Nova Scotia

Should Nova Scotia reopen the legislature during the COVID-19 pandemic?

A former MLA and global expert in parliamentary democracy says legislative work is essential to ensuring government makes the right decisions, especially in times of emergency.

'You can't wait months and years to look back and say, 'Did we make the right decisions?'"

The Nova Scotia Legislature was adjourned March 10. There's been no committee work since March 11. (Robert Short/CBC)

A global expert on parliamentary democracy says the work MPs and MLAs do on our behalf is essential and should continue, especially during times of emergency.

Kevin Deveaux, a lawyer and former NDP MLA who has advised governments around the world on how to become more democratic, is worried most legislatures, including Nova Scotia's, are shuttered indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said they should instead be viewed as essential services that stay open, ensuring that good decisions are made during a time of great difficulty in terms of public health and the economy.

"You can't wait months and years to look back and say, 'Did we make the right decisions?'"

The Nova Scotia Legislature adjourned on March 10. The legislature's public accounts committee sat on March 11 to discuss contaminated sites, but since then all work at Province House has been shelved, including the tabling of a report by Nova Scotia's auditor general.

'Newer ideas, newer approaches'

Deveaux thinks suspending the work of the House is a mistake.

"Good government decisions are made when different voices are brought in and when different perspectives are brought into that discussion," said Deveaux, who from 2008 to 2012 served as global parliamentary development policy adviser with the United Nations.

"There needs to be a mechanism — and that's what parliament is for, that's what committees are for — to allow for that kind of interaction amongst adversaries that allow for newer ideas, newer approaches, newer perspectives to be brought in"

"And it will be better for Nova Scotia because we'll have better decision-making."

Premier Stephen McNeil has agreed to allow staff from his office to brief their counterparts in opposition caucus offices, but that's as far as the Liberal leader has been prepared to go to let PC and NDP MLAs into the decision-making process.

It's enough for the leader of the NDP. 

"I find it very useful," said Gary Burrill. "Between the daily press briefing and the all-party briefing table I think there is a lot of scrutiny taking place."

'We're not here to undermine'

The leader of the Official Opposition is less satisfied.

"That's in no way having any input into policy, or any way having any input into any decisions," said PC Leader Tim Houston.

He has asked McNeil to create a cabinet-level committee like the one Premier Blaine Higgs put together a month ago in neighbouring New Brunswick to deal with COVID-19 related issues, but so far McNeil has ignored the request. In New Brunswick, all three opposition party leaders have a seat on that committee.

Houston said his party is offering to help, not hinder the government's work.

"We're not here to undermine, in any way, anything the government is doing," he said. "But the reality is that there's still a lot of heavy lifting to be done and and we still stand ready to support Nova Scotia by doing some of it.

"We're ready to help in any way the premier wishes, should he decide that there's a role for us."

Daily briefings

McNeil has been available to answer questions almost every day since March 15, when the province started almost daily online briefings on COVID-19 cases and the government's response to the pandemic. 

But allowing reporters roughly 30 minutes a day to ask questions with only one followup permitted is a far cry from the kind of scrutiny afforded MLAs who sit on legislature committees, according to Deveaux.

"I think, with regard to parliamentary committees, you have a more detailed analysis that can happen," he said. "More questions can be asked. You can dive much deeper into specific issues.

"There's an opportunity for a more detailed and in-depth analysis and consideration that you can't get in a press conference or in a daily briefing."

Legislature committees also hear from senior staff who are responsible for the programs government creates.

Currently, the only senior staffer consistently available to answer questions is Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang. Deveaux noted others who make detailed decisions, such as deputy ministers and executive directors, aren't at the briefings.

Deveaux, a one-time NDP house leader who left politics in 2007, doesn't see much political risk in resuming the work of health and public accounts committees, and allowing members to meet virtually.

"I don't think you would see that this would become a partisan yelling match," he said. "I think that all politicians on all sides are very conscious of the need to work together, to work co-operatively, and in doing that using those committees as a means of trying to build a cross-party consensus."

So far, the premier appears unconvinced.

"The environment around the legislature isn't always constructive," McNeil said during a briefing last week.

"We, at this time, do not see that the legislature will be sitting anytime soon. It doesn't have to sit again until the fall ... but if it's required we will be reaching out to the other parties to have a sitting."


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