Analysis

MLAs are out of the House but lots of questions ahead for McNeil government

By getting his government out of the legislature much earlier than would traditionally be the case, Premier Stephen McNeil avoids daily questioning as pressing matters await.

Being out of the legislature removes daily glare of scrutiny on contentious issues

Premier Stephen McNeil's government has a number of pressing matters on its plate in the next few months. (Robert Short/CBC News)

The Nova Scotia legislature was recalled earlier than it's been in close to 100 years for the fall session, which also means its rising happened much sooner than would normally be the case.

Premier Stephen McNeil said the early start was on account of a planned two-week business trip to China beginning Nov. 10. Things wrapped up Thursday, with a total of 25 bills being passed, because the government achieved everything it wanted to do legislatively for now, McNeil told reporters at Province House.

The side benefit to being out of the House for the government is it gets the premier and cabinet ministers away from the daily grind of having to answer questions from reporters and scrutiny from opposition MLAs and their research staff.

Premier Stephen McNeil speaks to reporters at Province House. With MLAs out of the legislature, access to the premier becomes much less frequent. (CBC News)

That's not to say there aren't questions each day when politicians aren't at Province House — it just means it's much more difficult sometimes to find them.

With that in mind, here's a look at some pressing issues facing the government in the short term that will likely generate questions whether the House is sitting or not.

Legalized pot

Cannabis becomes legal to smoke recreationally and buy beginning next week. The government here used one of the most methodical and measured approaches of any province in the country in announcing and rolling out its plan for how and where cannabis will be sold. But it's almost inevitable, as with any new program, that there will be growing pains and headaches. Justice Minister Mark Furey likely isn't too disappointed those things will happen without him having to deal with question period four times a week.

Long-term care panel

Health Minister Randy Delorey tasked a three-person panel to make recommendations on how to improve the long-term care system and that report is due by the end of November. NDP Leader Gary Burrill, who frequently raised the subject this fall at the House, called it "one of the leading issues in the province" and said it deserves the weight of debate in the legislature, something that would have been far more likely to happen had the fall session come at a more traditional time of year.

The Tory leadership

You'll never get a Liberal to admit it on the record, but being in and out of the House early means being done ahead of the Tory leadership convention on Oct. 27. That means a much longer period before the new leader gets to benefit from the daily exposure of being in front of TV cameras and reporters at Province House, something that now won't happen until sometime next spring.

The timing isn't lost on Interim Tory Leader Karla MacFarlane.

"I really believe that they didn't want to come into the House and deal with a new leader and know that we have a lot of momentum right now with 11,000 new [party] members and knowing that we have that kind of support and encouragement behind us," she said.

Other pending reports

Of course there's no way for every issue to take place and be debated while the House is sitting, but other major issues facing the government that will come up before the end of the year include the response to the Lahey report on forestry practices, the work of the electoral boundaries commission, Northern Pulp's environmental assessment for a new effluent treatment plant and government consultation on changes related to gambling legislation.

Nova Scotia is hardly unique in that governments are always looking to get out of the legislature while opposition parties believe they should be there longer. Both Burrill and MacFarlane say being at the House helps engage the public while also holding the government's feet to the fire.

"When the legislature is in session, there is an intensity about scrutiny of the government's work and holding the government to account that you don't find the rest of the time," said Burrill.

With the number of issues awaiting government attention, scrutiny is bound to come whether MLAs are in the House or not, even if it is more difficult to get a government member in front of a microphone.

Read more articles from CBC Nova Scotia

About the Author

Michael Gorman

Reporter

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia who covers Province House, rural communities, and everything in between. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca