The Role of an MLA

The Current Inertia of the Manitoban MLA

It’s time we rethought the role of an MLA.  Scroll down if you want to read my 4 proposals, but if you’d like to join me on a mindwalk to think through our democratic problems, come along.

Correct me if I am wrong, but is it not assumed that the MLA “represents” an electoral district in the Manitoba Legislature and as the holder of one of the seats in the Legislature votes along with her or his party to pass or oppose legislation?

Yes, the MLA staff also responds to individual concerns on the local level, but how are these local challenges ever met with a systematic response?

And is this representation a true picture of what the citizens want?  In our first past the post system, the only votes that end up counting are those delivered to the victor, and so the MLA vote only ends up reflecting a block of votes and not the political diversity of the electoral division.  Sometimes the MLA does not even receive 50% of the votes cast. Add in the factor of the voter turnout, and an MLA winning with 40% of the vote in a riding with 60% turnout (*high lately in Manitoba) is only being actively endorsed by ~25% of the possible voters.

Then the MLA ends up voting exactly as the party whip tells him/her almost every single time, and the interests of the constituents she/he “represents” takes a back seat to the party’s wishes.  Considering so few people are consistent members of political parties – an inflated number perhaps joining now and again to support one local candidate in a local race and then lapsing as a member – the party has a very overly enlarged role in our society.  And this party whip breeds cynicism and a sense of disappearing political space for ordinary, non-affiliated citizens.

An example of party vote super-ceding the local interests would be in the decision of the province to sell its land holdings to produce Manitoba’s largest ever single suburb of Waverley West over top of productive farmland.  Older, shoulder neighbourhoods like Scotia Heights, the North End, and Wolseley have many homes in need of repair, and overall in Winnipeg there is the possibility of infill.  These character neighbourhoods’ residents pay their share of taxes and hope that their proximity to the city centre and to prime commercial centres, small businesses and jobs will allow the city to develop in a sustainable way, with less traffic, less carbon emissions, more livable, sociable neighbourhoods.

Rob Altemeyer and Gord Mackintosh of course went along with the government’s decision to move forward with Waverley West.  I would wager to say that if a referendum were held, their constituents would not have voted in favour of this development.  Even a public forum could have been hosted by these MLAs to hold up this major public decision – called “a routine amendment” to Plan Winnipeg by deposed Brandon West NDP Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Scott Smith – to public scrutiny.  The NDP instead chose propaganda and innuendo to sell the idea rather than bringing it directly to their constituents, proclaiming the only other choice would have been ex-urban sprawl and tax flight; proclaiming it would be a “green” geothermal-run suburb; and proclaiming that the profits from the land sale would be recycled back into the inner city.  The profits may have added cash flow to the government’s coffers in the short term, but have we any long term proof that once the hidden and social costs are factored in, that building this suburb will prove to have been in Manitobans’ best interests?

MLA as Facilitator of Democracy

Rather than governments being run solely by parties and their historic vested interests, be it big labour on the left or corporations on the right (although the NDP has cozied up nicely to traditional PC business buddies in effort to occupy the whole political spectrum and consolidate their power, standing for nothing), it’s time we became more self-governing, from the local – the neighbourhood – all the way up to the city and regional and provincial levels.

Most citizens know that governments rarely lead, but follow the trends that will get them re-elected within four years.  As such, long term change is forsaken for expediency.  Thus, it is left to the public sector – citizens’ groups, private citizens, NGOs – along with small businesses, to become cultural leaders, often lacking the capacity or funds to implement their visions beyond small projects.

So shouldn’t we start to enshrine this respect for the most progressive and innovative forces in our society?  We can do this by creating more democratic space.

The MLA should see her/himself as the facilitator of democracy on the local level, with interconnections among other MLAs and neighbourhoods to produce a better overall picture for society.  There were governments in Manitoba’s past – around the 1920s and on until around WWII – that, lead by the United Farmers Movement, moved away from party politics and worked instead through prairie populism and coalitions on an issue by issue basis rather than along contentious and divisive ideological lines.  One only has to watch the attack ads of today’s elections to see how we’ve divided into special interests and ideological rigidity, instead of establishing our common values.

