Nova Scotia

Speaker threatens to shut down Province House amid COVID-19 outbreak

The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak at Province House has forced a temporary halt to the line-by-line examination of the Houston government's first budget. Speaker Keith Bain has raised the possibility of shutting down the house if the virus continues to spread.

Key house staffer is 6th person to test positive since start of spring sitting

Speaker Keith Bain speaking to reporters in the Red Room Thursday. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Speaking publicly for the first time since the start of the spring sitting, Nova Scotia Speaker Keith Bain has suggested he is ready to shut down the provincial legislature because of the COVID-19 outbreak that has now sidelined a sixth person.

"I do have the authority to close the House if I want to," Bain told reporters in the Red Room at Province House.

The PC MLA for Victoria the Lakes said he requested the government not call estimates until next week, effectively stalling the passage of the budget, until he is convinced the process can proceed safely.

He made a similar request Wednesday that was rebuffed by government House leader Kim Masland, who also said the PCs would not go along with Bain's suggestion to temporarily halt the work of the house.

"We are not prepared to recess the house until Tuesday," Masland told reporters Wednesday. She struck a more conciliatory tone Thursday.

"Upon the advice of the Speaker we have postponed estimates for this evening and tomorrow and estimates will reconvene on Monday," said Masland.

She and the opposition house leaders, Liberal Derek Mombourquette and New Democrat Claudia Chender are still negotiating a possible move to a hybrid format, but Bain is hinting he'll not let those discussions drag on.

"My comfort level right now is not good because with the number of people in there, we know it's going to spread some more," said Bain. "What's the drop-dead point? We haven't really thought about it at this point."

The latest person to test positive is not a politician, but a staffer who is integral to the law-making process.

Bain said the search is on for a possible replacement, but it might be a tough sell given five MLAs and a staffer who have been in chamber have tested positive.

"That is something that we're trying to work on, is to see if there might be someone else available who might be able to fill in as clerk," said Bain. "There are some people out there that might be available and they might just say, 'Uh huh, sorry, not at this time.'"

The Speaker is hoping the three parties can reach a deal on going to a hybrid format, similar to one used last spring. At that time, only a handful of MLAs were allowed in the chamber. Most had to log in via Zoom, from home or their office. The PCs want only those who cannot attend in person to take part online.

'We knew this was coming'

That discussion started last Sunday but has not yet produced a formula that is acceptable to the Liberals or the NDP. To change the rules of the house to make a hybrid sitting possible again, the PCs need the support of some opposition members.

Right now the PC caucus is down four members as a result of COVID-19. Premier Tim Houston wants them to be able to participate in debate virtually.

"Nova Scotians are getting up and going to work every day, MLAs should as well," Houston said. 

Mombourquette put the blame for this dispute squarely on the premier for not foreseeing the possibility of an outbreak and working with the opposition ahead of time.

"Of course, we knew this was coming," said Mombourquette. "Everybody knew that this potentially was going to happen."

"We are still in a pandemic. Whether the premier wants to admit that or not, COVID is still very much a reality for all of us that are here in communities across Nova Scotia."

Waiting for parties to make agreement

Chender expressed a similar sentiment.

"The Speaker did approach all of the house leaders prior to the convening of the house to ask us to discuss what would happen in this eventuality, which was pretty much a given statistically and the government didn't want to talk," she said. "And so here we are." 

Bain said for now he would wait for the parties to reach agreement, but suggested he could bring the work of the legislature to an end if need be.

"I think in order for democracy to work, that's what has to be done," said Bain. "Until the time comes and I'm forced to do it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jean Laroche

Reporter

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.

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