Nova Scotia·Opinion

Why the political fallout from the teachers' bill is just beginning

The passage of Bill 75 through the House of Assembly exposed many Nova Scotians to how politics works, and that's a good thing.

Stephen McNeil's government still has to deal with contracts for other public-sector unions

Bill 75 imposed a contract on Nova Scotia's 9,300 teachers. Hundreds of them protested outside Province House last week. (Robert Short/CBC)

Late on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after Nova Scotia's House of Assembly voted 33-17 to approve Bill 75, a lawyer for the House walked down Barrington Street toward Government House. The official copy of the bill was in his hand.

When the lawyer got to Government House, he was ushered into a meeting with the lieutenant governor.

The meeting did not last long. The lawyer put Bill 75 on the table, and the lieutenant governor signed it. There was no hesitation. The people's assembly had spoken.

At that precise moment — the moment of royal assent — Bill 75 became the law of Nova Scotia.

At that moment, a contract was imposed on teachers, and any strike action was illegal.

Legally, it's done. Politically, Bill 75 is far from over.

The people are paying attention

On the bright side, the passage of Bill 75 through the House of Assembly exposed many Nova Scotians to how politics works.

Suddenly, thousands of citizens were paying attention to how decisions are made, how a bill moves through the House, and how elected representatives make up their minds.

That has to be a good thing. The enemy of democracy is disengagement. Democracy fails when good people shrug and do nothing.

This level of citizen engagement in our democratic government — though it be messy, noisy and at times, wrong-headed — is an unalloyed good.

Something is wrong with the system

That doesn't mean everything was sunshine and roses as Bill 75 wended its way through the law-making process.

Nobody should watch laws and sausages being made, Bismarck is supposed to have said. (He didn't, but it's a good line.) Neither is very appetizing.

Something is wrong with a system that relies on midnight sittings.

Something is wrong when the premier and ministers are being questioned at one o'clock in the morning.

Something is wrong when the committee tasked with hearing from the public decides not to hear from the public when it ceases to be convenient.

But overall the system works

In some larger sense, though, the system works.

A majority of members in a freely elected assembly voted in favour of Bill 75.

Those who opposed it had ample time to have their say in a public forum.

The majority's reasons may be debatable, but they are sincerely held.

Perhaps our MLAs are a little too ready to heed the crack of the party whip, but they are not defenceless lambs and they are accountable for the decisions they make.

Soon enough, we will have another election, and those happy or unhappy with the McNeil government will have a secret ballot on which to mark their X.

The election will be run by an independent, clean, well-organized election authority.

If the government changes, there will be a peaceful transition of power, and the new government is free to repeal Bill 75 if it wants to.

Yes, the system works.

Politics of bill just beginning

There are two reasons why the politics of Bill 75 are just beginning.

The first is that Bill 75 imposes a contract only on teachers. The number of public-sector workers without a contract still numbers in the tens of thousands.

I anticipated Bill 75 would deal with all outstanding contracts, but it did not.

With an election on the horizon, there is no way the McNeil government will go through another politically painful episode like this one.

My best guess now is that Bill 148 — passed in December 2015 but so far unproclaimed — will soon be invoked against the remaining public-sector unions. That can be done with the stroke of a pen, though some pretext is needed first.

Bill 148 imposes tight constraints on all public-sector wage settlements.

Poking a bear

The other reason why Bill 75 isn't over is that Stephen McNeil has poked a bear.

But how big is the bear, and how angry?

Will the bear roll over and go back to sleep?

If the bear gets up, does it know what to do, or will it aimlessly paw the air?

These are the questions that will preoccupy political strategists for the next couple of months. They will poll.

If McNeil likes what he hears — if he hears from his pollsters that the bear is tame — then it will be he who strolls down Barrington Street to Government House.

He too will sit down with the lieutenant governor and he will advise an election.


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.