Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: A Tale of Two Sessions

The Nova Scotia legislature started with a roar on Sept. 25 and will (probably) end in a whimper this week, writes CBC political analyst Graham Steele
Joan Jessome, left, tears up as Bill 1 passes. An anonymous e-cigarette smoker, right, exhales. Graham Steele argues the way the government handled the health union bill and the e-cigarette bill shows two different sides of the Liberals. (CBC)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” — Charles Dickens, the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities.

The Nova Scotia legislature started with a roar on Sept. 25 and will (probably) end in a whimper this week.

If Dickens had been watching, he might have called it “A Tale of Two Sessions.”

The first session was on Bill 1, the law that reshapes health administration in Nova Scotia and changes the future of public-sector labour relations.

Love it or hate it, Bill 1 represents the McNeil government at its best.  They looked far down the road, saw what needed to be done to get there, and did it.  With shocking ease, they faced down the unions that had out negotiated the four-year NDP and 10-year Progressive Conservative governments that preceded them.

The McNeil government hasn’t won yet—public-sector labour relations are complex and long-term—but they’ve started by tilting the field in their favour.

By Oct. 3, it was done. Bill 1 was approved by the House and, in an unusual mid-session move, got royal assent the same day.

Bill 1 is the law.

After that, the second session started. The flash–bang boldness of Bill 1 was gone, replaced by dull managerialism.  The bills that were passed were housekeeping, the kind that will always be generated by a large bureaucratic machine.

Fumbling and mumbling

In the midst of the dullness, the bill that dominated attention was Health Minister Leo Glavine’s e-cigarette bill, Bill 60.

E-cigarettes are not exactly the biggest issue facing Nova Scotia.  If they had to be dealt with at all—and remember this is more of a hobby horse of the health minister rather than a burning public health issue—it needed to be done quickly and with a minimum of fuss.

Instead, the Liberals’ fumbling and mumbling ensured there was fuss, and plenty of it. What a contrast to their decisiveness on Bill 1.

First the fumbling. The health minister seemed surprised by the public presentations at the Law Amendments Committee. He shouldn’t have been, because all of the same objections were made when he first announced his intentions back in January.

Like most things in politics, there are (at least) two ways of looking at what happened next. The version you choose probably depends on how you feel about the McNeil government overall.

The first version is that the government did exactly what it should do: it proposed a bill, it listened to feedback from the public and then it amended the bill accordingly. That’s what happens when you have a government that listens.

The second version is that the government wrote a bill without doing its homework, was blindsided by the negative public reaction, and then scrambled to find a way to backpedal while still claiming victory. That’s what happens when you have a government that doesn’t know what it’s doing.

Then came the mumbling. The backpedalling went much farther than anyone expected, or had asked for at the public hearings.  Leo Glavine could not give a sensible explanation as to why he’d retreated so far. Probably nothing much was going on in the background, but when a minister is evasive for no good reason, it’s no wonder people imagine the bogeyman “Big Tobacco” hovering in the background, pulling strings.

(It’s worth noting, in passing, that Nova Scotia’s lobbyist register doesn’t give us the slightest bit of useful information about whether “Big Tobacco” is, in fact, engaged on Bill 60.)

The opposition spotted an opportunity, but the government wasn’t willing to budge from its new position, so the House descended into its usual low farce: sittings until midnight, long speeches, ringing of the bells, procedural tit-for-tat, all designed to chew up time and exhaust the other side.

And so the session drags on, long past the point where anything new is being said, long past the point where the public cares, long past the point where any significant concessions will be wrung out of the government.

“Ah, remember the ‘14 fall sitting?" the old-timers will say in ages hence.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”


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.