Q60. Is there a Code of Ethics for MLAs?

There is no Code of Ethics, but there are some rules

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A60. No, there is no overall Code of Ethics for MLAs. But there is a Code of Conduct for cabinet ministers, and there is a law that deals with conflicts of interest, and there are rules of order in the legislature itself.

Before we discuss an MLA’s ethical obligations, there are two basic things it’s important to understand about an MLA’s job:

  1. MLAs are “office-holders”, not employees. They don’t have a boss. There is no employer or supervisor to tell them what to do, or for a citizen to complain to if the citizen doesn’t like what the MLA is doing.
  2. There is no job description for an MLA. The job is whatever they make of it. Different MLAs will take different approaches. A particular MLA’s approach depends on their personality, interests, aptitude, and experience.

Now let’s look at the rules that do exist.

In the legislature

While the legislature is sitting, there are rules of order. These rules apply only in the legislative chamber itself. The purpose of the rules is to ensure that the business of the House is done efficiently. Some of the rules are written down, but many are not. The unwritten rules are based on what has happened before in the Nova Scotia legislature, the House of Commons in Ottawa, or the House of Commons in London.

The rules of order are enforced by the Speaker. Even so, anyone who watches the legislature will know that MLAs often behave badly. If there is misbehaviour, the Speaker may ask a member (or all members) to behave; then the Speaker may admonish an individual member; and if the bad behaviour continues, then the Speaker may order a misbehaving MLA to leave the House for the remainder of the day. None of these punishments is very serious, which may explain why the behaviour of our MLAs continues to be bad. If their pay was docked, they would smarten up pretty fast; but that doesn’t happen. Maybe it should.

There is also a House of Assembly Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace. It came into effect on May 20, 2016, and deals with respectful communication and behaviour. It applies to relations between MLAs, their staff, and volunteers working in MLA offices. It does not apply to relations between MLAs and citizens.

Conflict of interest law (all MLAs)

There is a law called the Conflict of Interest Act that imposes certain rules on all MLAs. It’s not a complete Code of Ethics, but they are ethical rules.

The Conflict of Interest Act requires all MLAs to disclose the financial interests of themselves, their spouse, and their dependent children. The MLA’s disclosure reports are filed annually and are public.

The purpose of this disclosure is to prevent an MLA from acting on matters in which they have a direct personal interest. Section 12 of the Conflict of Interest Act says: “A member shall not make or participate in making a decision in the member’s capacity as a member if the member knows or ought reasonably to know that in the making of the decision there is the opportunity to further, directly or indirectly, a private interest of the member or the member’s family.”

The law also prohibits MLAs from accepting gifts or personal benefits in connection with their duties as MLA.

Any complaint under the Conflict of Interest Act may be sent to an official known as the Conflict of Interest Commissioner. The commissioner is currently Merlin Nunn, a retired judge of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

Code of conduct (ministers only)

The Conflict of Interest Act also includes, in sections 18 and 19, a Code of Conduct for ministers. Again, it’s not a complete Code of Ethics, but they are ethical rules.

Apart from avoiding conflicts of interest, ministers are required to “be truthful and forthright and not deceive or knowingly mislead the House of Assembly or the public, or permit or encourage agents of the Government of the Province to deceive or mislead the House of Assembly or the public.”

That is probably the strongest ethical rule in the law, but the words were added only in 2010, and they haven’t really been tested yet.

Relations with citizens

The rules of order and the Conflict of Interest Act do not provide any guidance to MLAs about how to treat citizens, nor do they provide any guidance to citizens about what they have a right to expect from their MLAs.

In fact there are no rules, at all, governing relations between MLAs and citizens. That is important to understand—an MLA is under no obligation to meet with anyone, or talk to anyone, or be polite to anyone. They can do what they want—within the limits of the law that everyone in our society has to follow—and the only punishment is at the ballot box.

Now obviously MLAs want their constituents to like them. An MLA who angers many people is not likely to be re-elected. That, more than anything else, is what keeps MLAs behaving properly.

Q59. What are the current party standings in the House?

Lib 27, PC 16, NDP 7

A59. The current party standings are: Liberal 27, Progressive Conservative 16, New Democratic Party 7. One seat is vacant.

