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With clock ticking, Opposition leaders turn up pressure for N.S. premier to recall legislature

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WATCH: Despite a year of unprecedented turmoil in Nova Scotia, Premier Stephen McNeil has not recalled the legislature, where elected officials debate government decisions, programs and legislation in the public eye. Nova Scotia has the only legislature in Canada that has not sat during the COVID-19 pandemic, and reporter Elizabeth McSheffrey has more on what that means for the province’s democracy – Nov 4, 2020

As the clock ticks down on the holiday break, Opposition leaders in Nova Scotia are increasing the pressure on Premier Stephen McNeil to recall the legislature.

In a year of unprecedented turmoil and change, the province’s elected officials have sat in the House of Assembly for a total of 13 days. Unless there’s an emergency exemption, 30 days’ notice is required for them to sit again, meaning they may not return to Province House until early or mid-December.

That leaves little time for Opposition Officials to question McNeil and his team on their decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic, debate any new legislation that’s presented, and voice the concerns of their constituents.

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This week, McNeil told reporters he’d have news on recalling the legislature sometime “next week,” promising that a fall sitting will take place, as required by law. Nova Scotia’s is the only legislature in Canada that has not sat during the pandemic.

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Tim Houson, leader of the Nova Scotia PC Party, called the delay “appalling.”

“The best decisions are made by people who know they will be challenged on them, people who know questions will be asked, and know they’ll have to defend their decisions,” he said.

“When people feel nobody’s going to know or find out about this or ask, it’s not the best decision-making process.”

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Long-term care beds, affordable housing, and child care are among the topics Gary Burrill said he would raise in the House of Assembly when the MLAs are called back. The NS NDP leader said keeping the legislature closed for so long is tantamount to pushing those concerns aside.

“The people of Nova Scotia deserve to hear for example, under the scrutiny of public questioning, what their minister of health has to say,” he told Global News.

“They deserve to hear under the scrutiny of public questioning, what their minister of finance has to say.”

Burrill said the McNeil Liberals are “evading” a democratic responsibility.

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McNeil, who announced his resignation from public office in August, has long denied accusations that his government lacks transparency.

Challenged on the lack of public, political debate on his government’s activities in the past nine months, on Monday, he said he has met all legislative requirements and will continue to do so.

“We had our (session) in the spring, met the requirements, we debated a budget and the Opposition could see no reason to keep us there, so they let us out… Then we have a requirement for the fall and we will do that. Everything that we have been doing in terms around the pandemic, it’s up on websites and we’ll continue to do so.”

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Lori Turnbull, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, said news conferences and COVID briefings — where the premier often controls the messaging — are not a substitute for debate at Province House. She added, however, that as a regular presence on lap top and cell phone screens, the government has not escaped public scrutiny entirely during the pandemic.

“I kind of wonder if there is a bit of a sense on the part of the Liberal government that they are in a period where they’re choosing their next leader… The focus is on COVID-19, we see a lot of the premier and Dr. Strang, and so it’s not so much that the government is out of the public eye, it’s just that we’re seeing it differently.”

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As McNeil prepares for his retirement from politics, there is little time left to question him on his decisions, past and present. Turnbull said a sitting legislature is essential to democracy, as one of few opportunities the public has to see their elected officials in action.

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