Nova Scotia

Shortest budget sitting in Nova Scotia in 14 years wraps up

The McNeil government passed a budget with unprecedented capital spending and tax cuts for businesses in a lightning-quick sitting that also imposed a new tax on people who vape.

McNeil government passed 17 government bills, allowed 2 opposition bills to become law

Finance Minister Karen Casey, centre, delivers the Nova Scotia provincial budget for 2020-2021 at the legislature in Halifax on Feb. 25. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

It was a short, not-so-sweet sitting for Premier Stephen McNeil and his Liberal caucus as the Nova Scotia Legislature rose Tuesday following the shortest budget sitting in the province in 14 years.

Despite tabling a mainly good news budget on Feb. 25, with a record $1 billion in capital spending and tax cuts for businesses, the 2020-21 fiscal plan was initially overshadowed by news that police had once again charged Liberal backbencher Hugh MacKay with drunk driving.

MacKay chose to leave the Liberal caucus to sit as an Independent, but never actually took his seat across the floor from his former colleagues this sitting. The lawyer who represents him entered a not guilty plea on MacKay's behalf on March 5.

McNeil originally said his office had no knowledge of the events outlined in a resignation letter sent to local Liberal Party officials, detailing what is alleged to be an eyewitness account of MacKay driving drunk on Nov. 22, 2018.

The premier later said his chief of staff, Laurie Graham, knew about the accusation but dismissed it following conversations with MacKay and his constituency assistant.

Opposition questions about who knew what, and when, dominated question period for the first half of the sitting, which the Liberals did everything in their power to keep as short as possible.

An eye on March Break

The governing party forced Monday sittings, which are usually reserved for committee business or constituency work, and extended daily hours beyond the normal work day.

McNeil told reporters Tuesday he wanted the budget passed before the spring break, which is a mandated week off for those who sit in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly.

"I wanted it set aside before March Break," he said. "It's just easier for the finance minister, finance department staff, instead of adding an extra week associated with debating the budget while sitting there in limbo, didn't make any sense."

But the leader of the Official Opposition, Tim Houston, ascribed another motive to the premier's decision to hurry up the sitting.

"The government doesn't want to be here," the PC leader told reporters. "This is the place where opposition parties, where media, where Nova Scotians can hold the government to account on their record, and they don't want to be here.

"This is a government that doesn't like to be held accountable."

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston speaks with reporters last month. (Robert Short/CBC)

NDP Leader Gary Burrill spent the last day of the sitting in the riding of Cape Breton Centre, where voters are going to the polls in one of two provincial byelections. The other is in Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River.

Speaking on the party's behalf, New Democrat MLA Claudia Chender said the pace of sitting didn't allow much in the way of sober reflection on the legislation put forward by the governing Liberals.

She singled out changes to the law to restrict where vaping supplies are sold.

Chender said the government rejected a number of reasonable opposition amendments in the rush to pass bills through the House.

"Ultimately, it's the people of Nova Scotia who suffer because we're not able to properly debate the legislation and ensure it's the best it can be," she said. 

As for McNeil's desire to end the sitting before March Break, Chender offered: "I'm glad to hear the premier cares about March Break and my ability to make travel plans with my family, but the House never sits [during] March Break and we often come back afterwards.

"There's no reason that we couldn't come back and continue to do our jobs," she said.

New Democrat MLA Claudia Chender introduced a bill to restrict protests near locations where abortions are performed. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Notable among the 17 government bills that passed were a law to protect the province against being sued for gambling-related problems and another to help it sue pharmaceutical companies over opioid addictions. There's also a new law devoted to keeping couples under the same roof when both need long-term care.

The governing Liberals also supported two bills introduced by opposition members. Chender's bill will create so-called "bubble zones" around health facilities offering abortion services in order to safeguard women from having to pass through demonstrations to get the services they want.

PC MLA Kim Masland's bill will prohibit name changes for convicted sex offenders.

Although opposition leaders suggested the record spending in the budget made it a pre-election plan, McNeil threw cold water on election speculation, assuring reporters they would not cover a provincial election this year.

In the past 20 years, the only shorter spring sitting in which a budget passed was in 2006. The minority PC government of Rodney MacDonald was able to pass a budget in 11 days.

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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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