How can the MLA help sew together the scattered social fabric and navigate the political, social, cultural, and economic diversity that exists in our society?  How can an MLA help to save and renew our shared social contract before every last shred of our collective existence is privatized?

Here are 4 ideas I have though through as to how I will perform as your MLA:

1) Connecting with local groups and giving them space to work through the MLA’s budget and office.   The MLA needs to be the eyes and ears of the community such that any progressive efforts by citizens are facilitated through the MLA’s resources – if a group trying to set up, for example, a community composting program wants to reach out to fellow citizens, the MLA’s staff could help create a newsletter or offer workshops on desktop publishing and then pay for ink, paper and delivery of the callout.  Just an example.  I am sure citizens can think of great things to do when offered the space, the training, the resources to achieve goals that benefit the entire community.

2) Keeping the public intimately up to date on the goings on at the Legislature and the positions that the MLA is taking – this should be obvious in the interests of democratic education and accountability, but too often the MLA assumes the people in general don’t really care, which may at times be true.  But true leaders forges past elitist cynicism and goes out of their way to educate and include their fellow citizens.  I’d put out at least a bi-weekly update to citizens and it would not be filled with photos of me meeting people in the community.  An MLA who facilitates democracy needs to remain humble as actions speak louder than appearances.

3) Public forums 4X a year.  Some fellow citizens have told me ‘but do you really think people would come out to tell the MLA their issues when they don’t expect their voices to change anything?”  It’s a serious problem, but I want to reframe the purpose of these meetings.   They are more for the community than for the MLA – people need to hear each other.  And yes, people will come out and shout and vent – with good facilitation and a clear sense of which lines cannot be crossed (religious intolerance, racism, sexism, threats of violence etc), this kind of public venting is exactly what our society needs now.  Why?  Because it is way healthier to let it out and be heard by fellow citizens and the MLA than to walk around angry, alienated, and disconnecting from a sense that we are all in it together.  What’s more, people will hear others with similar issues, challenges, needs, and visions for change, and will likely start to connect with each other after the meetings.  The people when they come together are infinitely more productive, powerful, and effective than any one political party or batch of idealists.  The citizens together will achieve social and cultural and political transformation and the MLA just needs to network among them and connect them, provide resources if needed, and then get out of the way.  THIS is grass-roots democracy in action.  Let’s try it one time!  What have we to fear?

4) Networking among citizens to generate advisory citizens’ committees. When you phone your MLA with an issue or personal problem, you feel you are alone often and are reaching out for help.  10 other people in a month may call the MLA about a similar problem, be it crime, health, or food insecurity, and they are each dealt with individually by what are often well-meaning and caring, but powerless staff.  The MLA and his/her office needs to invite people to leave their contact information for connection with other citizens and the MLA needs to convene a citizens’ committee on different issues.  Each committee could meet once a month in a space provided for by the MLA, and those consistently attending for 6 months or more could be given honorariums our of respect for the time they are dedicating to their community.  A chair rotating every 8 months could write a report to the constituents and these can be circulated in the community.  Wouldn’t you rather a ‘horizontal,’ citizen-to-citizen communication than a top-down newsletter that reads like campaign materials?  This way democracy belongs to all and not simply the MLA and his/her most dedicated staff and campaign volunteers.

A good MLA will be able to honour political diversity and serve as a moderator among political difference. By setting aside partisanship in effort to mediate disputes, moderate debates, and transparently manage different interests – instead of cowing to vested interests – an MLA can play a major part in restoring social communication and harmonizing a society whose song has become more like the grind of a large machine than the song of a choir or the traditional singing that accompanies a drum.

Let’s try something new in St. Johns.  We have the diversity and the engagement of enough citizens, but also the poverty and the low turnout to tell us something needs changing.  The status quo will continue to erode our democracy.  As citizens around the world rally for democracy, let’s have an MLA who cherishes it and is willing to help spark it, even if it means giving up some of his/her power.

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