Nova Scotia·Analysis

Expect a long, raucous spring sitting at Province House

Normally, the government's goal during a spring sitting is to pass a budget with as little fuss as possible, turn a few housekeeping bills into law, then get out of Province House as fast as possible to sell their fiscal plan. That's not the plan this spring.

Budget deliberations normally dominate spring sittings at the Nova Scotia Legislature. Not this time

Students from Citadel High School protest outside the legislature in Halifax on Dec. 2, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Spring sittings of the Nova Scotia Legislature are normally all about the budget. The debate and line-by-line examination of the estimates eat up roughly 14 sitting days, which is why governments tend to hold off introducing major bills until the fall.

Since becoming premier in 2013, Stephen McNeil has kept spring sittings tightly focused on his fiscal plans. They have averaged 26 days in length.

By comparison, spring sittings under Darrell Dexter's NDP government ran longer, averaging 33 days.

When Rodney MacDonald was premier he kept them to a strict minimum: 22 days each during the spring of 2007 and 2008, and just three days in 2009 when he cut short budget deliberations to call an election. He lost that gamble.

For most governments the goal every spring is to get in, pass a budget with as little fuss as possible, then hit the road with fistfuls of good news announcements to sprinkle in communities across Nova Scotia.

This spring sitting will not be typical. Expect it to last much longer, be more acrimonious, and focused less on the budget and more on bills. Here's why:

Amendments to the Education Act

People gather outside the legislature to protest Bill 75. (Robert Short/CBC)
When the House reconvenes on Tuesday, legislation to amend the Education Act is expected to be the first bill the government will introduce.

Unless the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, bolstered by an 82 per cent strike mandate, forces the government to change its plans, the proposed law will abolish seven of the province's eight school boards, create a ministerial advisory panel, remove principals and other administrators from the teachers union and create a provincial College of Educators.

The NDP and the Progressive Conservatives have already expressed their opposition to the changes, and will likely draw out debate on the floor of the legislature, while the union and its supporters are expected to stage demonstrations outside Province House. 

If last year's Bill 75, which imposed the current contract on teachers, is any indication, expect dozens of teachers to line up, once again, to speak during the law amendments hearing process.

New marijuana law

Aphria, in Leamington, Ont., is one of Canada's largest licensed growers of medicinal marijuana. The company is expanding its Canadian operation to meet demand once recreational consumption is legalized this summer. (Evan Mitsui/CBCNews)
The federal government's plan to legalize the recreational use of marijuana this summer is forcing provincial governments to bring in laws designed to cover off rules for sale and distribution, as well as the safety and education aspects related to this major shift in public policy.

We know the Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. will sell pot in specially designated areas of eight outlets and at one stand-alone store in Halifax. But what remains unclear is where people will be allowed to smoke it, what penalties will be imposed on those under 19 caught with marijuana, along with a host of other questions related to driving stoned and taxes.

Those are the issues that should be covered by new legislation or amendments to existing laws such as the Motor Vehicle Act. In New Brunswick, the government introduced or amended five pieces of legislation.

The PC caucus is expected to take a hard line on what it sees as a law-and-order bill. The party is against the legalization of cannabis federally, and provincially some MLAs are expected to make that point. Caucus, as a whole, will push for the strongest safeguards possible to keep legal pot out of the hands of young people.

Electoral boundaries

The Fédération Acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse won a court battle last year on electoral boundaries in Nova Scotia. (Jean-Luc Bouchard/Radio-Canada)
The legal win by the province's leading Acadian lobby group, the Fédération Acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse, has forced the McNeil government to begin work on redrawing the province's electoral boundaries ahead of the usual once-every-decade review.

Although the province has until Dec. 31, 2022, to establish a new Electoral Boundaries Commission, it will begin that work this spring by enshrining in law the parameters for future reviews.

That includes the understanding that the number of residents in a riding will be within plus or minus 25 per cent of the average, except where circumstances warrant a smaller constituency. Those special circumstances will likely include areas of the province that have historically been home to black and Acadian communities.

Although all three parties have agreed to the principal behind the changes to the House of Assembly Act, the changes are significant and may generate some public opposition.

The hope is a new commission will be named by the time the House rises in mid-April or later.

Long spring sittings  

Finance Minister Neil LeBlanc, left, tables the 2001 provincial budget as Premier John Hamm looks on. (Tim Krochak/Canadian Press)
Since 1995, the longest MLAs have sat through a sitting is 59 days. That was in the spring of 2001 when the government of John Hamm passed a number of controversial pieces of legislation including Bill 68, which took away the right to strike from tens of thousands of health-care workers and gave cabinet the power to impose a contract on them.

When Bill 68 became law on June 27, 2001, it ended a short-lived strike by thousands of nurses and other health-care workers.

Although the 2018 spring sitting will be interrupted by March Break, Good Friday and Easter Monday (days on which the rules of the House explicitly forbid sittings), no one expects a 59-day sitting.

But it's likely the PC government House leader in 2001, Ron Russell, a veteran of the wars (political and the Second World War), didn't think he'd be stuck in the legislature as long as he was.

About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.