Nova Scotia·Opinion

Upcoming public hearings a change from 'ridiculously unfriendly' norm, says Graham Steele

Some hearings taking place next week on the Accessibility Act will be a model of citizen-centred public engagement. Why can't it be like this all the time?

Steele says Accessibility Act hearings will break down barriers that typically prevent people from weighing in

Graham Steele says next week's public hearings on the Accessibility Act will be a model of citizen-centred public engagement for a change. (Robert Short/CBC)

Next Monday and Tuesday, a legislative committee will resume public hearings on Bill 59, the Accessibility Act.

The hearings will be a model of citizen-centred public engagement, which will be a sharp contrast to the usual, perfunctory, MLA-centred public hearings.

So, what's going on? And why can't it be like this all the time?

Unfriendly to citizens

There are five stages in the law-making process: first reading, second reading, law amendments committee, committee of the whole house, and third reading.

The law amendments committee should be called the public hearings committee, because that's what it does. It's the one place in the law-making process where any citizen can show up and be heard, but it's always been ridiculously unfriendly.

The committee meets only at Province House. It often meets on short notice. It often meets at irregular hours. If you can't make it, too bad for you.

Annoying obstacle

But more than that, the committee has been generally useless for two structural reasons.

First, a government typically sees the law amendments committee as an annoying obstacle to the speedy passage of legislation. It's the only part of the law-making process without a formal time limit.

The primary interest of government MLAs on the committee is therefore to move bills quickly through the sausage factory, not to make them better.

The time pressure means citizen presentations aren't seriously considered.

I've seen citizens make a detailed presentation and then be utterly perplexed because the bill is immediately whisked through, without discussion or amendment.

Second, the real decision-makers are not on the committee.

The content of bills is decided in the back rooms of government. The government MLAs on the law amendments committee do what they're told.

For that reason, government members can come across as bored and disengaged — because they are. I've often seen citizens perplexed by the all-too-obvious lack of interest coming from government MLAs.

This is not a criticism of the McNeil government. It's always been this way.

Pause button

Bill 59 was introduced on Nov. 2, 2016, by Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard.

The bill had a noble purpose — to work toward making Nova Scotia more accessible for persons with disabilities — but the details were unambitious.

When it came before the law amendments committee on Nov. 7, it was lashed by critics.

They also complained about a lack of accessibility facilities at the hearings themselves.

For only the second time that I can remember, the public presentations were enough to cause the government to hit the pause button.

What was supposed to be a feel-good triumph had turned into a public relations disaster.

The premier must have been none too pleased, as he took the rare step of assigning the bill to a different minister.

Careful process

The government promised to rethink the bill, including a new round of public hearings — and more accessible facilities at the law amendments committee.

Those hearings are coming up Monday and Tuesday.

The new process is thoughtful and careful:

  • The law amendments committee is meeting when the legislature is not in session. That means there's no time pressure.
  • There are morning, afternoon and evening sessions. That means presenters can appear when it's convenient for them.
  • There will be American Sign Language interpreters, sighted guides, and communication access real-time translation. That means everyone will have a chance to make their views known.
  • There will be video conferencing from 11 Nova Scotia Community College locations, and one other location in Amherst. That means presenters don't have to travel to downtown Halifax.

The process still isn't perfect, but it breaks down many of the barriers that typically prevent Nova Scotians from participating meaningfully in the law-making process.

'Slow politics'

Canadian political philosopher Joseph Heath wrote a book a couple of years ago calling for "slow politics."

That means, among other things, the encouragement of debate and careful consideration of policy ideas.

The process that's now being followed for Bill 59 is a kind of slow politics. I expect MLAs will be polite and attentive. There is time and space to consider all viewpoints.

It remains to be seen if this vastly improved process actually results in a better Accessibility Act.

If it does, then maybe we should ask why this new brand of "slow politics" can't be applied to every bill that comes before the legislature.


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.