Ever wonder how backbenchers spend their time when the House is closed?
MHA Tom Osborne peels a carrot in the kitchen of Bridges to Hope, which runs a community program in St. John’s. Osborne was checking on the status of the program, the first of many stops on a day in his district. — Photo by James McLeod/The Telegram
On a sunny morning in July, St. John’s South MHA Tom Osborne’s job consists of chopping carrots and celery in the kitchen at Bridges to Hope in St. John’s.
Chef Andrew Butler runs a community program teaching people how to cook cheap and healthy meals, working in the kitchen with a handful of women.
When Osborne arrives, he greets everyone by name, chats for a little while, and then settles down to take care of the carrots and celery.
It might look like glad-handing or putting on a show because I’m following him around for the day, but Osborne insists this is essentially what being an MHA is all about.
This program operates in his district of St. John’s South, and when he was health minister in 2006, he was involved in getting funding for it.
“I’d like to take a bit of credit,” he says.
After the vegetables are squared away, he chats some more with Butler, who talks enthusiastically about the benefits of the program.
By showing people how to cook better, instead of just telling them, the program has a greater impact, he says.
He also produces a stack of feedback forms from participants, and people who support it.
“We’ve got 500 of these pieces of paper,” he tells Osborne. “We need more money.”
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As political reporter for The Telegram, one of the questions I’m asked frequently is, “What exactly do MHAs do when they’re not in the House of Assembly?”
In fact, backbench MHAs don’t actually do that much when the House is open. Outside of the occasional speech during debate, and the high-intensity theatrics of question period, mostly they just sit there.
During a normal day in the House, it’s not unusual to see an MHA reading the newspaper while sitting in the legislature.
Arguably, it’s when the legislature closes and they go back to their districts that rank-and-file MHAs earn their annual salary of $95,000.
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After leaving Bridges to Hope on Cookstown Road, Osborne heads around the corner to check on some folks who are living in subsidized housing.
They were supposed get new windows installed, but when Osborne pops in, he finds that nothing has happened yet.
“I’ll check again.”
Out comes the government-issue BlackBerry and Osborne fires off an email. After spending a few minutes visiting with the elderly couple in the house, Osborne moves up the street to another couple that he’s scheduled to check in on today.
He explains that he doesn’t do specific appointments, but instead tells people that he’ll try to make it by in the morning or afternoon. That way, if he gets delayed, he doesn’t have to reschedule.
When we arrive at the house, “Tom” is greeted warmly and led in to the kitchen table.
Osborne is helping the elderly couple get money for energy-efficiency work on their house through a provincial program that provides grants to low-income households.
The couple needs to get an “Option C” form from the Canada Revenue Agency for the application process.
Osborne sits at the kitchen table using his BlackBerry as the elderly lady speaks to a CRA operator on the phone. As she provides her personal information to the operator, Osborne fills in the same details on the provincial form.
(Later in the morning, Osborne will repeat the same process around another kitchen table, helping another woman whose husband has died and needs financial assistance to stay in her apartment. Osborne again gets her to order the Option C form and fills out the provincial paperwork for her.)
Before the end of the morning, he also speaks to two different people about land zoning issues — a municipal responsibility, but Osborne is helping them work through it.
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Around lunchtime, Osborne explains to me that his role is to help shepherd people through the government process.
“I mean, a lot of people — when it comes to dealing with the applications or government processes, or the bureaucracy — are intimidated because they haven’t been through it,” he said.
“A lot of what we do is helping people through the tunnels and channels and on-ramps and off-ramps of what government does.”
As far as the casual handshaking and visiting, he said that’s about making himself approachable.
He said as long as people are calling him “Tom,” he’s sure he’s doing things right.
“Part of being an MHA is being the face of government,” he said. “I mean, we’re elected to represent the people who live in our districts, and the more you can become the face of government, and the more people get to know you and get comfortable with you, they speak to you on a first-name basis, they’re comfortable calling you.”
While Osborne said 90 per cent of what he deals with is housing and social assistance — with an increasing number of seniors’ issues — other MHAs have more varied experience.
Keith Hutchings, who represents the Ferryland district, said he faces a host of issues.
“I’ve got 22 municipalities or local service districts that I deal with on an ongoing basis,” said.
He rattles off a list of issues: municipal infrastructure, seniors groups, recreation committees, special interest groups, tourism industry issues, plus calls from individual residents.
“They’re just so vast,” he said. “It could be on Crown land, it could be a medical issue, it could be a post-secondary issue.”
Liberal Marshall Dean said rural MHAs get consulted on a range of issues.
“The thing that’s unique about being an MHA in rural Newfoundland is that, where there are not a lot of government service centres out there, necessarily, you become the go-to person,” he said. “People are coming to you with all kinds of different things.”
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After lunch, Osborne visits a funeral home where a constituent is beng waked.
He hugs the grieving widow, and she says, “He thought the world of you.”
Osborne spends the afternoon in Blackhead, dropping off copies of his constituency newsletter to houses, knocking on doors to hand deliver it where possible.
This is likely a bit of a show for me, the reporter.
He says he tries to deliver the pamphlets by hand to the 5,500 households in his district, but he admits he doesn’t knock on all the doors.
He says he tries to knock on every door at least once between elections, but that’s as good as he can do.
But again, he says, it’s about making sure people know their representative.
“Politics is all about knowing people.”