Insist they come out to address you. Don’t leave until they do. Follow up with 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

7. In all communications with your MLA, be sure to identify yourself as a constituent. MLAs pay a great deal of attention to their constituents. They do not pay nearly as much attention to non-constituents.

8. Always be polite. Communications that are rude are super-easy to ignore and accomplish nothing. The most effective tone is polite but firm.

9. Don’t be shy. Don’t apologize for contacting them. Don’t start by saying “I know how busy you are”, because that hands them the power. Their job, their very reason for sitting in that chair, is to listen to you.

10. Finally but very importantly: Don’t judge your MLA by what they say. Only actions count. Judge your MLA by what they do. If they say “I agree with you but my hands are tied”, then they don’t really agree with you.

Go.

(In a separate post, I give some advice about how to deal with situations where your MLA is unavailable, or where there is no MLA. I’ve also written a post about how to contact your MLA when they’re at their desk in the legislative chamber at Province House.)