Nova Scotia

N.S. legislature rule changes will mean frequent breaks, longer days

Provincial representatives in Nova Scotia will adopt new rules today to account for the fact members will be able to attend the spring sitting virtually. The temporary changes will also mean breaks throughout the day, and longer sitting hours.

Public will also have online access to line-by-line examination of more budgets

New procedure rules that take into account pandemic measures are set to be passed today for the Nova Scotia Legislature. (Robert Short/CBC)

Change does not come quickly to political institutions, especially ones that are more than 250 years old, but the pandemic is forcing Nova Scotia's 51 elected representatives to adapt to workplace changes, like everyone else.

New rules, expected to come to a vote today and pass, will mean daily sittings will be extended and MLAs will get 15-minute breaks every hour.

Government House leader Geoff MacLellan said that's to give his colleagues who have to log on from their office or home a break from their screens.

The new rules, which only apply to the spring sitting, stipulate that any member who wants to take part in debate will have to be in front of their device with the camera on and their face visible. That's the one way an MLA will be counted as part of the quorum. There will still need to be at least 15 members present to represent a quorum.

It's also the only way they will be allowed to vote on motions.

"They're required to be completely dialed in and paying attention," said MacLellan. "It's not a situation where you can drift off or lose focus."

He said the 15-minute break will allow those people to get up and stretch or do what they would normally do if they were present at Province House.

"It provides an opportunity for us to move around," he said.

Some budget examinations happen in the Red Room at Province House. They will now be live streamed. (Robert Short/CBC)

To accommodate those breaks, House hours are being extended by an hour on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and by 45 minutes on Fridays.

"We're just assuming that there's going to be hiccups and there's going to be delays," said MacLellan. "We just figure that to give as much runway as possible will probably benefit all of us."

The fact this sitting will include in-person and virtual attendance also means the public will be able to log on to watch more cabinet ministers defending their departmental budgets. During estimates, the line-by-line examination of individual budgets, the House sets aside a total of 40 hours for opposition members to question ministers.

That usually takes place in the main legislative chamber and in the Red Room, down the hall. The rules says the public is allowed to sit in and watch, but because the pandemic has closed Province House to visitors, both those committee hearings will be webcast.

Normally, Legislative TV only broadcasts the budget examinations for departments whose ministers appear in the legislative chamber, often flanked by a deputy minister and senior staff. Now, the proceedings in the Red Chamber will also be live streamed, allowing the public to log on to watch other departmental budgets being scrutinized.