Political accountability meets ‘the permanent campaign’

Nova Scotia’s legislature met for just 19 days. It didn’t do much. And then it adjourned. That is the plan.

It was pushing 11 pm on the night of April 22, 2022, and everything that was going to be done — however little of that there might have been — was now well and truly done. Inside the legislature, Premier Tim Houston thanked everyone “who made this session move along so smoothly” and wished MLAs “a safe and healthy and prosperous and productive summer. We will see you back here in the fall,” he said, adding for good measure, “I can’t wait.”

No one believed a word of that last sentence.

“The motion is that the House now adjourn to meet again at the call of the Speaker,” Speaker Keith Bain quickly chimed in. “All those in favour? … Contrary minded? … Thank you… The motion is carried… We stand adjourned.”

The spring sitting of the First of the 64th Assembly of the Nova Scotia’s House legislature was history.

Just 19 days after it began.

If that sounds both oddly familiar and jarringly disconnected, well, welcome to Nova Scotia.

When he was in opposition, Houston, like his fellow MLAs on the opposition side, regularly railed against the then-Liberal government’s dismissive, controlling treatment of the “people’s house:”

  • its shorter-than-short sessions that consistently set national records for their brevity,
  • its government-by-exhaustion employment of extended hours to ram through government bills, and
  • its transformation of committees that were supposed to provide opportunities for careful consideration and citizen input into “Yes-Premier” rubber stompers.

But eight months after his Tories swept out a tired Liberal government and won its own majority, Houston has found a new governance handbook from which to sing.

A man wearing a dark suit, white shirt and no tie speaks at a podium. In the background are four Nova Scotia flags, coloured blue, yellow and red.
Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston speaks to reporters. — Photo: Zane Woodford

“You have to look at the quality of time in the legislature,” Houston responded to pesky reporters’ reminders of his own now-forgotten pre-premier views. “We’re making meaningful change, meaningful legislation. The opposition is having a chance to have their comments. Nova Scotians are having a chance at the law amendments procedure. Everyone who wants to speak on legislation in that chamber is certainly getting their opportunity.”

Shall we parse that?

Quality time?

NDP leader in waiting Claudia Chender offered a reality check:

[This is] agovernment that wants to debate the Financial Measures Act at 10 o’clock at night and pass the budget when people are sleeping… We’re being told by the premier that by sitting until midnight, he’s giving us time to speak. With all due respect, we could have that time when people are awake and paying attention, and we could have the time to in fact understand, digest, communicate — criticize maybe — the bills that are presented to us.

Criticize? Clearly not part of this government’s agenda.

Meaningful legislation?

The government’s signature piece of paper presented during this session — its 31-page “Action for Health” plan — wasn’t legislation at all, but an aspirational document that described the six broad areas of healthcare that need work and identified three core issues (recruitment and retention of health-care professionals, access to care and replacement of outdated infrastructure) the government intends to tackle.

All of that, of course, could have been lifted out of the Tory election platform from a year ago. Except for this. Premier Houston no longer refers to his plan as a healthcare “fix.”

“We’re going to make significant improvements to health care,” Houston danced, “and, for many people in their specific situations, it will be a fix. But to others, there’s always going to be things that will creep up.”

Can you say 90,000 people waiting for a family doctor? A surgery waitlist of 27,000 people?

Creeping up?

A “very underwhelmed” opposition-for-now leader Iain Rankin described the Tory plan as a “smattering of bullet points that have been put together for a marketing document. A plan would have specific timelines on how they are going to action new items.”

Rankin was far from the only one to point out there were no timelines or targets in the plan, except to suggest this was a four-year plan.

To add insult to injury, the so-called “plan” was introduced three weeks late and — perhaps not coincidentally — on the final day of the legislative session when it could not be carefully considered and debated.

One could find a few hits, of course,  among the misses in the government’s 31-item legislative agenda.

Start with the Dismantling Racism and Hate Act, but that one was actually developed by an all-party committee and most closely resembled legislation previously put forward by Liberal MLA and leadership candidate Angela Simmonds.

And then, of course, there was this: an act to “enable the government to create a wine authority to administer a quality standards program for Nova Scotia wines.”

OK… But there were also changes to the electricity act to protect solar homeowners, and to the public utilities act to better hold Nova Scotia Power accountable for how it delivers electricity.

Both, of course, were less about fulfilling Houston’s platform priorities and more about reacting to the controversy surrounding the utility’s recent application for a rate hike.

Notably, it’s worth noting the Tories didn’t offer any legislation to counter NSP’s call for a 10 per cent rate hike.

The government’s latest responses to the affordable housing crisis, which had been barely referred to in its election campaign, seemed equally ill-considered or beside the point.

Like amendments to “streamline, improve and shorten the approval process” for developers in the Halifax Regional Municipality. Has anyone counted the construction cranes on the Halifax skyline? How many of those projects will include affordable housing? The speed of the approval process hardly seems to be the problem here.

How about those new taxes on non-resident property owners that are causing such a kerfuffle at cocktail parties among the moneyed class? Finding a better way to tax the well-to-do might make sense. The problem here is that, despite government claims, these new taxes have nothing to do with tackling the problem of affordable housing, for which the legislation was ostensibly crafted.

And then there are the numerous government promises still missing in action.

Bringing back local school boards? No longer on the table.

Changes to Freedom of Information legislation? Not the priority it once was.

No wonder Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak suggested to the Chronicle Herald that Houston’s “legislative agenda has been on the slender side.”

And how about Houston’s claim that everyone who wants to speak on legislation in that chamber is certainly getting their opportunity?

I will only refer you to my column earlier this month concerning one recent sitting of the law amendments committee in which Houston’s Tory lapdogs ignored expert input to push their boss’s legislative agenda.

And so it goes.

In a 2019 report in the Globe and Mail, Paul Thomas, a senior researcher with the Samara Centre for Democracy, blamed the shrinking number of days devoted to legislature sessions everywhere…

…on the phenomenon of the “permanent campaign,” as political leaders attempt to control the news cycle by appearing at events much friendlier than Question Period, flanked by supporters and speaking behind podiums festooned with slogans. “The daily activities of the legislature give the opposition the chance to raise questions and to some extent set the agenda or at least attract attention,” Dr. Thomas said. “Instead, the government would much rather be setting the topic and venue of discussion.”

So what was our premier’s own explanation for this latest truncated sitting of the House of Assembly?

“There is important work to be done back in our constituencies, interacting with Nova Scotians,” he explained.

The campaign continues.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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