ELIZABETH Cull’s advice for the first-time MLAs elected Tuesday?
“Don’t be surprised if you see urinals in the women’s washrooms.”
OK, maybe that’s just the way it was when she was in the legislature, the member for Oak Bay-Gordon Head from 1989 to 1996. The boys who designed the joint didn’t do so with female politicians in mind, which is why any water closet close to the action was built for the gents.
Also, get someone to teach you what the bells mean, Cull says. “Bells ring all the time. You don’t know what they’re for.” One set of rings calls the government caucus together, another summons the opposition, another sends everyone scuttling to the main chamber. (The suspicion is they accidentally privatized B.C. Ferries after someone pulled a fire alarm.)
Also, try not to get lost, says Ida Chong, the Liberal who defeated New Democrat Cull in 1996. Chong might have been raised in Victoria, but the rambling reaches of the legislature building were foreign to her. “I had never even had a tour as a youngster.” So, the rookie MLA found herself counting light fixtures just to negotiate the hallways.
Also, listen. To everybody. “You become the MLA representing all the people in your riding, not just the ones who voted for you,” says Murray Coell, who represented Saanich North and the Islands for 16 years. “Every day you’re going to learn something and every day you’re going to meet someone interesting.”
Yes, the fired-up newbie politicians elected Tuesday might dream of kicking down the doors of power, but chances are they’ll charge headlong into a mop bucket. With that in mind, former politicians Cull, Chong and Coell were asked what advice they would pass on.
First order of business: open a constituency office right away, Chong says. Don’t take your time like she did. “People have issues and they don’t want to wait.” After the Greens’ Andrew Weaver defeated Chong in 2013, he simply took over her old space. “I left on Friday and he moved in on Monday. I left him a plant and nice card that said ‘Good luck.’ ”
And don’t get your nose out of joint if the legislature office you’re assigned isn’t up to expectations, Chong says. “Whatever you get, don’t complain. Just be grateful you’re there.”
Be prepared to figure out the role on your own, Cull says. Other than when required for votes or caucus meetings, backbenchers are left to their own devices. “You need to make up your own job description.”
It will be busy, though. As an accountant, Chong was used to putting in long hours, particularly in tax season, but this was something else. “It’s 12 months a year. You’re working easily 60 hours a week if you want to do a good job.”
Coell, who had been mayor of Saanich and chairman of the Capital Regional District before turning to provincial politics in 1996, was still taken aback by the 24/7 life of a cabinet minister. “Your time is not your own.”
At least south Island MLAs — unlike their up-country cousins — get to sleep in their own beds and watch their children grow up. “I may not have seen my son awake every day but I at least got to see him every day,” Cull said. She liked that Treasury Board didn’t meet on Tuesday nights because that conflicted with somebody’s kid’s swim club.
Be prepared for the fishbowl, warns Chong. Everything you post online will be scrutinized. In fact, it’s already too late: those glib Facebook blurtings from your pre-political life are floating around like mines, waiting to explode. “Things in your past are forever archived on social media.” Who would have thought something so flippant would become an “issue” that needs to be “managed” by the party?
Even in these hyper-partisan times, be prepared to like your foes. Some of them. “The biggest surprise was realizing the people sitting on the opposite side of the house weren’t my enemy,” Cull says. Most MLAs are there for the right reasons.
Coell agrees. Travelling on bipartisan legislative committees gives opponents a chance to get to know one another as humans. “People like Carole James I still have a lot of respect for,” the Liberal said of the New Democrat MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill.
A reminder that we vote not just for parties, but people.