Nova Scotia·Opinion

Graham Steele: Political highlights for the fall

The legislature will resume on September 25th, and it’s time to look ahead to the highlights of the political fall.

CBC's political analyst muses on upcoming political season

Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie, left, adjusts his tie as Premier Stephen McNeil talks with reporters before the throne speech at the legislature in Halifax last year. The fall sitting starts later this month. (The Canadian Press)

Ah, September. My favourite month. The air freshens, the evenings shorten, the kids head back to school, and our provincial politicians wake from their summer slumber.

I know, I know, MLAs “work” all summer.  The casework at the constituency office doesn’t stop, and the barbeque circuit can be taxing (really), especially in the large rural constituencies.

But I’m not buying it if any MLA claims to be working hard over the summer. This ain’t coal mining. The summer circuit is socializing, and it’s not why they were elected. 

The reason they were elected is to sit in the House of Assembly, to debate and vote on laws and budgets.  But the House doesn’t meet over the summer—in fact it hasn’t sat since May 1st—and legislative committees suspend their operations. 

(The only exception is the Human Resources Committee, which meets monthly, even in summer, to rubberstamp executive appointments.  The HR committee hasn’t rejected a single proposed appointment for about ten years, so it's not really hard work, either.)

Even the cabinet eases up on its schedule over the summer, meeting only every other week.

Maybe Ray Ivany should have titled his report “Now (summer months excepted) or Never.”

Now it’s September.  The legislature will resume on Sept. 25, and it’s time to look ahead to the highlights of the political fall.

The big-ticket item this fall is the reorganization of the district health authorities (DHAs). 

Of course the DHA project doesn’t have much to do with the real issues in health care.  The premise, that it will lead to cost savings that will be re-allocated to front-line care, hasn’t panned out in other provinces, and it won’t pan out here.  Nevertheless, the project will consume a great deal of political and bureaucratic time and energy.  It already has.

Labour, health and taxes

The big fish, which pokes its nose out of the water every once in a while but then resubmerges, is labour relations in the health sector.  Strictly speaking, labour relations aren’t connected to the DHA reorganization, but the McNeil government is tying them together as a package.

I’ve written before that every government in the last 20 years has tried, but failed, to land that big fish.  The reasons for the failure have varied from government to government, but they all failed.

I will give the McNeil government credit for this: they recognized, immediately, that the status quo in health care labour relations has to change.

And in the single boldest move of a government not especially marked by boldness, they responded in the spring to the threat of a health-care strike in Capital Health with essential-services legislation covering the entire health and community services sectors.  That doesn’t solve the problem, but it changes the rules decisively in their favour.

Watch how this issue unfolds over the fall.  As I said: it’s the big one.

What else is on the fall agenda?  The taxation review, led by ex-Ontario cabinet minister Laurel Broten, and the education review, led by ex-lieutenant governor Myra Freeman, are both due sometime in October.

The legislature is dysfunctional, and every MLA knows it.- Graham Steele

The McNeil government has been able to dodge any hard questions on these topics because they were “under review.” Come October, the government might have to take a stand.  Taxation will be the toughest, only because it’s almost impossible to have any sensible conversations that include the word “tax.”

Besides the Broten and Freeman reviews, the McNeil government’s response to the Ivany Report has been slow.  Bastions of the business community like the Halifax Chamber of Commerce have been critical.  Good responses take time, but folks that should be the government’s allies are getting impatient.  We can expect to see more this fall.

Oh, and one more thing to watch for. 

The legislature is dysfunctional, and every MLA knows it.  There have been various reform plans over the past ten years, but each has foundered amidst backroom partisan bickering. 

Another plan is afoot.  One idea being whispered about, again, is to reduce the legislative week from five days to four.  To MLAs, it allows them more time in the constituency, which is the only thing that counts for reelection purposes.  But if it passes, it is another nail in the coffin of the legislature as a meaningful place to do business.


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.