Not very long ago, they were a church minister, political party worker and union activist — three people in separate worlds. All that changed on May 5 when they were elected to become Central Alberta MLAs.
Red Deer South NDP MLA Barb Miller, Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr, and Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills MLA Nathan Cooper, the latter two with Wildrose, spoke with the Advocate about these early days on the job.
They form part of the largest ever group of first-time MLAs in the Alberta legislature, a sea change as Rachel Notley’s NDP buried the Progressive Conservatives. The PCs were dealt an end to their record 44 years in continuous power on May 5.
The NDP soared from four seats to 53, and so most of them are without any experience as an MLA. Overall, there are 70 first-time MLAs in the 87-seat legislature, including party leaders Brian Jean of the Wildrose and Greg Clark from the Alberta Party.
Six of the seven MLAs in Central Alberta are first-timers. They also include Red Deer North NDP MLA Kim Schreiner, and Wildrose MLAs Don MacIntyre, Innisfail-Sylvan Lake, and Jason Nixon, Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre. Rick Strankman, Wildrose MLA for Drumheller-Stettler, is in his second term.
Politics aside, what’s it like to be a rookie MLA?
Miller, 56, through her job at Safeway, was a union executive member, and contract bargainer.
She has taken a four-year leave of absence from her job, and has stepped down as president of the Red Deer and District Labour Council now that she is an MLA.
Miller lives with her husband, Doug Thompson. “Now they’re calling him Mr. Miller a lot,” she chuckles. A daughter and granddaughter live with them full time, and her grandson lives with them part time.
Since being elected, Miller has been busy. “You name it, we’re learning it.”
She’s put 3,000 km on her vehicle travelling back and forth to Edmonton. When she has time, she will find a place to rent in Edmonton, so her husband, who is legally blind, can be with her when the legislature is sitting.
MLAs were offered a mock parliament recently. That’s when the mystery of the ringing bells was solved, Miller said. Bells ring a 10 minute-warning to MLAs that they need to be seated.
Miller has been taking orientation classes, learning things like how to run an office budget. She has been given a new government computer tablet for work. “My grandson is going to be with us this weekend. He can help me.”
She agrees that her life has changed. “You’re always on.”
She was waiting in the cue at the women’s washroom at Bower Place Shopping Centre when this occurred:
“‘You’re Barb Miller! You’re my MLA, can I hug you?’ So there’s no boundaries anymore.”
In the coming days, Miller has a meeting with Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer, and she will be touring the local native friendship centre and Red Deer Museum’s current display Walking With Our Sisters, with Red Deer North MLA Schreiner and the new minister of Aboriginal Relations.
Miller and other NDP MLAs will be assigned to committees after they meet individually with the premier.
As for Orr, he was a minister for Clive Baptist Church for the past 13 years before being elected. He spent a lot of last week in training as well.
The Speaker walked them through different procedures in the legislature, such as how to introduce motions.
“I definitely will be referring to the order books and things like that.”
As well, as part of being an MLA, Orr, 60, took training to be a notary public and commissioner of oaths.
He sees his new job as a lot like the old one — being in a helping and communication profession. He has now resigned his minister job.
“They told us we do need to try to take a day off now and then or we’ll burn ourselves out and not be efficient,” but Orr describes himself as a “workaholic” and he’s comfortable with his new job even though it’s demanding.
He’s already been to a number of graduations, a ribbon cutting, and met with chambers of commerce, some municipal councils and school boards.
He said he his wife Donna-Marie are empty-nesters, and his wife enjoys the social side. “She likes being in the parade,” he laughs.
He was appointed to look after Culture and Tourism in the Wildrose shadow cabinet.
Cooper, 35, has a bit of an inside track. He worked as Wildrose caucus chief of staff and director of legislative affairs before the election. He was also a member of Carstairs town council and he used to work in the office of the former MLA.
He and his wife Tanya have three young children.
Cooper, now Wildrose’s house leader and shadowing property rights issues, is helping his colleagues navigate their way.
“Parliamentary procedure is a critically important portion of the legislative process and one that bores most people to death. Unfortunately, or fortunately, for me, I find it quite interesting and engaging … hopefully some of my passion will rub off on others as well.”
The Coopers home school their children, primarily so they can do things together as a family. They have rented a place in Edmonton, which allows his family to stay with him “when everyone can make it work.”
It worked well last week to have the children there, and they didn’t miss any school, Cooper said.