Op-ed: MLAs rose to the challenge of COVID-19
The following opinion piece from Connor Giesbrecht, Elizabeth St. John (political studies undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts) and Dr. Royce Koop (professor of political studies and academic director of the Centre for Social Science Research and Policy at UM) was published by the Winnipeg Free Press. Both students were undergraduate research award (URA) recipients in 2021 and conducted research on Manitoba politics over the summer. The URA program is supported by the University of Manitoba Office of the Vice-President Research and International.
The COVID-19 pandemic radically altered many Manitobans’ professional lives. The province’s 57 MLAs were no exception.
Over the course of the summer, we interviewed 22 of those MLAs about how they do their jobs as elected representatives; naturally, COVID-19 was a frequent topic of conversation. MLAs spoke at length about the consequences COVID-19 has brought to their jobs and to democracy in Manitoba.
Some political observers predicted the pandemic would lead to a “presidentialization” of provincial politics in Manitoba, as former premier Brian Pallister became, it seemed, the sole public face of the PC government. With the spotlight on the premier, backbench MLAs received less attention and seemed to fade into the background.
Despite this, MLAs continued their work behind the scenes. While they may not have gotten much credit for it, backbench MLAs continued to work as representatives of their ridings, and in many cases worked much harder than usual because of the increased needs of their constituents.
During the pandemic, MLAs have had to adapt how they reached out to those they were elected to serve. One adaptation MLAs made will be familiar to many Manitobans: the replacement of in-person meetings with online alternatives such as Zoom meetings.
Many MLAs emphasize hosting or appearing at events in their constituencies so that they can be accessible to their constituents. They will also meet in person with constituents who have concerns about policy or government services. Owing to gathering restrictions put in place during much of the pandemic, neither of these activities was possible, and MLAs had to quickly pivot to maintain a connection with the public they represent.
This shift to online platforms went well for some MLAs. The response to Zoom was mixed overall, but many found the convenience of being able to attend some meetings from home outweighed the downsides. Most MLAs preferred in-person meetings in situations where they were connecting with constituents on a one-on-one basis; however, Zoom and other platforms worked well for larger meetings.
Rural MLAs were able to cut down on travel times, and MLAs who were ill or had family commitments were able to attend meetings that they would otherwise have had to cancel.
Some MLAs told us they planned to integrate some of the pandemic adaptations into their jobs as representatives even after the threat of COVID-19 has subsided. Online meetings, event streaming and social media have made MLAs — who identified child-care demands, transportation problems and illness as barriers to meeting and conversing regularly and freely with their constituents — more accessible.
The convenience afforded by platforms such as Zoom helped to overcome those barriers; several MLAs said they hope to continue hosting some events online or in hybrid formats even after the pandemic ends.
For many MLAs, the pandemic changed their orientation to their role as a representative. Some, for example, felt that the experience of having to serve others during COVID-19 had made their approach more compassionate. While most MLAs felt the pandemic had negatively impacted their ability to connect with constituents in a universal sense, some thought the ties they developed with individual constituents were stronger and more personal than those developed in the past.
The severity of the pandemic created the conditions for MLAs to build stronger, more personalized bonds than would otherwise have been possible. Some thought the pandemic gave them greater empathy and compassion for the people they represented.
In addition, several MLAs told us that the pandemic had led to them forging relationships with local groups and communities with which they had not previously had close bonds. For example, one NDP MLA reported the adaptations made during the pandemic had developed a more trusting relationship with local businesses in his riding because of his efforts to listen to and act on their concerns.
How resilient are our democratic institutions during emergencies and other periods of extreme strain? Democracy in Manitoba appears strong, as our representatives continued to do their jobs despite the very substantial obstacles created by COVID-19. During the pandemic, MLAs adapted to new and challenging circumstances to continue to work for and represent their constituents. While the motives driving MLAs in how they represent their constituents remain the same, most had their approach to representation changed in some ways by the pandemic.
Manitoba’s MLAs passed, and even thrived as a result of, the stress test posed by COVID-19.