Nova Scotia

Fall sitting at N.S. Legislature concludes, but uncertainty looms for government

Premier Tim Houston says bills passed by his caucus will modernize the way the government works, but opposition members believe they will create unintended consequences.

Health care, affordability and the environment remain ongoing challenges

Premier Tim Houston delivers pieces of legislation to Lt.-Gov. Arthur LeBlanc Wednesday evening at Province House. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

MLAs wrapped up a fall sitting at the legislature Wednesday that included Premier Tim Houston's government consolidating more power previously held by arm's-length agencies, stepping in to cap power rate increases and entering a period of major uncertainty around health care, the environment and affordability.

The sitting started on an acrimonious note, with Houston pushing for the resignation of Speaker of the House Keith Bain, moving to install three of his backbenchers as new deputy Speakers and the government calling extended hours in an attempt to rush through legislation.

The opposition responded with hours of filibustering and bell ringing to delay votes, tactics that slowed progress at the legislature to a halt until the sides agreed to a compromise, easing tensions around the House.

Despite the compromises, Houston was noncommittal when asked Wednesday about Bain's future as Speaker. Although the premier's office has said Bain agreed to step aside next spring as part of succession planning, Bain has said he does not want to resign.

"To be determined," said Houston.

"I think he's done a great job as Speaker."

Premier Tim Houston says he remains committed to fixing health care. He says legislation passed this sitting will help modernize government business. (CBC)

Houston highlighted bills he's pleased about, including increased accountability for telecommunication companies and amendments to the Public Utilities Act, while speaking to reporters at Province House. The latter limits the general rate increase the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board can award Nova Scotia Power to 1.8 per cent over the next two years.

Although it will provide some breathing room for ratepayers in the short term, some experts, including the province's consumer advocate, have expressed concern that the government is compromising the independence of the UARB and potentially driving up other long-term costs for Nova Scotia Power that will ultimately fall to customers to cover.

The government also passed bills to collapse five economic development agencies into two, removing arm's-length governance boards and replacing them with advisory boards. Ultimately, control of those agencies, the provincial housing authorities and agriculture research outfit Perennia will now all rest in the offices of cabinet ministers.

Houston told reporters it's a step toward getting things done faster.

"All these things are about modernizing the structure of government and setting the province up for success," he said.

"Those are all good things. I believe in my heart that with the passage of those legislations Nova Scotia is better off today than we were at the start of the session."

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill is concerned about the consolidation of power within the offices of the premier and cabinet ministers. (CBC)

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill disagrees.

Churchill and other opposition members worry that putting control of economic development back into the hands of elected officials could lead to a return of the days when government members picked winners and losers.

The government has yet to provide a clear justification for the move, he told reporters.

"They have just taken over all the economic development agencies and all the money that those agencies distribute, without a plan to actually do anything with that. We don't know what they're going to do and I don't think they have a plan for the economy."

The government also came under fire for legislation giving the housing minister the ability to nullify new bylaws in Halifax Regional Municipality if he thinks they impede the progress of housing construction. John Lohr has said the measure is necessary to combat the province's housing crisis, although municipal officials call it an overreach that infringes on their jurisdiction.

NDP Leader Claudia Chender says the government has not done enough to help people struggling with the cost of living. (CBC)

NDP Leader Claudia Chender said she's disappointed the government did not do more during the sitting to address increased cost-of-living pressures on Nova Scotians and the growing number of people who need support in the face of rising grocery and heating bills.

"We got some, 'We're looking at it,' from the government, which is entirely insufficient," she told reporters.

"We saw a lot of administrative bills, we saw a lot of consolidation of power, but we saw very little that will make Nova Scotians feel better about the challenging times that are facing us."

Houston and his government leave the legislature with plenty of looming challenges.

Legislation passed this sitting creates a mechanism to price carbon for large emitters, but does not include a plan to pricing carbon for consumer fuels. In the absence of a pricing plan, it appears all but certain that the Tories have opened the door for Ottawa to impose a carbon tax on consumers.

A rendering of the redeveloped Halifax Infirmary on a sign outside the hospital's Summer Street entrance. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

The Tories did receive a boost Wednesday with word from the federal government that it's in favour of supporting the Atlantic Loop, a project that would bring hydro power from Quebec and Labrador to the province and help Nova Scotia meet its target of ending the use of coal to generate electricity by 2030.

Meanwhile, the premier's key election promise — fixing health care — seems more and more daunting.

The provincial registry for people needing a family doctor or nurse practitioner passed 120,000 people this month. And the largest infrastructure project in the province's history — the redevelopment of the Halifax Infirmary — is indefinitely on hold as cost projections balloon and the lone bidder tries to get a handle on pressures caused by labour shortages and inflation.

Despite this, Houston said Wednesday that his commitment to fixing health care is "stronger than ever," while acknowledging there are significant challenges to overcome.

"The tide was very strong," he said.

"To reverse a tide or reverse a train like that, it takes time. People understand that it takes time to kind of stabilize things."



Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at