HALIFAX – Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil was accused Friday of being anti-democratic and disrespectful of citizens when he announced the legislature would not be recalled for a fall sitting.
The last time the legislature was open for debate was March 10, two days before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opposition parties have accused McNeil of avoiding accountability in the house of assembly, noting that every other legislature in Canada has resumed sitting since the pandemic began.
“It’s entirely disrespectful to the people of the province who put him there to start with,” NDP Leader Gary Burrill said in an interview. “(They’re) evading scrutiny and sidestepping public consideration of their work … It is irresponsible, undemocratic and disrespectful.”
The Liberal premier has said he has been preoccupied with the pandemic, and he argued that Nova Scotians have seen him take questions from reporters during weekly online briefings.
“Just because I’m not sitting on the floor of the legislature doesn’t mean they haven’t been asking questions,” McNeil said during a COVID-19 briefing, referring to opposition members. “There’s been committees going forward. They have a right to put forward any questions they may want to ask, whether it’s the pandemic or any other issues facing our province.”
Burrill said it’s misleading for the premier to suggest that fielding questions at committee or at news conferences is the same as submitting to the scrutiny of the opposition in the legislature.
“This betrays a startling misunderstanding of democracy on the premier’s part,” Burrill said. “Stephen McNeil is not the government of Nova Scotia. He’s the premier, but he does not embody … the democracy of the province.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Houston said the next sitting will come more than 280 days after the last one. “Their continued culture of secrecy keeps them from answering to the people, for both their decisions and their indecision,” Houston said in a statement.
“For eight months, we saw the premier on TV restricting and screening questions from the media, just as he has avoided questions in the legislature.”
The Speaker’s office released a brief statement Friday saying the legislative session will be prorogued on Dec.18 during a brief ceremony in the house, which will officially end the session. The next session will open Feb. 16 with a speech from the throne, which will set out the broad themes for the Liberal government’s legislative agenda.
The timing is important because McNeil will no longer be premier as of Feb. 6. That’s the day the Liberal party will choose a new leader and, by extension, a new premier. McNeil announced on Aug. 6 that he would be leaving politics after 17 years in public office.
The premier said he wanted to clear the legislative slate for his successor.
“Most Nova Scotians would understand that we are selecting a new premier now and it would be inappropriate for me to go set a policy path for them,” he said. “The (new premier) will determine that when they get elected (to lead the party) and they’ll do that in the new year.”
– With files from Danielle Edwards
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2020.