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Spotlight on Positive Politics

Springtide Collective hands out awards for better politics

by Rebecca Zimmer

Winners of Wednesday nights awards included (Left to Right) Norm Collins for Advocate of the Year, Geoff MacLellan for Most Open MLA, John Lohr for Rookie of the Year, Chris d'Entremont for Legislator of the Year, Maureen MacDonald for Most Knowledgeable MLA, Sterling Belliveau for Most Collaborative MLA and Bill Black for Story Shaper of the Year. Missing, David Darrow for Public Servant of the Year. Photo Rebecca Zimmer
Winners of Wednesday nights awards included (Left to Right) Norm Collins for Advocate of the Year, Geoff MacLellan for Most Open MLA, John Lohr for Rookie of the Year, Chris d'Entremont for Legislator of the Year, Maureen MacDonald for Most Knowledgeable MLA, Sterling Belliveau for Most Collaborative MLA and Bill Black for Story Shaper of the Year. Missing, David Darrow for Public Servant of the Year. Photo Rebecca Zimmer
EVERYBODY: Outside the house, it's all fun and games. All nominees of the Better Politics Awards, including MLA nominees and public interest champion nominees. Photo Rebecca Zimmer
EVERYBODY: Outside the house, it's all fun and games. All nominees of the Better Politics Awards, including MLA nominees and public interest champion nominees. Photo Rebecca Zimmer

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - In 2013, 58 per cent of Nova Scotian voters cast their ballot in the provincial election.

For Springtide Collective this is a trend that needs to be changed.

“We've seen politics in Nova Scotia and across Canada. The frustration with the traditional way of doing politics can be dismissive, combative and very toxic,” the organization argues.

This is where the first annual Better Politics awards comes in, acknowledging MLAs and democratically conscience citizens as they work towards a more active democracy. For Mark Coffin, President and founder of Springtide Collective, it is all about creating the opportunity to celebrate.

“Like any other work place, the people who are kicking up a stink and causing a fuss get noticed and the people who are doing their jobs get missed,” says Coffin, “politicians who are encouraging people to engage more...also civil society advocates, journalists and public servants are doing work that contributes to the quality of democracy in Nova Scotia.”

Coffin's path to creating the Better Politics awards was not always well paved, with many critics questioning the validity of rewarding politicians. He's been told to "get a life" and that giving politicians awards would "only encourage them."

 
For the most part, awarding these politicians and their work to improve and engage democracy has also garnered much positive feedback.
 
"We've been inspired and motivated by the number of people who did jump [at the idea] with fairly minimal hesitation," says Coffin, listing off the dozens of Nova Scotians sent in nominations to Springtide for the advocate, public servant and story shaper awards, the majority of the MLAs did participate in the voting process.

Eight awards were given out Wednesday night, five to MLA and three for public interest champions, regular citizens who were recognized for being politically active in the community.

Each champion was nominated by a member of the public describing the nominees work and contributions to a better democracy in Nova Scotia.

Winners included columnist and blogger Bill Black for Story Shaper of the Year, crosswalk safety advocate Norm Collins for Advocate of the Year and Deputy Minister to the Premier and Secretary to Executive Council David Darrow for Public Servant of the Year.

Each winner brought something unique to the judges on the anel.

“As Bill's nominator said, 'Bill brings a knowledge of business and politics to his columns that is unrivaled in this province'.” MC Pamela Scott Crace read of the story shaper.

Collins' advocacy for crosswalk safety and his creation of a Sidewalk Safety plan for the HRM earned him the award for his “self reliance, determination and impact, showing that one man can truly make a difference.”

Darrow's long standing work in public service, his many roles within the government along with his integrity and character, earned him his award, as he always “placed the importance of a healthy and engaged public service ahead of everything else.”

The MLA awards focused on sides of politics that are rarely celebrated, like openness, knowledge, collaboration, traits that Springtide wants to see more of in all levels of politics.

