Nova Scotia

5th COVID case at Province House sparks spat over how to proceed

With at least five MLAs sidelined by COVID infections, Premier Tim Houston wants the spring sitting to immediately switch to a hybrid model, but Nova Scotia's opposition parties say that's not possible without a pause first.

'We’re in a pandemic and you’ve got to be willing to roll with it,' premier says

Premier Tim Houston at Province House on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

In light of the growing number of MLAs who have been sidelined by COVID-19 infections, the governing PCs are calling for an immediate change to the rules of the House to allow members to join debates virtually. 

Nova Scotia's opposition parties want to pause debate temporarily to allow for an orderly transition. But rather than do that, the government pushed ahead with debate on the budget as planned on Wednesday night, setting extra-long hours for Thursday to ensure the line-by-line examination of the budget could continue uninterrupted.

"We're in a pandemic and you've got to be willing to roll with it," Premier Tim Houston told reporters Wednesday afternoon. "Very strongly in favour of a hybrid session to make sure that every voice, every Nova Scotian has a chance to be heard through their MLA."

PC House leader Kim Masland echoed that sentiment and suggested going virtual could happen within a day.

"We're not reinventing the wheel here," said Masland. "We've done this before."

Last spring, MLAs could attend virtually during Liberal Leader Iain Rankin's first sitting as premier. Seating inside the chamber was restricted to a handful of MLAs. Others took part via Zoom, either from their homes or offices.

Masland acknowledged Speaker Keith Bain had asked to recess house business until next week to allow staff to prepare for a hybrid sitting, a request she dismissed outright.

"We are not prepared to recess the House until Tuesday," Masland told reporters.

"COVID's everywhere, COVID's all around us and we've been told that we have to move on," she said. "COVID is going to be around us but Nova Scotians are back to work and we are back to work as well."

Speaker Keith Bain asked to recess House business until next week to allow staff to prepare for a hybrid sitting. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Later during debate, a furious NDP House leader Claudia Chender chastised the government for the decision to push ahead, rather than pause debate.

"Because we won't do things on their timeline, because we take seriously our responsibilities to our caucus, our constituents, the speaker and this assembly, they keep us here longer, as cases are rising," said Chender. "They would rather flex (their) ability to control their agenda than work productively across parties to determine how to go forward in this session."

Chender disputed the government's claim that changing to a hybrid sitting can happen quickly and easily.

Workable solution sought

"Between legislative television and the staff of the legislative assembly, this is not an agile little speed boat," she said. "We're on a freighter here and it takes some time to move it."

She and Liberal House leader Derek Mombourquette said the government should have prepared for this possibility and worked with the opposition parties to make the transition seamless. 

The Liberals are looking to the Speaker's office, rather than government, to come up with a workable solution.

"Ultimately we take our lead from the Speaker's office," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

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