Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Law-making by exhaustion

If the health system were being created today, nobody would replicate what we have, says Graham Steele.

It's so hard to respect the Nova Scotia legislature.

You want to, you really do, because it is the visible sign of responsible, democratic government.

It doesn’t always have to be pretty. "Nobody should watch laws or sausages being made," goes the saying, because you might lose your appetite if you saw exactly how either gets put together.

But does it have to be this bad?

With our electoral system, a majority government can do whatever it wants, as long as it’s constitutional. A year ago, the McNeil government won forty-five per-cent of all votes cast. That translated into 65 per cent of the seats, and 100 per cent of the power.

As long as the majority Liberals stick together, they can pass whatever law they please.

The only power of the opposition, then, is delay. Delay causes pain, and pain causes change. The House rules are complicated and creaky, but to cut a long story short, a determined Opposition can delay a bill for a little over two weeks. Sometimes that matters, as it did in 2001 when a health-care strike was imminent and the Hamm government wanted to head off the strike before it started. 

This time it doesn’t matter. No strike or other job action is imminent. Even so, the government is determined to pass the bill as quickly as possible.

So what we see down at the people’s palace is law-making by exhaustion. 

The government uses every procedural rule to pass the bill as quickly as possible. That means midnight sittings, government members not speaking in debate or asking questions in committee, and a law amendments committee that the premier says won’t consider any amendments to the law.

Let me be the first to add: This is no different than under the Dexter majority government, or the Hamm majority government. This isn’t about the McNeil government, but about the empty gesture the legislature has become. All decisions that matter have already been taken, in the premier’s office on the seventh floor of One Government Place, and the legislature is merely an annoyance that has to be endured.

Because the decision has already been made, all the attention goes to the noise and the tumult — the demonstrators, the blocked car, the arrest, the police, the tears, the anger.

Bill 1: Two laws in one

Somewhere, buried so deep as to be almost invisible, is the substance of the bill. Is it the right thing to do?

Bill 1 is really two different laws merged into one.

The first law amalgamates the district health authorities. What John Hamm took apart in 1999 in the name of local decision-making, Stephen McNeil will put back together in the name of efficiency. Neither is right. Neither is wrong. As is usually the case in politics, there’s merit to both ways of looking at it.

Like municipal amalgamation under the last Liberal government, in the 1990s, the supposed cost savings will never materialize. If there’s any difference between districts, the differences will be "levelled up" to the more expensive option. Efficiency also means more centralized services, and more decision-making from Halifax. Since that runs against Nova Scotia’s political culture, it will eventually be reversed by another politician who doesn’t know how to tackle the real issues, but needs to say something.

Even if the savings materialize, the figure of $5 million is a drop in the bucket of a health system inching towards $5-billion annual spending. There are much bigger, tougher issues than administration.

The second part of Bill 1 reshapes labour relations in the health sector. This rationalization is way overdue. The current bargaining scheme makes little sense. If the health system were being created today, nobody would replicate what we have. So the objective is sound, even if the method seem rough.

The Liberals' problem is that public-sector labour relations has become heavily constitutionalized over the past decade. There are serious questions about whether Bill 1 — which forbids strikes, effectively dictates who will belong to which union, and takes on female-dominated bargaining units while leaving male-dominated bargaining units (paramedics, doctors) alone — will pass constitutional muster.

That’s why the merits of Bill 1 will ultimately be decided in the courts, not in the legislature.

And for the sake of our democracy, that’s a shame.

About the Author

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.

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