The 40th Nova Scotia general election was held on May 30, 2017. The final results were: Liberal 27, Progressive Conservative 17, NDP 7. A new ministry, led by returning premier Stephen McNeil, was sworn in on June 15, 2017.

Cumberland South MLA Jamie Baillie (Progressive Conservative) resigned his seat on January 24, 2018. As a result, the current party standings are: Liberal 27, PC 16, NDP 7.

A by-election to fill the Cumberland South seat can be called any time, but it is unlikely to happen before the end of the Spring 2018 sitting. The timing of the by-election is in the discretion of premier Stephen McNeil.

 

Q44. Why do MLAs behave badly in the House of Assembly?

Some MLAs act badly due to partisanship and boredom

A44. One of the first things that visitors to the legislature notice is the bad behaviour of the MLAs. This bad behaviour can be explained, if not excused.

The bad behaviour takes the following forms:

  1. Interrupting the MLA who is speaking. (This practice is known as “heckling”.)
  2. A general chorus of noise from one side that drowns out the MLA who is speaking.
  3. Very evidently not paying attention to the MLA who is speaking. This behaviour can include going in and out of the chamber, walking around inside the chamber, talking to another MLA, focusing on an electronic screen, and reading a newspaper or magazine.
  4. Insulting another MLA or another party.
  5. Making statements that are false or at least highly questionable.
  6. Refusing to answer a question asked by another MLA.

These behaviours would not be tolerated in any other workplace. In almost any other gathering of grown-ups, these behaviours would be considered shockingly rude. But in the legislative chamber, they are routine.

I spent a long time around the legislature. I’m not sure I can fully explain the bad behaviour exhibited there, but I have some ideas about the contributing factors.

The most important reason, in my view, is that all important decisions are made elsewhere. The party caucuses decide what they’re going to do, and then they almost always vote together. An MLA knows how they’re going to vote when they walk in the door at the beginning of the day. That doesn’t mean votes are held quickly. The opposition often has an interest in creating delay. The result is that MLAs are often very bored, and boredom causes bad behaviour.

Another reason for the bad behaviour is the partisanship that pervades the House. Partisanship is the excessive attachment to one’s political party. There is a strong tendency among MLAs to think of one’s own party as always right, and the other parties as always wrong. They must always praise their own leader and their own party; they must always condemn other leaders and other parties. It’s an unhealthy dynamic.

If you put boredom and partisanship together, the conditions for bad behaviour are created.

Not all MLAs act badly, and certainly there is no MLA who acts badly all the time. But unfortunately, bad behaviour is treated by senior MLAs as normal and acceptable, and is even to some extent celebrated within a party caucus. As a result, the well-behaving MLAs tend to sit quietly. They may grimace inwardly at the bad behaviour, but they make no attempt to stop it. If they do, they will be told it’s all part of the normal give-and-take of the legislature.

The bad behaviour will continue until the legislature is a forum for meaningful debate, in which MLAs prepare their arguments carefully, listen attentively to other MLAs’ arguments, and then make up their minds accordingly on how to vote. That is not likely to happen any time soon.

Q37. How can I find out how my MLA voted?

Most of the time there’s no way to know for sure

A37. It is surprisingly difficult to know for sure how your MLA voted on a matter before the House.

Most modern assemblies have an electronic voting system. The MLA presses a button (yes, no or abstain) and the results are tabulated. The Nova Scotia House of Assembly does not work that way.

In Nova Scotia there are two ways to vote: a voice vote or a standing vote.

The vast majority of votes in the House of Assembly are done by voice vote. The Speaker says “Would all those in favour please say Aye?” and then “Would all those opposed please say Nay?” The Speaker judges which side has more voices, and says either “The motion is carried” or “the motion is defeated”.

If you’re in the public gallery, you can generally tell which caucus voted which way. Otherwise, you can’t. There is no record of how your MLA voted, or whether your MLA was even there.

A standing vote may be requested by any two MLAs. There are three reasons why a standing vote might be requested:

  1. There is genuine doubt about the result of a voice vote.
  2.  One caucus believes there is political advantage in having a permanent record of how each MLA voted.
  3. To cause delay, especially by “ringing the bells” for up to an hour before the vote.

