Nova Scotia

Houston government may be backing away from promise to repeal Bill 148

The Houston government appears to be walking away from another promise — the pledge to repeal a controversial Liberal law that imposed a wage package on tens of thousands of Nova Scotia public sector workers.

Controversial McNeil government law imposed wages on tens of thousands of public sector workers

The decision by the former Liberal government of Stephen McNeil to pass Bill 148 drew large protests from organized labour in Nova Scotia. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The Houston government appears to be walking away from another promise — the pledge to repeal a controversial Liberal law that imposed a wage package on tens of thousands of Nova Scotia public sector workers.

Deputy premier Allan MacMaster told reporters Thursday that Bill 148, passed in 2015, was "no longer impacting the negotiations that we want to have with our unions," and that the law was "time-limited legislation."

MacMaster suggested the party's promise, made during last summer's election campaign in response to a questionnaire created by the province's largest public sector union, was made without the benefit of inside government information and advice.

"When you're in opposition and when you're responding to a questionnaire in a campaign you don't always have the benefit of all the information," said MacMaster, who is minister of labour relations.

It's the latest example of the PCs backing away from a promise. The government scrapped a new residential tax on out-of-province property owners it had introduced in the spring budget, and it pushed ahead with a court case against people with disabilities despite having promised not to do so.

Union disagrees

Although MacMaster did not close the door on rescinding Bill 148, he made it clear there was no plan to follow through on the end-of-campaign pledge.

"We feel that Bill 148 is no longer relevant, in terms of our ability to bargain fairly with the unions," he said.

Linda MacNeil, Atlantic director for Unifor, one of the bargaining units affected by Bill 148, disagrees with that position.

"We have support-service workers that have had their wages suppressed and it is currently still affecting the workforce because the wages haven't kept up," MacNeil told CBC News. "And when you don't keep up with inflation, when you keep workers' benefits down as far as their wages, of course it has an impact."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill is shown speaking with reporters in Halifax on Thursday. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

When it came to the promise to repeal Bill 148, MacNeil said the Houston government should live up to its commitment.

"If you are going to make a statement [on] your campaign trail, we fully expect you live up to that commitment."

That view was shared by NDP Leader Gary Burrill, who told reporters, "When one speaks eye-ball to eye-ball with the people of one's province and says I give you my word this is what we are going to do, that matters."

He said beyond simply living up to its promise, the Houston government would be sending a significant message by getting rid of the law.

"What a powerful gesture it would be to rescind Bill 148," said Burrill. "Regardless of what the minister says of its current legal relevance or irrelevance in the current situation.

"To just say, 'We told you we were going to get rid of it, we think it represents principles which are inappropriate in collective bargaining in Nova Scotia, we're not going to have it on our books anymore.'"

Last week, the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal issued a ruling in which it did not answer the question of whether the legislation was unconstitutional, citing a lack of evidence.

The constitutionality question was referred to the court to find out if the bill violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Lawyers for the province and a group of unions made submissions in March.

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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