“People who are willing to share information, treat communication as a two way street whether they are working with legislators or citizens, that's important for continuing engagement in all people.” Coffin says.

For the MLA categories, 75 per cent of the 51 sitting MLAs from all three parties voted.

“That's 15 per cent higher than the last provincial election.” Crace jokes as she introduces the nominees.

“In order to win the contest, MLAs needed to have significant support from within their own party and also from outside their party.”

An interesting concept in partisan politics, especially when the Liberal party dominates the legislature but Coffin and his team were well aware of that. Each MLA cast four votes in each category, two within their party and two outside their party, with votes being converted to a point system that leveled the playing field.

If they weren't thinking about it before, “[MLAs] were actually forced to consider, 'if I had to choose someone from the other side, who would it be'.” Says Coffin.

Patricia Arab, Liberal MLA for Fairview-Clayton Park and also Rookie of the Year nominee noticed that as well.

“Having to vote from other parties made you actually stop and think about the vote you were making and hopefully when people were voting they were voting from an informed position.”

The categories themselves supported non-partisan voting according to Maureen MacDonald, MLA for Halifax Needham and interim leader of the Nova Scotia New Democrats.

“They're not ideologically based, like who has done the most for housing. Those kind of things may result in a more partisan bias but the categories are constructed to get away from partisanship.”

In the category for most knowledgeable, “you tend to think, 'who reads a lot, when they stand up to talk it's not a bunch of cliches, there is some substance to what they have to say, they've considered this issue.” MacDonald says.

It wasn't just party lines that were crossed, but also political levels, with many politicians coming from all levels of government to support a provincially focused event, including Member of Parliament Megan Leslie and city councillors Jennifer Watts and Waye Mason.

“They lead,” says Mason, “so much of what's going on in Nova Scotia politically obviously is shaped by what's happening in the legislature.”

It's also about public perception, Mason says, recalling Tuesday night's hard-fought Wellington Street decision and Steve Adams, who was on the other side of the debate, giving him a ride home.

“[Partisanship] is not like how people think it is and it's good to have tangible evidence of that.”

Political perception was a big theme for keynote speaker Michael MacMillan, CEO of non-profit group Sumara and co-author of Tragedy in the Commons, which looked at political life through exit interviews with 80 newly ousted MPs after the 2006 and 2008 elections.

Key themes emerged from MacMillan and fellow co-author, Alison Loat's, research of how politicians view their work and their positions with politicians commenting on common themes that weren't on the Sumara agenda.

“Almost all of them styled themselves as the reluctant politician. They claimed they never had the slightest intention or idea of running for office. That they were dragged, kicking and screaming to run.”

The main claim for not wanting to run was considering themselves an outsider. Even though many of them were politically involved in their community in some form long before becoming parliamentary members, they still saw themselves as not like their fellow MPs, whether inside or outside their party.

When politicians deny that they ever wanted to be in the political realm it doesn't help the citizenry's desire to get involved, MacMillan says.

“It's time to reclaim the idea that politics and public leadership matters and if that can't be done first and foremost by our own public leaders. We got a pretty big problem.”

How members described the political environment paints a bleak picture of collaborative politics, with terms like toxic, confusing and fraudulent being used to describe the experience within their own party, let alone dealing with members across the floor.

“They told us tales of how they'd often be given poisoned advice so as not to get ahead within their caucus.”

This negativity is also coming from the party leadership; being forced to tow the party line, forced to behave badly and forced to vote the party way, if they wanted their nomination endorsed by the leader come the next election.

MacMillan and Loat concluded from the interviews that it is the structure of politics that needs to be changed before we see a more collaborative and open political realm.

The question then becomes, “who is going to be the first MP to refuse those speaking points, to vote contrary occasionally, to take the risk of not climbing up the party ladder. Or who will be the first party to change its behaviour and put down its weapons first.”

 


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