Tips on Connecting with MLAs

Tips on Connecting with MLAs

An earlier post on this blog encouraged Boards of Education to strengthen their connections with other local and provincial groups. In this interview previous BC Minister of Education George Abbott, provides practical advice on how to build connections with Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) based on his 34 years in municipal and provincial politics. Mr. Abbott has served as Minister of Community, Aboriginal and Community Services; Minister of Sustainable Resources Management; Minister of Health; Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation; and Minister of Education. He retired from politics in 2013 and is now the President of Circle Square Solutions Ltd., a public policy group that includes Mike McKay, former schools superintendent, and three former deputies from government. He is also a doctoral candidate in political sciences at the University of Victoria.

Q1: Why is it important for Boards of Education to connect with their local MLAs? 

MLAs can be highly influential advocates for their board(s) or, in the event of a sour or non-relationship, may end up as powerful detractors.  Success in politics at all levels comes from building relationships and cultivating the ability to understand competing perspectives.  If MLAs have an understanding of why boards are making the decisions that they do, there is a lesser likelihood of poorly-informed criticisms.  In some cases, your MLA may at some point become the Minister of Education.  In my personal case, I benefited enormously as a Minister from a very long and collegial relationship with the board and staff at School District 83 (North Okanagan-Shuswap).

Q2: Do these reasons change if the MLA is not a member of the party in power?

Not at all, at least in my view.  My provincial political career began with five years on the Opposition side of the Legislature, but my relationship with SD 83 was always collaborative and collegial regardless.  I believe, as Sting said, “we share the same biology, regardless of ideology.” There are many things that should transcend the partisan political battles and none are more important than the education of our children.  Your Opposition MLA may become a member on the government side in 2017 or 2021.  Even if they are not, legislative processes like Estimates (and less constructively the theatre-driven Question Period) allow Opposition MLAs to raise issues of vital concern with the Minister of the day.

Q3: MLAs are busy people.  What are some suggestions for getting and making the most of time with them? 

I was able to sustain a good relationship with SD 83, including regular meetings with them, despite holding down some of the toughest portfolios in government.  Boards of Education are vitally important constituents and I don’t believe for a second that any MLA is too busy to do the same.  My suggestions are, first of all, to establish a pattern for meetings perhaps quarterly or at minimum semi-annually.  Get to know the MLAs Constituency Assistant(s) as they are the gate-keepers and time managers.  Second, always have a written agenda, circulated in advance, to ensure that all of your most important issues are canvassed in the time available.  Third, understand the pressures that the MLA and government of the day are under and frame your thoughts and proposals in ways that will resonate.

Q4: What are some things that Boards might want to avoid or minimize when connecting with their MLAs?

If you are fortunate, you may enjoy the opportunity to meet your MLA for an hour or two on a quarterly basis.  In short, you won’t have a lot of time to waste.  Further to the point above, be focused, professional, analytical, and informative.  Recognize that in almost every case your MLA will be a partisan.  Minimize the opportunity for MLAs and trustees to indulge in political sniping.  That should be reserved for Victoria.  Absolutely nothing will be served by it.  The MLA needs to understand the board’s perspective(s), and the reasons for it, but vitriolic political debate will simply discourage both sides from building the relationship.  The chair should lead the discussion, but with important roles for the superintendent and the secretary-treasurer, supported by constructive contributions from trustees.

Q5: On the flip side, what advice do you have for MLAs regarding their relationship with local Boards?

A constructive and collegial relationship is mutually advantageous.  Embrace the opportunity to learn more about the challenges school districts are facing and how those might be remediated.  No one expects you to fix every problem overnight, but you will be greatly empowered by an accurate understanding of them.  In Victoria there are always plenty of opportunities to hear simplistic, short-sighted and overtly partisan answers to often complex problems.  Those kinds of answers don’t serve constituents well.  Such answers, if articulated in the media, will certainly lead to equally pointed responses from the board of education.  The result is a cycle of destructive behaviours which electors quite rightly interpret as “politicians bickering and not working together to serve the public interest.”  I think it is possible to acknowledge differences of opinion and perspective, those will be forever with us, but do it in a way that is respectful and compatible with the broader constructive relationship.

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A very big thank you to George Abbott for taking time out of his very busy schedule for this interview. George can be reached at geoabbott@shaw.ca

Stephen Hansen (Sehansen6263@gmail.com)

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