Governing by ‘sheer legislative laziness’

On Wednesday, November 1, CBC Radio Information Morning host Portia Clark interviewed representatives of two environmental groups that have banded together to try to convince the Houston government to amend and strengthen the Provincial Parks Act.

Nature Nova Scotia and the Ecology Action Centre want the government to close loopholes and short-circuit future development proposals like recent ones on supposedly protected parkland in Owls Head and West Mabou Beach. Loopholes? Twice in the past five years, private developers quietly tried to convince governments to allow them to create golf courses in Owls Head even though it was already supposed to be protected under the act. Twice, activists had to rally to successfully derail the proposals.

In opposition, the Houston PCs campaigned in 2021 on a promise to “protect 20 percent of the province’s land and water by 2030, a vow cemented in the [new PC government’s] Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act that passed in October 2021.”

Now? Not so much. Last month, in fact, the government said updating the legislation, which was created in the 1950s and hasn’t been amended since 1989, was not a priority.

When Clark asked the Ecology Action Centre’s senior wilderness coordinator, Ray Plourde, why the government might be reluctant to act, he first suggested that the government might want to maintain the broad ministerial discretion in the current act “because they might want to use it themselves.” But he seemed to dismiss that idea based on what happened to those earlier attempts to end run the rules. “The government got the message loud and clear that the public will not stand for that.”

Why, then?

“Sheer legislative laziness,” Plourde suggested. “I can’t think of any other reason the government wouldn’t do it… They just don’t want to.”

Sheer legislative laziness…

Think about that.

In truth, that seems to sum up how governments view the place — and the process — where government legislation is supposed to be introduced, debated, amended and approved or not.

The current fall session began October 12, “and about a week later Houston told reporters that his government had likely brought forward all of its legislation.”

Is there really so little in need of legislating in Nova Scotia that it can all be introduced in a week?

And then dispensed with without meaningful debate?

“We have big issues like inflation, like the housing crisis, like homelessness, a health care system that’s collapsing,” Liberal leader Zach Churchill told reporters. “Our job in here is to hold them to account and to push forward good ideas.”

The government’s response?

Wake me when you’re done talking.

Consider that, on that same day Plourde was describing the state of sheer legislative laziness, the government refused to rethink its controversial, ill-conceived legislation to give Housing Minister John Lohr — a man with no experience in housing development or municipal planning — undemocratic powers to single-handedly green light housing projects in the Halifax Regional Municipality put forward by developers he alone designated as “good.”

The legislation had already been eviscerated in the province’s law amendments committee where 11 witnesses — mostly municipal leaders — used actual facts and statistics to show that the legislation not only wasn’t needed but could also “cause real harm to the cause of encouraging affordable housing.”

No matter. The Tory hear-no-evil Muppet-puppets on that committee voted as one to return the bill to the legislature without change.

Then, last week, after the government refused to shelve the bill for further consideration, its me-too Tory majority in the House voted down every amendment the opposition parties put forward.

Unconsidered. Consider:

The Liberals proposed 11 amendments, all of them designed to make the process more transparent, or in some way limit the minister’s power to decide entirely on his own.

Amendments included:

  • Making public all ministerial approvals, along with a justification as to why the decision was made.
  • Publishing details of the approved projects, including “who is leading the development, when it’s expected to begin and end, number of units to be built, how many [will be] affordable.”
  • Restricting approvals to neighbourhoods or communities with enough road capacity to handle traffic increases and emergency vehicles.
  • Ensuring any new developments are tied to funding for additional recreational facilities, schools and emergency services, including fire, ambulance and police.
  • Making consulting with the municipality and with Black communities mandatory.

The NDP proposed a similar amendment to consult with African Nova Scotians and Mi’kmaw communities “to ensure the protection of the communities before exercising the power.”

Meanwhile, the Houston government’s frustration with real law-making clear, it announced extended sitting hours from six hours a day to 11 — 1 pm to 11:59 pm daily — to push through its thin gruel of legislation, so it could get on with the business of running things with having to worry about being accountable to the opposition, to the citizens of Nova Scotia.

The opposition countered by calling for recorded clause-by-clause votes on legislation, which resulted in lengthy bell-ringing delays while MLAs returned to the chamber to vote.

“This is not meaningful debate,” a frustrated Houston told reporters. “This is pretty ugly.”

It is, of course, nothing new. And he has created much of the current ugliness.

When the Liberals were in power, they did the same thing. So did the NDP. And the opposition, including Tim Houston, railed against it then. Until they got into power, after which debate and accountability became dirty words.

If you want to know why politicians are held in such low regard, we could start with that.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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