Tories walk out of Province House as Houston accuses Churchill of assault
Accounts differ, but both agree there was a 'heated exchange' Tuesday
Progressive Conservative MLAs walked out of the Nova Scotia Legislature Wednesday in protest as Tory Leader Tim Houston leveled an assault accusation at Education Minister Zach Churchill.
Houston told the House that Churchill confronted him Tuesday when he was in a phone booth in the members area of Province House. The two had a heated conversation and Houston said Churchill grabbed him by the shoulders.
The Tories called for the matter to be investigated by the House's internal affairs committee, a motion voted down by the Liberals. That's when the Tories walked out.
"The message is you can do something wrong and you can use your power to not talk about it," Houston said while walking down the street outside the legislature.
"You can't put your hands on somebody; you can't take it to that level."
Although he acknowledged the two had "a heated discussion" related to the Yarmouth ferry service, Churchill said the alleged assault "did not happen at all."
The two MLAs have been on opposite sides of the debate about the service, including the level of government money that's gone toward it and amount of transparency related to the contract. They both sat in on a committee meeting Wednesday that discussed the matter, although neither is a member of the committee.
Churchill said the situation started Tuesday with Houston making a comment to him.
"He said, 'I've got you on the ropes. You might be able to save your seat, but the ferry is going to take your government down.'"
Churchill said Houston then told him it was "B.S." to suggest Houston's actions related to the ferry have negatively affected the Yarmouth area, the district represented by Churchill.
The minister said he attempted to shake hands with Houston at the end of the exchange and Houston said, "Don't touch me, get a life."
While Colchester-Musquodoboit Valley MLA Larry Harrison and Public Service Minister Tony Ince both said they heard the exchange — Harrison said he heard Houston say, "Get your hands off me" — neither saw anything.
Premier Stephen McNeil said he believes his minister.
He said the fact no one saw anything and that MLAs have heated conversations all the time meant the issue didn't need to go to the internal affairs committee, which has not met since 1994.
McNeil questioned why, if "something untoward" happened Tuesday, Houston waited until Wednesday in the legislature to raise the issue.
"This is a change the channel story, as far as I'm concerned."
Houston said he wanted to handle the matter using a legislative process and his first opportunity to do so was Wednesday. He did not answer directly when reporters asked if he would file charges, nor did he specify what he initially said to Churchill.
"I know that he's very concerned about his own political future. I believe he should be."
Houston said he was surprised by the vote in the House, especially because Churchill initially spoke in favour of an investigation before voting against it.
"I thought they would be willing to be open and welcome an investigation, especially based on the way the minister characterized the events."
Churchill said it was a mistake to speak in favour of an investigation, but he would be willing to meet with Houston to clear the air.