In 1972, the legislature’s spring session last 54 sitting days. In 2020, it lasted 13. It seems we have nothing to discuss.
The last time I covered the Nova Scotia legislature on a regular basis, Gerald Regan was the premier. It was a simpler time: even before now-museum vintage fax machines and VCRs but also before personal computers, the Internet, online newspapers, 24-hour cable news, streaming services, social media and… well, life as we now know it.
The issues seemed simpler too, especially in those days when white male politicians — they were all white and male then, as were almost all the reporters who covered them — didn’t even bother to pay lip service to complicating concerns like racial inequities, gender divides, indigenous concerns and climate crises, not to mention (please don’t mention) global pandemics.
And yet politicians in 1972 still found time to attend to the public business in the public House of Assembly.
Let’s compare so-called spring sessions of the legislature, then and now.
Consider first the Nova Scotia legislature’s 50th General Assembly, Third Session. It began on Feb 9, 1972, “a sunny winter day” with the reading of an agenda-stuffed, eight-page throne speech read by Lieutenant Governor Victor deB. Oland.
It ended on May 15 — 54 sitting days later! — with the passage of more than 150 government bills.
A lot was accomplished. The Regan government, in the middle of its first term…
- nationalized Nova Scotia’s private electric utility;
- established a tourism department;
- established an environment department to “keep both government and the public informed of impending dangers to the environment;”
- set up Communications Nova Scotia “because of my government’s belief in the people’s right to adequate knowledge of government services, programs and policies;”
- updated the province’s labour standards code and introduced major and mostly progressive amendments to the trade union act;
- extended workers’ — still called workmen’s — compensation benefits;
- expanded legal aid across the province for “the financially underprivileged;”
- established the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission;
- took the first smaller-than-baby steps to gender equity, amending the province’s human rights act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and applying minimum wage increases equally to men and women; and
- even announced — without embarrassment — plans to increase taxes because “such measures are required in order to provide Nova Scotians with the level of public services which they desire.”
I won’t pretend all — or even most — of what the legislature accomplished in that session has stood the test of time. One cringes at references to the “multimillion dollar modernization of the Sydney Steel Corporation,” for example, or the boast that “offshore oil and gas opens new vistas undreamt of by their forefathers.” And you can’t help but note the lack of acknowledgment our MLAs were meeting on “unceded Mi’kmaq territory” — let alone any sense that Indigenous issues mattered.
Still… business was discussed, legislation passed, a government held accountable in public.
By contrast, the province’s 63rd General Assembly, Second Session, opened on a snowy Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, not with a ceremonial honour guard but with the Speaker’s dully routine, “Order, please.”
There was no throne speech. In fact, there hasn’t been a document laying out this government’s big-picture legislative agenda since a now far-past-its-best-before-date throne speech Lieutenant Governor Arthur LeBlanc delivered on Sept. 6, 2018 — 18 months ago.
By the time what little was done was done inside the House of Assembly this winter (this “spring” session didn’t even last until spring) and Stephen McNeil’s government had dismissed the MLAs on Mar. 10, the legislature had met for just 13 days! And the government had managed to pass only its budget and 16 other government bills.
That’s not to suggest there was nothing of moment worth discussing. Start with…
- the 47,695 Nova Scotians who still don’t have a family doctor;
- our flat-lined long-term care system that is adding even more stress to the rest of our overburdened healthcare system;
- our crumbling public infrastructure;
- the government’s questionable plans for P3 hospitals and highways;
- the need to ensure that Boat Harbour really is cleaned up, and that there is relief for our forestry workers;
- the ongoing Yarmouth ferry debacle;
- the lack of a public apology to wrongly convicted Glen Assoun;
- the lack of accountability for the spending of public money;
Well, you get the drift.
This government’s vision-less over-arching policy vision seemed to range from a) to minus-a). There was one bill to make it possible for the government itself to sue pharmaceutical manufacturers for the extra cost to the health system caused by their opioid peddling, and another philosophically contradictory and hypocritical bill to make it impossible for gambling addicts to sue the government because of the impact the government’s cash-cow VLTs had had on their lives and families.
Even when McNeil’s Liberals proposed bills worthy of the name — such as anti-vaping legislation — they seemed in such a rush to push it through they refused to even listen to helpful opposition amendments or pleas from groups like Smoke-Free Nova Scotia and the Canadian Cancer Society to make the bill stronger and more effective.
And, while it’s long been routine for governments to increase sitting hours as a session nears its conclusion, McNeil’s Liberals began the sitting with extended hours and then kept squeezing more hours as its few session days wore on. One piece of legislation was only approved at 11:21 on a Friday night.
Why the urgency?
“I wanted [the budget] set aside before March Break,” the premier told reporters. “It’s just easier for the finance minister, finance department staff, instead of adding an extra week associated with debating the budget while sitting there in limbo, didn’t make any sense.”
Uh… news bulletin for the premier from Claudia Chender, who hasn’t been around the House for nearly as long as McNeil, but clearly knows better how its world is supposed to work.
“The House never sits [during] March Break and we often come back afterwards,” she pointed out. “I’m glad to hear the premier cares about March Break and my ability to make travel plans with my family, [but] there’s no reason that we couldn’t come back and continue to do our jobs.”
Chender introduced an amendment to the House of Assembly Act that would not only regularize sitting hours but also require the legislature to meet twice a year for extended periods between the second Tuesday in February and the last Thursday in May, as well as in a fall session beginning the first Tuesday in October and ending the last Thursday in November.
McNeil’s Liberals — no surprise — ignored her bill.
Just as the Regan government of its day dismissed a plea by then-NDP leader Jeremy Akerman, who worried that legislation was, even then, being considered too hastily:
“I think the time may have come in Nova Scotia that the business of this province is sufficiently important to warrant the full-time attention of members of this Assembly and that those members of this Assembly should treat those responsibilities as full time and should be paid and receive the facilities correspondingly. I think, and it is my personal belief, that as long as there is business to be handled by this House, that we should sit until the business is conducted in an orderly and in a decent and in an intelligent manner, not the way we have been doing it.”
That was then.
This is a much worse now. “It’s the people of Nova Scotia who suffer because we’re not able to properly debate the legislation and make sure it’s the best it can be,” declared Claudia Chender.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said for this year’s blink-and-you-missed-it legislative session may be that it was over before it had to be shut down anyway because of COVID-19.
This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner March 16, 2020.