It’s been a steep learning curve for Gwen O’Mahony since winning the Chilliwack-Hope byelection in April.
The former health care worker was elected halfway through the spring legislative session and spent a week in Victoria getting a crash course in politics.
“In many ways, it’s almost like you’ve walked in on the middle of a conversation,” said O’Mahony, who is the 88th female MLA in B.C. “Just when you think you’re getting a grasp, there’s something more to learn. You have to learn the legislative assembly protocols and there’s many of them. There’s a certain expectation. Question period is also really something – it’s lively and there’s heckling.”
Even though she hasn’t spent a lot of time on the legislature floor – the government cancelled the fall session – O’Mahony has had the opportunity to speak on a number of issues including the HST, dialysis in Chilliwack, and condition of people living in mobile parks.
“You might not think people are paying attention to what goes on in Victoria, but it’s not true,” she said. “People are very much aware of what their local representative is saying.”
Chilliwack-Hope is a diverse riding made up of several communities in a large geographical region, which has made time management crucial for O’Mahony. She hired two full-time office staff immediately after getting sworn in to assist with the workload. In addition to dealing with cases in the riding, O’Mahony regularly participates in caucus meetings all over the province. She also serves as the official opposition critic for skills training and deputy advanced education critic.
“If anybody is planning to be an MLA, you have to recognize the job is not a stable Monday to Friday and 9 to 5,” she said. “You have be prepared to fulfill multiple roles at any given time. You have to be adaptable to change – change in environment and change in scenarios.”
Earlier this year, O’Mahony organized a community forum with a panel of experts to discuss the pending closure of the rehab unit at Chilliwack General Hospital. She’s also spent time advocating for Sunshine Valley residents impacted by last year’s landslide and the removal of truck wreckage from a swimming hole underneath Spuzzum Creek Bridge.
“My goal is to try to be as collaborative as possible and work with everybody on both sides of an issue,” said O’Mahony.
“When we look at problems, we often focus on solutions. If you can step towards improvement, take those steps. Sometimes there’s black and white cases, but then other issues you have to count the little successes.”
In September, she embarked on a provincial tour of universities and found that the biggest concern for students is affordability. O’Mahony said students with a four-year degree currently graduate with about $26,000 in debt. High interest rates in B.C. make it even harder for people to payoff loans.
“During the byelection, I spoke a lot about the fact that we’re making education a priority because we know that 80 per cent of all future careers and employment will require some post-secondary education and training,” she said. “We’ve come out very clear talking about the reinstitution of the needs-based student grant program. Education is really central to economic recovery.”
O’Mahony pointed out that several barriers, including affordability and the elimination of trades counsellors, are contributing to the current 37 per cent skills training completion rate.
“One of the most alarming quotes I’ve heard is that economic recovery could be stifled for the first time in history not by the lack of financial capital but by what is known as human capital,” she added. “When people come to invest in Canada and British Columbia, they’re looking at the availability of workers. I think we need to think broader.”
O’Mahony is committed to moving forward with positive politics, collaborative approaches, and putting each community’s interests first. Skills training, health care, and transportation will remain key areas of her platform heading into the spring provincial election.
“I’m not going to slow down at all,” she said. “If you really love your job, you find ways to be more knowledgeable, effective and efficient, and better ways to communicate with communities. This is a position of servanthood.”