Nova Scotia·Analysis

Dreamers and doers: Why opposition bills are rarely enacted once a party takes power

Opposition parties introduce dozens of bills every sitting but only a handful ever become law, even if the party goes on to form government.

The majority of bills crafted and championed by MLAs who sit on the opposition benches face a sad reality

Province House pages cleaning out the desks of MLAs on April 16, 2019, as they do at the end of every sitting. The binders are on the floor are filled with bills yet to be passed. The binders are delivered to the MLAs so that they can study them in further detail between now and the fall sitting. (Dave Irish/CBC )

They are the disposable coffee cups that litter the road to election victory: opposition party bills. 

When the Nova Scotia legislature recessed for the summer last Friday, 102 bills remained on the order paper. All but one, the Biodiversity Act, were opposition legislation and the vast majority are destined to die there — even if the party that introduced them ever forms government.

That is the sad reality for the majority of bills crafted and championed by MLAs who sit on the opposition benches.

Opposition politicians often tout their bills as the kind of legislation they would introduce if they ran the province. But a sample of opposition bills from 2007 and 2008 suggests a different fate.

I recently stumbled across a stack of papers while cleaning out the bottom drawer of a file cabinet in my basement office at Province House — mostly news releases and bills introduced by the Nova Scotia Liberals in the years immediately following Stephen McNeil's leadership takeover.

They illustrate how ideas honed by an opposition mindset often don't necessarily cut it, once the party is chosen to govern rather than simply oppose those in power.

Consider the following examples:

  • Nov. 27, 2007: Environment critic Keith Colwell introduced amendments to the Environment Act. The proposed law includes a ban on burning tires in Nova Scotia and an end to recycling fees for products incinerated.
  • Nov. 30, 2007: Leader Stephen McNeil re-introduced a bill to "scrap gas regulation."
  • Dec. 3, 2007:  Education critic Leo Glavine introduced a bill to exempt parental contributions from student loan calculations.
  • Dec. 5, 2007: Leader Stephen McNeil proposed a fixed election date, the second Tuesday in October every four years, starting in 2010.
  • May 5, 2008: Leo Glavine introduced a bill to ban cell phones from the classroom
  • Oct. 31, 2008: McNeil introduced a bill to allow 16-year-olds to vote in all school board, municipal and provincial elections.

Since becoming government in 2013, the McNeil Liberals have approved a plan to incinerate tires at the Lafarge cement plant in Brookfield, N.S., and rejected the idea of a fixed election date. The minimum voting age remains 18, gasoline prices continue to be regulated and kids still have their mobile devices at school. 

These stacks of papers are bills that have been turned into law. At the end of every session in the legislature, pages clean out the desks of the MLAs. (Dave Irish/CBC)

That's not to say this government is any better or worse than any previous government. 

On the second-to-last day of the spring sitting, NDP Leader Gary Burrill introduced a bill to bring proportional representation to Nova Scotia. The province's first and only NDP government failed to deliver on that longstanding party commitment during its time in office, from 2009 to 2013.

Burrill promised to deliver, given the opportunity.

In 2006, Nova Scotia's last Progressive Conservative premier Rodney MacDonald threw open the doors to Sunday shopping in Nova Scotia, despite the fact that close to 55 percent of those who voted in a plebiscite on the issue rejected the idea. 

Legislation introduced on Sept. 26, 2003 — also by the Progressive Conservatives — promised "a binding plebiscite on Sunday shopping." And that was a government bill!

Some opposition bills do become law. For example, thanks to a PC bill passed this spring, Nova Scotians will officially mark Cancer Survivors Day. The first Sunday in June has been designated a day to honour those affected by cancer.

But other bills still on the order paper are not likely to enjoy similar success, including bills that aim to:

  • Protect the tips of servers
  • Provide free well-water testing
  • Ensure every school in Nova Scotia is equipped with automated external defibrillators, naloxone kits and epinephrine
  • Create the office of a health outcomes auditor
  • Issue six-month licence suspensions to drivers who blow past school buses with flashing red rights

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.

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