Nova Scotia·Analysis

N.S. opposition parties seek ways to remain relevant in the time of COVID

The Progressive Conservatives and NDP have looked for alternative ways to advance ideas in the absence of the House sitting in Nova Scotia during COVID-19.

Tories and NDP have used different approaches in the absence of regular coverage

NDP Leader Gary Burrill, left, and Tory Leader Tim Houston have tried with varying degrees of success to advance issues during the pandemic. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/Ted Pritchard/The Canadian Press)

Few political leaders want to publicly admit they're not as well known as they'd like to be, but that's what Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston is about to do in a new ad the party is launching Sunday.

The Tories are taking steps to let the public know that if and when an election is called, they're ready and they have ideas (and if it helps build their leader's profile, all the better).

It's the latest is a series of steps the Progressive Conservatives — and NDP — have taken in the last 10 months to try to remain relevant as opposition parties and fulfil the duties of that role at a time when the only regular exposure to Nova Scotia politicians most people have had during the pandemic is through Premier Stephen McNeil's COVID-19 briefings.

With the legislature not having hosted a single debate since last March and McNeil shutting down the committees of Province House all of last spring and summer, what was an opposition politician supposed to do?

In an interview this week, Houston said his caucus attempted to bring the concerns of constituents to the attention of the government through emails, letters and a regular all-party meeting in the early days of COVID. When it felt like that wasn't working anymore, he said attention shifted to policy development.

'We're willing to work with people,' says PC leader

The result in the ensuing months was the election-style releases of several detailed and costed policy plans, including for long-term care and expanded mental-health services. At a time when McNeil was the only leader guaranteed steady and regular media coverage, Houston said his party wanted their plans to be as detailed as possible to make clear where they stood on issues important to the public.

"You can't condense that into a 30-day campaign. I think that's disingenuous to Nova Scotians," he said.

"I want to give them time to think about the plans we're putting forward. I also want their feedback, because they're not perfect; the sand will shift and we're willing to work with people to improve them."

Like Houston, NDP Leader Gary Burrill said his caucus threw itself into finding ways to highlight things that needed attention during the pandemic, while also trying to support the efforts of the government and Public Health during the first wave when everyone was trying to navigate the confusion of shutdowns and new protocols.

Burrill said he's pleased with what his party has been able to do through sustained public pressure campaigns on issues such as the housing crisis.

"And I think that the pressure that we have applied in our public voice, consistently speaking through the pandemic about the situation with long-term care has played a role in the investment in new beds that [the government] announced last week," he said in an interview.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil at the April 13, 2020, COVID-19 briefing. The briefings have been the only regular exposure most people have had during the pandemic to politicians. (CBC)

Burrill said he sees the relevance of opposition parties as being different depending on the circumstances. When COVID-19 was first arriving in Nova Scotia and the government and public health were responding, he felt it best for the province that his party outwardly support those efforts while privately and quietly advancing concerns behind the scenes.

As the first wave settled and economic and social problems related to COVID started to crystallize, Burrill said that's when he decided a shift to a more public and vocal approach was called for. In November, the government instituted a cap on rent increases, banned so-called renovictions, appointed an affordable housing commission and has since poured millions of dollars into creating more affordable housing and combating homelessness.

Eyeing the next premier, and next election

"I'm very pleased and I feel proud of the things that we've had, I think, a major role in accomplishing for people over the last 10 months," said Burrill.

Both he and Houston are hoping to have productive working relationships with whomever Liberal delegates select to replace McNeil at the party's leadership convention on Saturday.

While Burrill said he and the premier have had a respectful relationship through the years despite their policy differences, things were much less collegial between McNeil and Houston, something routinely on display when the House was sitting.

Houston may be saying that he's ready and willing to work with the next premier, but what he and Burrill are also saying to the public is that they're ready to take on the job themselves should the opportunity present itself.

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