Stephen McNeil’s Liberals face first real test

New government, same headline: The legislature is being recalled early to head off a strike of health workers.

Here we go again.

New government, same headline: The legislature is being recalled early to head off a strike of health workers. 

Our MLAs were supposed to return to their desks at Province House on March 27, but instead they’ll be there this Friday morning.

We don’t yet know the details of the McNeil government’s back-to-work legislation. As I know from my own cabinet experience, there are many options but we are depressingly familiar with the outline of the story — workers want more money or better working conditions (fair), the employer says they can’t afford it (true), sick or vulnerable citizens and their families are the bargaining chips (wrong).

There are three bargaining units heading towards a strike: Northwood home-support workers this week, VON home-care workers early next week, and nurses at Capital Health not long after.  

None is directly employed by the provincial government, but in a publicly-funded system the money’s ultimately coming from taxpayers. Stephen McNeil and his Treasury Board ministers may not be at the bargaining table, but they’re not far behind the curtain.

First real test

The McNeil government was sworn in only four months ago, and this is their first real test. Up until now, it has been congratulations, walking on the cloud of victory, smiles and handshakes. When you get into government, everybody’s nice for a while. 

On Friday morning, that’s all over. Liberal MLAs will, for the first time, walk through an organized demonstration of people — friends, neighbours, constituents — who are mad at them. 

And I mean literally walk through it.  

There are only two ways into Province House: the front gate on Hollis Street, and the back door on Granville Street. Veteran protesters like our public-sector unions know where to position themselves to greet the government members. Some of the “greetings” can be unpleasant. The only saving grace for some of the new Liberal MLAs is that nobody yet knows who they are. They’ll slip in before anyone realizes they’re an MLA. That won’t last long.

It’s no fun to walk through a gauntlet of protesters, but it’s an essential part of the job. If you’re going to vote for a law that upsets people, you have to be ready to look them in the eye and tell them why.

It’s also no fun, once you’re inside, to look up at a gallery full of union members glaring down at you.

Sitting Opposition a 'cakewalk'

This is going to be a new experience for all but two of the Liberal MLAs. Only Keith Colwell and Michel Samson have been around long enough to have served in the last Liberal government (defeated in 1999), and only Keith was around for the bitter controversies of the Savage years (1993-97) — like when angry construction workers, upset by a change in labour law, almost literally shook the building, and shut down the House. Government MLAs needed a police escort to get out.

The other veteran Liberal MLAs, including Premier McNeil, have experienced back-to-work sessions before, but only on the opposition side. Frankly, that’s a cakewalk, as I know from my experience in 2001 with John Hamm’s back-to-work law, Bill 68. When you’re in opposition, nobody’s mad at you. Nobody’s glaring at you. You walk in and out, and the protesters thank you.

I suspect the Conservatives and New Democrats will very much enjoy watching Stephen McNeil and the Liberals squirm.  The Liberals under McNeil were merciless to the Tories, and then to us, when it was our respective turn to pass a back-to-work law, just as the Tories and NDP were merciless to the last Liberal government.

But this political dance, which has been going on for much longer than the 15 years I was in politics, is a distraction from the real issues. It has to stop.

The truth is that public-sector labour relations in Nova Scotia are broken. 

There are far too many bargaining units, so bargaining never ends. There’s too much talk of catch-up and leap-frog, parity and differentials, and not enough talk about ability to pay or process improvements. There’s no standing agreement on essential services. The legislature, when it gets involved in labour relations issues, is a parody of thoughtful debate — and those are only some of the issues.

Meanwhile, sick and vulnerable people, and their families, are being told that the delicate balance of their lives is about to be disrupted in the name of free collective bargaining.

Something fundamental has to change. The government of which I was a member, and the government before that, were not up to the task. Are the Liberals?

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.