Nova Scotia

MLAs continue to discuss how a return to Province House will look

The House leaders for Nova Scotia’s three political parties in the legislature continue to meet to determine a plan that will allow a fall sitting to go ahead as close to normal while respecting public health guidelines.

Finding ways to make public health guidelines work in a 200-year-old building is a challenge

House leaders for the three political parties are working with the office of the Speaker of the House to determine how MLAs in Nova Scotia can return to Province House while adhering to public health guidelines. (Robert Short/CBC)

As more people return to their workplaces and students prepare for their return to the classroom, MLAs are trying to determine how their own return will look in a pandemic.

The House leaders for Nova Scotia's three political parties continue to meet to determine a plan that will allow a fall legislature sitting to go ahead that's as close to normal while respecting public health guidelines.

MLAs have not been in the legislature since March. The government passed its budget and adjourned business before COVID-19 officially arrived in Nova Scotia. All legislative committees, with the exception of one, have also been shut down since March.

Government House leader Geoff MacLellan said he and his counterparts from the Progressive Conservatives and NDP, along with staff in the office of the Speaker of the House, continue to discuss ways to get people back in the legislature in a safe way.

There are inherent challenges to doing that in a building that is 200 years old, has no real air circulation and can be extremely cramped when MLAs, political staff, the public, reporters, security and Province House staff are all present.

Government House leader Geoff MacLellan says when the legislature resumes for the fall sitting, it will happen at Province House. (CBC)

"The reality is, because the building is so old, we really have a patchwork of support functions in there as is," said MacLellan.

One thing they are not considering, however, is meeting at an alternate location.

"There really is a tremendous amount of logistics and support that comes from the Speaker's office that would just be incredibly challenging to transfer," said MacLellan.

"It would be very difficult and incredibly expensive to try to do something like that. The world is trying their best to go back to normal, from office buildings to government workers to kids in school; I think that it's reasonable that we work out a plan inside of our own legislature."

Tory House leader Allan MacMaster was scheduled to provide an update to his caucus on Wednesday and didn't want to elaborate on talks too much before that.

However, like MacLellan, MacMaster said the age and layout of Province House makes it a difficult place to make work in today's reality. When MLAs sit in the chamber, they are sitting almost quite literally shoulder to shoulder. Hallways and lobbies can be more congested than bus stops at rush hour.

Inverness MLA Allan MacMaster in the House leader for the Progressive Conservatives. (pcparty.ns)

"It's beautiful architecture and it's always served us well, but in a time of a pandemic, the building, it was never designed, nor were many buildings that we have nowadays, designed for the recommendations that public health people are making for workplaces," said MacMaster.

NDP House leader Claudia Chender said that as restart talks for the legislature continue, she's hopeful that committees won't be far behind.

How the opposition has pushed for more accountability

The Liberals have used their majority in Province House to shut down all committees with the exception of the human resources committee, which is mandated to meet regularly.

In an effort to try to push for further accountability, opposition MLAs have used that committee as a venue to try to send letters to various government ministers attempting to get answers to pandemic-related questions that either they have or have received from constituents.

That process has had mixed results. During Tuesday's committee meeting, the Liberal members used their majority to defeat several NDP motions related to the school restart plan and sick pay. A Tory motion about the makeup of the Council on African Canadian Education was defeated, only to have the Liberals subsequently pass a similar motion.

NDP House leader Claudia Chender hopes a plan for a safe return to Province House paves the way for a return of legislative committees. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Premier Stephen McNeil has previously said committees would remain shut down until sometime in the fall. Chender said she'd like to see a reversal sooner than later.

"We hope and assume that once provisions are made for the legislature to safely restart, that those committees will follow right behind," she said.

MacLellan said he believes everyone agreeing to a plan that works in terms of both operations and public health guidelines is "relatively imminent," however it is ultimately up to McNeil to determine when the House comes back.

After the premier calls on the Speaker to recall MLAs, there is a requirement of 30 days notice before the sitting would begin.