In a standing vote, the clerk reads the names of MLAs one-by-one in the order in which they are seated, starting on the government side. When their name is called, each MLA rises and states their vote. If they are in favour, they may say Yes, Aye or Oui. If they are opposed, they may say No, Nay or Non. If the MLA gives any other answer, their vote is not counted. An MLA may also remain seated without saying anything, but that hardly ever happens. If they want to abstain, it’s more common to leave the chamber while the vote is happening.

The clerk then announces the vote totals, and the Speaker says either “The motion is carried” or “the motion is defeated”. The House then resumes its business, or moves on to the next item of business.

When there is a standing vote, the names of the MLAs voting Yes and No are recorded in Hansard. Unless you actually watch a vote as it happens, that is the only way to know how your MLA voted. It’s not very user-friendly, because you have to know on what day the vote was held, then search through Hansard for that day. If you dig, it’s there.

 

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 over six 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.

 

 

Q18. How much is an MLA’s pension?

The base pension accumulates by $3,123.22 each year

A18. The MLA pension plan is generous, controversial, and widely misunderstood.

I’m not sure I understand every little detail myself, and I’m a former MLA. The official financial statements of the MLA pension plan are available on the website of the Nova Scotia Pension Services Corporation, which administers the plan.

To calculate the basic MLA pension, you multiply three factors:

  1. Years of service.
  2. 3.5%.
  3. Average of best three years’ pay (I’ve written a separate post about how much MLAs are paid).

The maximum accumulation is 70%. Because the pension accumulates at 3.5% per year, that effectively means an MLA hits their maximum pension after 20 years as an MLA. Very, very few MLAs ever get to 20 years. Currently we have only one MLA (Keith Colwell, the MLA for Preston–Dartmouth) who has reached their maximum accumulation.

Let’s do a sample calculation. Suppose an MLA is first elected in October 2013, and that they have four years’ service at the time of the next election, and then they’re defeated.

According to the formula above, that MLA’s pension will be 4 x 3.5% x $89,234.90 = $12,492.89, payable in most circumstances at age 55.

Here’s another way to think of it: an MLA’s pension will grow by $3,123.22 each year. That’s 3.5% of $89,234.90.

If the MLA has served as a Cabinet minister, Speaker, or Opposition leader, there is a separate pension calculation for that additional pay. For example, if an MLA serves for 15 years, but is a Cabinet minister for only six of those years, the minister pension is calculated on the six years, not the fifteen.

The most recent change to the MLA pension plan occurred in 2014. The “vesting” period was dropped from five years to two. Previously, an MLA had to serve for five years and win two elections before they were eligible for a pension. Now, an MLA has to be elected only once and serve for only two years. An MLA who does not serve for two years will get their pension contributions back.

Even with the changes, which were retroactive to November 1, 2013, the pension is calculated according to the formula above. The changes did not mean that the MLA qualifies for a “full” pension after only two years.

An MLA contributes 10% of their pay towards their pension.

There are 101 nuances and exceptions to what I’ve just written, but that’s the basic picture.

 

 

Q17. How much is an MLA paid?

Base pay for an MLA is $89,234.90

A17. All salary information for MLAs is publicly available on the legislature website, although you have to hunt for it a bit. The information in this post is taken from the Members’ Manual (revised September 2016) that you can find under House of Assembly Management Commission.

The base pay for an MLA is $89,234.90 per year. All MLAs receive that amount.

In addition to the base pay, the following amounts are paid:

  1. Premier: $112,791.20
  2. Speaker, Cabinet minister, Opposition leader: $49,046.51
  3. Deputy Speaker, NDP leader: $24,523.25
  4. Chair of Public Accounts Committee: $3,152.00
  5. Chair of other committees: $2,101.00
  6. Vice-chair of committees: $525.00
  7. House Leader (all parties) and caucus chair (all parties): $10,506.00
  8. Deputy House Leader (all parties) and whip (all parties): $5,253.00

In addition to pay, MLAs are eligible for health benefits and a pension.

In addition, MLAs are eligible to claim a variety of expenses. These expenses are intended to compensate them for expenses incurred to perform their duties, such as travel, meals, and operating a constituency office.