OK, so on Twitter last week, I made a cheap joke at the expense of our 48 elected MHAs.
“Ugh. Tired. One more day before the three-day weekend. (Not quite as nice as MHAs' NINETEEN day weekend, but I'll take what I can get.)” I said Thursday morning, while I was waiting for the kettle to boil.
Shortly afterwards, one of our upstanding elected officials took me to task for it.
“I'll take ur 3day wknd if you wanna do my council meetings, mc'ing events and 2 firefighter's ball over my 19"day's off":)” Terra Nova PC MHA Sandy Collins wrote. (For anyone who's not on Twitter, don't hold the creative word-constuctuion and syntax against him. Getting your point across in 140 characters isn't easy, and he was even kind enough to put that smiley face on the end of it.)
It was a cheap shot, and I apologize. I really should know better. Here's the full story:
On Wednesday afternoon, the House of Assembly adjourned, and all the MHAs went home for the weekend. They opted not to sit on Thursday, even though ordinarily they would. They won't be back in the House for more than two weeks. When they get back at it on Tuesday, April 24, a freshly reshod Finance Minister Tom Marshall will rise to deliver the budget speech. (More on that in an upcoming blog.)
So basically, the MHAs will be gone from the House of Assembly for two an a half weeks, right? Yup. And since they won't be “working” it'll be nothing but late nights on George Street and all-day hangovers, right? Well ... wrong.
One of the things most people just don't understand about the job of an Member of the House of Assembly is that, especially for the backbenchers, they actually do the least work when they're in the House of Assembly.
By way of an example, take a look at St. John's South MHA Tom Osborne. About a year ago, a roguishly handsome Telegram reporter followed him around for a day and wrote about it. Give it a read here. The short version is that he started the day by popping into a non-profit organization in his district which was running a government program – just, y'know, to help 'em out for a bit and see how things were going. Later, he personally visited several constituents to help them fill out government forms, and just generally make the process of dealing with government as painless as possible. He paid his respects to a longtime supporter at the funeral home, then spent the afternoon going door-to-door dropping off his district newsletter and saying hello to the people he represents. You can argue about whether what MHAs do is worth the $95,000 or so we pay them each year, but trust me on this much, they're busy people, and they work long hours. All of this broadly falls under the category of “constituency work” which is one of the basic functions of an MHA. This is what they're supposed to be doing as our elected representatives.
Now, compare all of that with what an MHA does when they're in the House of Assembly. During question period, Opposition members ask questions, and government ministers answer them. Backbench government MHAs do ... nothing (well, unless you count the heckling and the desk thumping – which I don't.) When they're debating legislation, MHAs may speak about why the like or hate the bill. Plenty of MHAs choose not to speak on any given piece of legislation, but even if they do take their 20 minutes to stand up and talk, the rest of the time they just sit there doing ... nothing.
Sitting up in the press gallery while the House is debating legislation, you see quite a few empty seats. You also see MHAs reading iPads, getting up and walking over to chat among themselves. Occasionally, someone will pull out a copy of The Telegram and just read it at their desk, which I always like to see. Once, I saw two MHAs leaning against the wall chatting; I couldn't figure out why they weren't even sitting down until I noticed that one of them had their Blackberry plugged into the wall and charging.
Let's be clear: I'm not saying that the House of Assembly is a waste of time. The way our elected representatives debate, refine and pass laws is extremely important. However, when you sit up in the gallery and watch the goings on day-in and day-out, you see an awful lot of people wasting time.
There are a lot of people who think that the current structure of the House of Assembly is pretty lousy right now. Premier Kathy Dunderdale says it's dysfunctional. Speaking to the CBC's David Cochrane, Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy said he didn't think the opposition parties come up with “quality debate on anything.” Both the Liberals and the NDP complain about the process too; they'd like to see active legislative committees, and a whole bunch of other legislative structures that other provinces have. (I'll be dealing with a lot of these issues in upcoming blog entries as well.)
For now, though, just remember this: your MHA is home for the next two weeks. He or she is probably pretty busy doing “constituency work.” And guess what? You're a constituent. Is there something sticking in your craw about the way the government is doing things? Is there something broken that the government really should be fixing? Give your MHA a call. For the next two weeks, they can't claim that they're too busy in the House. And more importantly, it's their job.