Graham Steele: A cautious start to a cautious government

The first legislative session of Stephen McNeil's government ended on Thursday and Graham Steele reflects on the start of the new Liberal government.

Graham Steele reflects on the new Liberal government's first house session

Lt.-Gov. J.J. Grant shakes hands with Premier Stephen McNeil after delivering the throne speech at the legislature on Nov. 28. The fall legislative session ended on Thursday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The first legislative session of the new Stephen McNeil government is over. It seems like only a couple of weeks ago we were talking about the legislature going in.

Wait — it was only a couple of weeks ago.

This session lasted only 11 sitting days, the shortest fall sitting since fall sittings were made mandatory in 1994. Fall sittings were relatively short under the last Progressive Conservative government and the previous record was 15 days under John Hamm in 2001. The longest was 62 days under John Savage in 1994.

To be fair, the new government didn't have to hold a fall sitting at all. The same law that makes a fall sitting mandatory also relaxes the requirement in the six months after an election.

So clearly the government had a point it wanted to make by holding a fall sitting, however short it might be.

So what was that point? And did they achieve it?

This government did not come to office with a typical "Day 1" or "First 100 Days" agenda. These are not the John Savage Liberals, who came roaring into office in 1993 with a huge majority and a burning agenda for change, who launched into a frenetic "30-60-90" public consultation and never really let up. That ambitious Savage government ended badly, despite the talent of the people in it.

This new crop of Liberals — only one of whom was there in 1993 — want to exorcise those old ghosts.

McNeil and the Liberals were elected on a platform that essentially consisted of not being Darrell Dexter and the New Democratic Party. On that score, they're doing just fine.

They know that a measured pace is all that's needed to continue with that achievement. And a measured pace it is.

The throne speech was forgotten five minutes after it was read. There was nothing in this sitting's legislation that will make a difference tomorrow in the lives of Nova Scotians.

There will be a new February holiday — which people definitely will notice — but it doesn't start until 2015.

Taking on Nova Scotia Power

There were a couple of bills notable more for their symbolism than their pocketbook impact. Power rates have been a preoccupation of the electorate for at least a couple of years. The McNeil government passed a law that will open the electricity market to more producers.

Whether that actually makes a difference in power rates, and when, remains to be seen.

For now, it's the symbolism of taking on Nova Scotia Power that counts. Removal of the efficiency charge, which would have a more immediate impact on consumers' bills, will apparently have to wait.

The other symbolic bill was the amending of the New Democratic Party's first contract arbitration law.

At the time, that law attracted public and unanimous business opposition. The new government wanted to demonstrate a break with that past. It was helpful to the government that the New Democrats wanted to keep the law as it was and the Progressive Conservatives wanted to scrap it entirely.

The Liberals sailed down the middle, the place where politicians love to be because it makes them look reasonable.

Honeymoon territory

After amending the first contract law, it may seem odd that the McNeil government proceeded to steamroll over all business-lobby objections to the February holiday bill.

But unlike first contract arbitration, the idea of a February holiday is a populist measure and has been touted by the Liberals for years. The political calculation is entirely different.

The other event that passed almost unremarked during the session was the first public post-election poll.

On Dec. 4, Corporate Research Associates reported the Liberals enjoy 58 per cent support. This is honeymoon territory, and coincidentally, almost identical to the level of NDP support at this point in their mandate.

The new government should enjoy the honeymoon while it lasts. I know we did. But a friendly word of warning to a cautious government that is off to a cautious start: watch out for events.

They have a way of taking over your agenda — and winning.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.


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