Law amendments: back to the future

When Stephen McNeil’s Liberals were in power, Tim Houston’s Tories rightly railed against the way the government abused the law amendments committee to rubber-stamp its legislation. Well, now Houston is the premier and guess what? Nothing’s changed.

Empty chairs in a meeting room
Perhaps as illustrated

On Monday, April 4, 2022, Nova Scotia’s law amendments committee met to consider Bill 120, amendments to Nova Scotia’s Involuntary Psychiatric Treatment Act. Brian Comer, the Tory minister responsible for the office of addictions and mental health, claimed the amendments will “enhance the protection of patients …  having a mental disorder or severe, persistent mental illness by enabling them to be admitted for involuntary treatment, either in hospital or in the community.”

Comer introduced his legislation on Thursday, March 31.

The next day, after less than half an hour of polite debate featuring tentative responses by just three MLAs — Some of the amendments so far look good,” noted the NDP’s Lisa Lachance. “I’m looking forward to hearing from folks at Law Amendments Committee” — Comer rose again in the House:

HON. BRIAN COMER: Mr. Speaker, I thank my honourable colleagues for their comments. With that, I rise to close debate on Bill No. 120.

THE SPEAKER: The motion is for second reading of Bill No. 120. All those in favour? … Contrary minded? … Thank you. … The motion is carried. Ordered that this bill be referred to the Committee on Law Amendments.

Two days — just one weekend — later, the legislation landed in the lap of the law amendments committee. Its critical role in the legislative process is supposed to be to give bills “clause-by-clause consideration and hear representations from any interested persons or organizations.”

Uh…

Although Comer claimed his amendments had been developed using consultation that happened in the past and that he was satisfied with the changes as presented, it wasn’t clear from the hearing with whom he’d consulted or what he’d actually heard.

Clearly, though, Comer hadn’t contacted Archie Kaiser, one of Canada’s foremost experts in mental health law who is cross-appointed to Dalhousie University’s law school and its medical school’s department of psychiatry where he has been teaching legal issues in psychiatry as part of its residency training program since 1995.

Kaiser described the province’s consultation — or lack of consultation — process as “shameful. I’m astonished and flabbergasted that this government could think that this all-too-hasty consideration of such a complicated bill would be satisfactory to Nova Scotians,” he told the CBC’s Michael Gorman.

As for the bill itself, Kaiser warned the committee, during the five minutes he was allowed to speak, that…

the bill fails to come to grips with Canada’s obligations under the United Nations conventions on the rights of persons with disabilities and in several cases runs counter to the conventions.

Among other things, the legislation propagates stigma against people with mental illnesses, said Kaiser. He told CBC News that such a bill demands thorough, broad public engagement that includes people with lived experience and those who advocate on their behalf.

“What’s happening now looks like legislation drafted behind closed doors and rushed through the House with indecent haste in a matter that’s entirely disrespectful of the gravity of the issues and of the rights of people with mental illness.”

As if to underscore Kaiser’s point, his colleague, Sheila Wildeman — whose research topics include human rights and mental health law — told the committee she’d only heard about the amendments over the weekend from a colleague in British Columbia. She’d had to contact the committee just a few hours before the hearing began to be added to its witness list.

Kaiser and Wildeman weren’t the only obvious experts the Houston government had failed to consult in its eagerness to do whatever it wants to do with no pesky outside interference.

At its meeting Monday, the law amendments committee also considered another piece of legislation: amendments to the Public Health Information Act.

Like the psychiatry act changes, the health information amendments — which Health Minister Thompson claimed would “further strengthen the Personal Health Information Act for the benefit of patients across our healthcare system” — had enjoyed a jet-propulsed ride through the supposedly rigorous legislative consultation process.

Introduced Thursday.

Second reading Friday.

Law amendments Monday.

Headshot of a smiling woman in business attire.
Information and Privacy Commissioner Tricia Ralph. Photo: OIPC.

Which is when Tricia Ralph, the province’s information and privacy commissioner, first —— first! —  enters the picture.

Although Ralph told the committee her office deals with the personal health information act on a daily basis, her office not only hadn’t been consulted on the amendments, the government also hadn’t even informed her of the proposals prior to their introduction.

Worse, she suggested, the amendments themselves will create “unintended consequences that, in some cases, could actually weaken privacy protection and the ability to respond to breaches.”

“I urge the committee to send this bill back to the minister, with a recommendation to consult with my office to ensure that Nova Scotians’ access to privacy rights are respected and protected.”

Any bets on what happened next?

Opposition MLAs tried to convince their Tory counterparts to refer the bills back to the government departments to reconsider the legislation in the light of these expert opinions.

Instead, the Houston government’s equivalent of former Liberal premier Stephen McNeil’s “Fangless Five” — Tory law amendments committee members Dave Ritchey, Kent Smith, Trevor Boudreau, Melissa Sheehy-Richard and chair Brad Johns — Yes-Ministered both bills back to the House without amendment or delay.

Remind you of anything? As Michael Gorman noted in his report:

The approach Monday is one that became familiar during the eight years of the former Liberal government, where law amendments was often seen as a rubber stamp as the government attempted to move through its legislative agenda as quickly as possible.

Didn’t Tim Houston promise to be different? To make legislative committees more relevant? To overhaul the province’s freedom of information system?

That was then.

This is now.

The difference.

Now, Tim Houston is in charge.

***

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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  1. But is it the Premier or the bureaucrats? It reminds me of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine-keep everyone so rattled with changes (especially regulations that de-regulate) that you can’t keep up, you feel powerless and you know that participating is a waste of time. We now have an entire generation entirely trained to understand neo-liberalism as the norm and that private is better than public.

    Reply

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