Nova Scotia

Premier bristles at suggestion opposition MLAs attend Province House

Premier Stephen McNeil suggested Thursday that opposition MLAs are forcing him to break public health rules. Opposition members pointed out that, in fact, is not the case.

Nova Scotia legislature will be prorogued on Friday

Premier Stephen McNeil attended the opening of the COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Wednesday at Dalhousie University. (Communications Nova Scotia)

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil lashed out at opposition parties on Thursday for not allowing him and the Speaker of the House to be the only MLAs at Province House on Friday when the session is prorogued.

The House leaders for the Liberals, Tories and NDP worked for months on an arrangement that would allow 29 MLAs, based on party representation, to be in Province House to conduct legislative business while also adhering to public health guidelines.

On Tuesday night, however, McNeil sent the opposition a letter suggesting he and Speaker Kevin Murphy be the only MLAs in the chamber on Friday, along with the lieutenant-governor, the sergeant-at-arms and legislative clerk, with the other MLAs attending virtually.

During a briefing with reporters that was broadcast online, McNeil accused the opposition of forcing him to defy public health protocols and risk the safety of the lieutenant-governor. 

"I got a letter from one of the caucuses, the NDP caucus, comparing the work they do to health-care workers. Think about that for a minute. They're comparing the work they do to nurses."

In fact, that is not what the letter from NDP House leader Claudia Chender to the premier says.

'Manipulative and insincere and untruthful'

What it does say is that "[a]cross the province, teachers, nurses, health-care workers, public servants, grocery store workers, and others have been going to their workplaces, and we see no reason why MLAs could not be present in the legislature."

McNeil went on to accuse opposition MLAs of being arrogant and he implored the public to remember his remarks the next time there is an election.

Speaking with reporters, NDP Leader Gary Burrill said McNeil's characterization of the letter is "manipulative and insincere and untruthful."

There are many issues that should have been discussed in the legislature during the pandemic, including housing challenges and funding for and staffing at long-term care homes, said Burrill. It was the government's decision not to allow that to happen, he said.

"That is the work that we have been elected to do [and] we think that we ought to be able to do it," he said.

"The premier seems to think that it is unsafe for him to go to his work in a building the size of a hockey rink if he was going to share it with one other MLA. That doesn't seem reasonable to me."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill says the premier's suggestion opposition members are forcing him to break public health rules is insincere. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Tory Leader Tim Houston suggested something else motivated the premier's comments.

"I think what's happening here is the premier is lashing out because he is embarrassed by his own mismanagement of the whole file," Houston told reporters.

It is ironic, said Houston, that after months of saying virtual meetings at Province House weren't possible, that McNeil would be interested in one now.

"It confirms to Nova Scotians that the premier believes that our democratic institutions, the very nature of our democracy, is there to serve him and to suit the wishes of the Liberals," he said.

Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston questioned why the premier has previously rejected having the legislature meet virtually. (Robert Short/CBC)

Houston said the premier's change of heart comes only after there is no ability for his government to be subjected to question period or debate on policies or legislation put forward by parties on either side of the House.

"So now that he has stripped that away, it suits him to have what he believes will be a very quick and — from his perspective — easy sitting of the legislature. And the reality is, it would have suited Nova Scotians for the legislature to sit virtually in September, in October, in November, in December, last week, next week, whatever."

The Nova Scotia legislature is the only one in the country not to have sat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The premier's office has not responded to follow-up questions about what, if anything, makes gathering in the chamber less safe than students and staff attending schools, or, if the premier is concerned about people attending spaces they didn't need to be, why he went to the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Dalhousie University on Wednesday.