Consultation process questioned on multiple government bills

MLAs are pictured in Nova Scotia's legislature on March 26, 2013.
MLAs are pictured in Nova Scotia's legislature on March 26, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX – Opposition parties are questioning the consultation process on a slate of bills going before the Law Amendments Committee again on Wednesday.

Six bills that were sent back to departments on Monday for further review are already back on the committee’s agenda two days later. It’s not clear how many bills were changed since Monday, but at least one of them wasn’t changed at all. Bill 112, the contentious amendments to the Children and Family Services Act, didn’t get any more changes, Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard said on Tuesday.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia’s child protection law to proceed as is: minister

In an open letter sent to all government MLAs Tuesday afternoon, Sharon Cochrane, a lawyer in Wolfville, N.S., said the government is “rushing” the legislation.

“We are not disgruntled lawyers who are trying to make life difficult for the Minister,” read the letter. “My colleagues and I are trying to offer advice on the practical effects of this legislation.”

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The law gives more power to the Department of Community Services, Dalhousie University family law professor Rollie Thompson said. “The bill is still draconian.”

The government consulted in name only, Thompson said. “It was a very one sided process, they went in with a fixed idea of what they wanted to do and they didn’t hear anything that disagreed with that.”

The department’s actions on Bill 112 are in stark contrast to how the justice department handled changes to the Maintenance and Custody Act, Thompson said. He said in that case, meaningful consultation was done and that’s why there’s very little opposition to the bill.

The department disagrees with the accusation that there was a lack of meaningful consultation. More than 200 Department of Community Services staff, 60 personnel from the Mi’kmaw Family and Children’s Services agency, and 240 individuals representing 35 stakeholder groups took part in or provided submissions as part of recent consultations on the proposed amendments, said spokesperson Heather Fairbairn in an emailed statement.

However, the opposition says they are hearing from groups who say the department didn’t adequately consult. “The government and the minister are just being very bullheaded and they’re not prepared to accept that there are problems that are very obvious to everybody but them,” interim NDP leader Maureen MacDonald said Tuesday.

“We just want them to get these right, famillies, children, the people that look after them, these are the issues that they’ve messed up,” Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie said Tuesday. “I really think they have go back to the drawing board and do these things properly.”

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Other bills also criticized for lack of consultation

At Law amendments committee on Monday, representatives from the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, and the Halifax Cycling Coalition said there was a lack of consultation on four bills. Bill 134 which amends the Liquor Control Act, Bill 118 which amends the Heritage Property Act, and bills 133 and 136, both of which amend the Motor Vehicle Act.

Ultimately all four bills were sent back to departments for study; however, the four bills are among the list of bills returning to the committee on Wednesday.

“A much more extensive consultation process must be undertaken,” Nicole McKim, an employee relations officer with the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union said about Bill 134, which amends the Liquor Control Act.

When Minister Tony Ince introduced amendments to the Heritage Property Act, he said stakeholder groups, including the Heritage Trust, were on board with the bill. However, the Heritage Trust said the bill it was consulted on had little resemblance to the bill the minister introduced in November.

“Bill 118, as introduced, has serious technical flaws,” Phil Pacey, a spokesperson for the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia said. “Some of these flaws, if adopted, could leave the Heritage Property Act open to challenges in court. Some flaws could put the heritage buildings in our province in greater jeopardy.”

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When Bill 136, which legislates the use of segways on Nova Scotia’s roads and sidewalks, was introduced, Transportation Minister Geoff MacLellan said all groups including the Halifax Cycling Coalition were on board with the changes. However, the cycling coalition says no one from the department spoke to them about the bill.

The coalition’s chair said there was also no consultation with cycling groups about increases to fines for pedestrians outlined in Bill 133. “We’re wondering who was consulted and who brought the idea forward that pedestrians be penalized as severely as motorists,” Ben Wedge, chair of the Halifax Cycling Coalition, said on Monday.

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