“The government doesn’t want to be here. This is the place where opposition parties, where media, where Nova Scotians can hold the government to account on their record, and they don’t want to be here. This is a government that doesn’t like to be held accountable.”
Welcome to today’s Political Pop Quiz.
Which of our current political leaders spoke the above words?
If you guessed NDP leader Claudia Chender or Liberal leader Zach Churchill, speaking last week to sum up what wasn’t accomplished during our most recent blink-and-you-missed-it 14-day spring sitting of the Nova Scotia House of Unaccountability… well, you’re close but no cigar. They did make similar noises.
But the actual speaker of those truer words rarely spoken was none other than our own present-day premier, Tim Houston.
When he uttered them — on March 10, 2020 — Houston was, of course, still the opposition leader. Stephen McNeil was premier of all he surveyed. And Houston — rightly — was in high dudgeon about McNeil’s lack of accountability as exemplified by “the shortest budget sitting in the province in 14 years.”
Spring legislative sessions — when governments present their spending plans for the next year and are questioned about them as well as how they’ve spent last year’s budget — used to be considered the most important dates on the legislative calendar.
That was then.
“The length of the session is what it has to be to get the work of the people done,” now-premier and no-longer-complaining-or-accountable Tim Houston told reporters last Wednesday as he prepared to shove our 54 elected MLAs back out the Assembly door.
“We’re picking up the files and we’re dealing with them, and we’re dealing with them quickly. It takes a certain amount of time inside that chamber to pass legislation, but we’re passing legislation, and that’s a good thing.”
Houston’s most recent spring budget session, it is true, did last one more day than McNeil’s 13-day sitting in 2020 but it is also true that McNeil’s government managed to pass 20 pieces of legislation during that time; Houston’s PCs recorded an anemic six government bills approved.
But both those numbers pale in comparison to the legislative accomplishments of earlier administrations.
Thanks to a very helpful spreadsheet prepared by the always helpful Nova Scotia legislative library, we know that:
- In 1969, Premier G. I. Smith’s PCs passed 146 pieces of legislation during a 47-day spring sitting.
- In 1971, Liberal Gerald Regan’s first 31-day spring session resulted in the passage of 115 bills.
- In John Hamm’s first two spring sessions after leading his Tories to victory in 1999, MLAs met for 51 and 59 days, passing a more modest but still respectable total of 48 pieces of legislation.
In fact, while there are anomalies — usually the result of election years — a quick glance through the years indicates that our legislators met in most years for at least a month’s worth of spring days in order to pass provincial budgets, other legislation and hold our governments publicly accountable for their decisions.
That began to change — dramatically and for the worse — following Stephen McNeil’s re-election victory in 2017. The legislature met for just 27 days in the spring of 2018, 24 in 2019 and, of course, the aforementioned 13 in the spring of 2020.
McNeil’s explanation for the shortness of that 2020 session had nothing to do with what turned out to be the looming COVID shutdown of everything everywhere; he just wanted to make sure the session was over by by March 10, so it wouldn’t interfere with MLAs’ winter vacation plans. “I wanted [the budget] set aside before March break,” he told reporters.
While that didn’t work out exactly as planned, McNeil may have found his own legislative accountability happy place later that same year:
On Friday, [December 18, 2020] the Nova Scotia legislature — a place where Nova Scotia’s public business is supposed to be done and where our governments are supposed to be accountable for their actions — met for the first time in 282 days. It was the only legislature in Canada that had not met even once during the pandemic.
But Friday’s session wasn’t to discuss public business or hold ministers accountable; it was simply to fulfill a legal obligation under a 1994 law that says the legislature must hold spring and fall sessions, after which McNeill immediately shuttered its doors before members could do anything worth doing.
Lieutenant-Governor Arthur LeBlanc uttered a few government-scripted phrases of governmental self-praise. Premier Stephen McNeil offered fewer than 100 meaningless words. And then it was over. The session had lasted all of 17 minutes, which was about 17 minutes longer than the premier himself would have preferred.
Tim Houston hasn’t managed to reduce his spring legislature obligations down to 17 minutes yet — but it is clear the fewer minutes he spends inside the chamber with the opposition political parties the happier he is.
That’s a problem. The world is a far more complex, complicated and confounding place than it was in the days of G. I. Smith and Gerald Regan.
We need more accountability. Not less.
Just one example. Consider that, in a legislative sitting that lasted just 14 days, MLAs “considered” and passed a $14.4-billion budget — a billion for every sitting day.
But we also know, as the auditor general pointed out in December, that “there was a significant amount of spending during the last week of the [2021-22 fiscal] year when compared to previous years. Spending transactions of $1.4 billion recorded during the last week of March were analyzed as part of our audit of the province’s financial statements.”
Nova Scotia, as the auditor general pointed out, is the only jurisdiction in the country where such “extra spending is approved solely by the government of the day and is never required to return to the House of Assembly for review, vote, or approval.”
What should have happened to that windfall? That wasn’t even discussed in the latest session.
According to NDP leader Chender, the government’s unaccountable spending of its unexpected revenue “utterly fails to address the cost of living, utterly fails to address the housing crisis that we have before us, the increasing doctor waitlist, increasing surgical waitlist… We have a massive amount of money going out the door and we don’t really have anything to show for it.”
For his part, Liberal leader Zach Churchill made the case that the “most vulnerable in our society are going to be worse off” because government isn’t using that extra revenue to deal with poverty — and its role in the health care crisis. “The vast majority of acute cases in our hospitals, the sickest people in our hospitals, are coming from low-income backgrounds. This government has frozen low-income assistance for two years in a row, they have not brought anything in to help with food insecurity and we think what they’ve done for non-market, affordable housing is minimal and isn’t going to have an impact.”
Are they right? It’s hard to judge. We never got the chance to hear that debate.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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