Graham Steele: Spring sitting featured significant legislation

Political analyst Graham Steele says the spring sitting of the legislature should be remembered for a bill that was not in the Liberal platform at all, but emerged as a response to a crisis.

CBC's political analyst reflects on the spring sitting of the Nova Scotia legislature

Nurses at the Capital District Health Authority went on a strike in early April before the Liberal government brought in essential services legislation. Political analyst Graham Steele says that legislation is the most significant single piece of legislation in years. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

I remember the first time my father let my older brother get behind the steering wheel. We were in a big, empty parking lot. I was in the back seat.

My brother stepped on the accelerator. The engine revved, but the car didn't move. He looked at my father quizzically. 

My father said, "You have to put it in gear first."

I started laughing so hard they kicked me out of the car and I had to wander around the parking lot until the driving lesson was over.

I was reminded of this incident by the end of the legislature's spring sitting. The Liberals are behind the wheel — but the car still isn't in gear.

Like the fall sitting, the spring sitting has been unusually short. Typically we would expect the House to go until just before the Victoria Day long weekend. The fact that it's rising at the beginning of May — after only five weeks — underlines the thinness of the government's program.

To say the McNeil government's program is thin doesn't mean they lack ambition. Nor does it mean that the spring sitting was without significance.

Like most Nova Scotians, I want to believe the new government is ambitious. The Ivany Commission's message, in a nutshell, is the urgent need for ambition. But if the McNeil government is ambitious, how would we know?

In a previous column, I noted the Liberals' bad case of "study-itis." It seems like every issue of any significance is being sent for study. The results of these studies will trickle out over the next year and will take another year or two to show any fruit. In the meantime, not much is happening.

Eliminating the graduate retention rebate

The one real decision, in an otherwise status quo spring budget, was to eliminate the graduate retention rebate. There is no evidence the rebate was effective, at least not in proportion to its cost, but the same could be said of numerous other tax breaks.

Why single out the graduate retention rebate for elimination? Why not wait for the Broten tax review to be completed? The decision was badly explained and left the government vulnerable to criticism from students and recent graduates.

The signature legislative initiative in the spring sitting was the elimination of the efficiency charge from power bills, starting in January 2015.

But the consumer advocate, John Merrick, has pointed out the efficiency charge has only been deferred, not eliminated. Ratepayers are still on the hook and that's not what the Liberals promised.

In the end, the spring sitting should be remembered for a bill that was not in the Liberal platform at all, but emerged as a response to a crisis.

Legislative game changer

The Liberals' essential services legislation is the most significant single piece of legislation in years. Faced with an imminent nurses' strike in the Capital Distict Health Authority, the McNeil government responded with legislation covering not only those nurses, but all bargaining units in all health-care and community services sectors.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union overplayed its hand and the McNeil government pounced.

The essential services law represents a major restructuring of public sector labour relations. There will be major consequences. It will take a couple of years, at least, before the practical implications of that law are fully worked out and they may not be what Stephen McNeil imagined.

What matters is that the Liberals had the gumption to do it at all. The Progressive Conservatives under Rodney MacDonald could not do it and the New Democrats under Darrell Dexter would not do it.

The essential services law, alone among all the initiatives we've seen so far, showed a government willing to think big thoughts and take decisive action.

Yes, the essential services law was a game changer. Now we need about a dozen more of those. The car has to get out of neutral, out of the parking lot, and on to the highway. It's time — it's past time — for more action.

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.