A friend of mine, a federal contractor, recalls visiting his MP for help on a local issue. The MP grew increasingly irritable and finally threw up his hands, exclaiming: “What’s in this for me?” The meeting ended badly.
This collision of two worlds – the aggrieved petitioner and harassed legislator – is the core of The Effective Citizen. Author Graham Steele, a former Nova Scotia finance minister, acknowledges both petitioner and legislator have legitimate points, albeit on different frequencies, and explains how to tune dialogue to problem-solving.
“The best meetings were the ones where my visitors understood the environment I was working in, and helped me understand the environment they were working in, and together we had a constructive discussion about what was possible or not possible, and why,” writes Steele. “Those meetings were too rare.”
Steele has an unaffected writing style that’s enjoyable for readers, and an unvarnished view of the politician’s world. Many Canadians at some point interact with officialdom over a school closure or traffic light, arena grant, a disallowed pension or hire-a-student subsidy. “A hammer won’t help you if you need a screwdriver,” writes Steele. The Effective Citizen lays out all the tools.
“I’m not giving you secrets for working with politicians,” says Steele. “I’m giving you tools that will put you on a level playing field with politicians.” Among Steele’s practical guidance:
- • Forget email campaigns; they don’t get read;
- • Forget petitions: “They don’t work”;
- • Try to set up a meeting, even with staff;
- • Don’t be nervous;
- • Don’t say, “I know you’re busy”: “It immediately hands power to the politician”;
- • Don’t say, “I voted for you”; “It doesn’t matter who you voted for”;
- • Don’t give up;
- • Don’t burn bridges.
“Take half a loaf, and go back for the rest one slice at a time,” says Effective Citizen; “If the politician has previously taken a stance against you, all is not lost. Times change. Minds change. When a politician says no to you, understand it as meaning, ‘Not yet.’”
The Effective Citizen provides candid insight into the world of caucuses and backbenchers, useful even to readers who could not imagine petitioning their MP for anything, but remain intrigued by the many shortcomings of political discourse.
Why doesn’t Canada have national daycare? Why don’t we have pharmacare? Why don’t we have a national poverty reduction strategy? Steele thought of that. “Passion is not a substitute for public support,” he writes.
“For example, anti-poverty activists believe that poverty is a vote-moving issue,” says Steele. “I am very sympathetic to them, but they’re wrong: the fight against poverty does not sway many votes in a Canadian election. One of my former colleagues criticized me for having said so in a caucus meeting. Our former party went on to make poverty a central part of their platform in the Nova Scotia provincial election in 2017. They had their worst result in almost twenty-five years.”
By Holly Doan
The Effective Citizen: How to Make Politicians Work for You, by Graham Steele; Nimbus Publishing; 280 pages; ISBN 9781-7710-85311; $29.95