Nova Scotia·Analysis

Abrupt departure of MLA from caucus weakens already-thin Liberal majority

Stephen McNeil continues to lead a majority government, but his grasp on power has never been more tenuous, thanks to Hugh MacKay's decision to sit as an Independent.

Governing party currently holds 26 of 51-seat House

With the departure of a Liberal to sit as an Independent, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil's hold on power has become more tenuous. (Robert Short/CBC)

Since becoming Nova Scotia's premier in the fall of 2013, Stephen McNeil has been able to count on two things during House sittings: steadfast loyalty from his caucus colleagues and a manageable majority on every vote.

Hugh MacKay's decision to sit as an Independent to try and spare Liberals political embarrassment means McNeil will have to pay closer attention to both this sitting.

RCMP have charged MacKay with impaired driving in relation to an alleged offence dating back to Nov. 22, 2018.

Late last year, MacKay pleaded guilty to operating a motor vehicle with a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit in relation to an incident on Oct. 13, 2019. He was fined $2,000 and prohibited from driving for a year.

Nova Scotia Liberals still hold a majority of votes in Nova Scotia's 51-seat legislature, but there are now two Independents — one of whom previously sat as a Tory — and two vacancies, which means the party in power now only controls 25 votes.

There are currently 17 PCs and four NDP MLAs in the House.

Hugh MacKay announced on Sunday that he was resigning from the Liberal caucus to sit as an Independent. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Hypothetically, if the Liberals were to lose the two byelections to the NDP or PCs, there would be 25 Liberal votes and 23 non-Liberal votes. The two independent MLAs would hold the balance of power.

Liberal Kevin Murphy sits as Speaker and according to House rules and parliamentary convention, he can only vote to cast a deciding vote if the members of the legislature are deadlocked.

That has happened in Nova Scotia, but it's rare.

In 1991, the government of Donald Cameron faced stiff opposition and at least four tie votes on motions designed to delay or derail the passage of bills, including the budget.

Little precedence

Each time, the PC-appointed Speaker, Ron Russell, voted in favour of the government.

At the federal level, Speakers have only voted 11 times since Confederation in 1867.

Depending on the results of byelections underway in Cape Breton Centre and Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River, McNeil may find himself needing the support of one of those Independent MLAs or the Speaker to win votes on the floor of the chamber.

That's a far cry from when the McNeil Liberals won power from the NDP in 2013 and had a 14-vote cushion, even with a Liberal in the Speaker's chair, or after the 2017 general election when Liberals enjoyed a two-seat majority without the Speaker's vote.

The uncertainty surrounding the March 10 byelection votes may spur the party in power to quickly pass the budget Finance Minister Karen Casey will introduce Tuesday afternoon.

Here's why.

What the Liberals can do

Liberal House Leader Geoff MacLellan sets the hours for debate at Province House. That means he can extend sittings beyond normal hours. For example, he could add government business to Wednesday sittings, which are normally devoted entirely to "opposition business."

During budget deliberations in 2019, he did not extend House hours on those "opposition days." That meant the budget vote came a few days later than a fast-tracked budget deliberation. But in 2018, MacLellan did fast-track the budget.

The timing of this year's budget vote is important because of the byelections and March Break. The House does not sit during March Break, which happens this year from March 16-20. The byelection votes take place on March 10, but the results don't become official for 10 days afterwards.

If the Liberals lose both votes, that means any vote taking place after March Break this year could conceivably end in a draw.

That would leave it to Speaker Kevin Murphy to decide the vote, but he is not free to simply back the party he belongs to. Generally speaking, "casting votes" — as they are called — either preserve the status quo or allow debate to continue.

To avoid that possibility, look for the House leader to fast-track the budget in an effort to wind up the sitting by Friday, March 13.




Jean Laroche


Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter since 1987. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.