N.S. MLA who recently gave birth can sit virtually, but not before ‘bad message’ sent

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An independent panel that sets MLA salaries is recommending a hefty wage increase. But premier Tim Houston says now is not the time - and he's reconvening the legislative assembly to stop the salary hike. Meantime, opposition parties say the government should be dealing with bigger issues. Amber Fryday has that story – Jul 19, 2022

A Nova Scotia MLA who gave birth via cesarean section two weeks ago says a prior decision rejecting a bid for her to sit in the legislature virtually sends a “bad message” to young women and parents who want to see themselves represented in politics.

That decision was overturned in the legislature Tuesday, allowing Kendra Coombes to join, but in an interview prior to the sitting, she told Global News that she was disappointed by an initial vote to not allow her to participate remotely.

“It sends a message to young women, young people, that it’s not welcoming, that it’s not going to be accommodating to parents,” said Coombes, the NDP MLA for Cape Breton Centre-Whitney Pier.

“We want to see more diversity in the legislature, and in order to see that, we must look at different ways of accommodating people in order to have that diversity, in order for people to see themselves there.

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“When something like this is denied, I think people feel like they’re being shut out as well.”

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Coombes gave birth to her second daughter, Isla Quinn Brown, on July 12.

The MLA lives in Scotchtown, more than a four-hour drive from Halifax, and had been advised not to travel so soon after her C-section.

The NDP tried to get an exception to allow Coombes to participate in Tuesday’s emergency sitting of the legislature, which was called by Premier Tim Houston to stop the implementation of a pay bump for its members.

A poll was sent out over the weekend asking all 55 MLAs – nearly two thirds of whom are men – if they would support the request to have Coombes sit virtually, but at least one person voted “no,” so it wasn’t granted.

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Polls outside of the legislature must be unanimously agreed upon, said Coombes, and she doesn’t know who or how many people voted against the exception.

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Coombes, the first sitting MLA to give birth in Nova Scotia, said it was a “disappointing” result.

“I want to work. I’m ready to work with my caucus to bring forth the real emergencies, the real crises,” she said, listing housing, health care, the cost of living, and the environment as examples.

“These are real crises that we’re dealing with and I want to be in the legislature, even if it’s virtually, just to represent people and do that work.”

MLA Kendra Coombes with her daughter, Isla Quinn Brown.
MLA Kendra Coombes with her daughter, Isla Quinn Brown. Global News

During the legislative session Tuesday, NDP House Leader Susan LeBlanc introduced a resolution to allow Coombes to join virtually for the duration of the summer session, which members passed unanimously. Coombes joined the session via teleconference shortly after.

In a statement, James Charlton, chief clerk of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly, said when a poll outside of the legislature is conducted, “it is to take some action that would normally require a vote in the House, such as a motion to amend or suspend the rules on a temporary or permanent basis.”

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“There really is no authority to even conduct a poll,” he said. “We’re just asking all Members to agree to something not provided for in the rules so we can get in the House and the members can then deal with the matter during proceedings.”

Read more: Gender diversity will improve at N.S. legislature, but still falls below half of elected officials

Charlton said the results of such polls are not revealed to anyone.

“In effect, it is a secret ballot,” he said, adding that the default in the House is to not record the results of votes, beyond being in favour of or against the motion at hand.

“Results of who votes in the House are only recorded in the event of a recorded vote. Indeed, requests for unanimous consent in the House are never subject to a recorded vote.”

Making the legislature accessible

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, Lori Turnbull, a political science professor at Dalhousie University, said she’s glad “they got it right” in the legislature Tuesday, but said the initial result of the poll was “jarring.”

Turnbull noted that since remote work had become normalized during COVID-19, it’s “not a big ask.”

“We know that places like legislatures, that tend to have very demanding work schedules and require travel and everything else, remote work can make those legislatures a lot more accessible – and especially to women with young children, especially to women who have just given birth,” she said.

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“The right of a member to participate, and the right of the constituents to be heard through that member, should override any concern there is around having to set up a Zoom for somebody. So it’s really hard to think about how anybody could have thought otherwise.”

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Turnbull said there can be many barriers for new mothers and parents in politics, due to often-demanding work schedules and the need to travel.

She said the legislature needs to be open to everyone and ensure that public office is truly accessible.

“It doesn’t just mean you can run – it should mean that when you’re elected, the proper steps are taken to ensure that your participation is actually fully facilitated,” said Turnbull.

Tuesday at the legislature, a resolution was introduced that would allow MLAs to sit virtually for the summer 2022 sitting of the House of Assembly, provided there are at least 15 members in-person. It did not pass unanimously and was tabled.

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Government house leader Kim Masland could not be reached for comment prior to the session, but told the Halifax Examiner in a statement that house leaders for all parties were informed of the resolution last week and the NDP “were firm that they would not support it.”

“While indicating that they will not support the motion treating every member equally, the NDP asked for their own exemption for one specific member,” Masland said.

Nova Scotia NDP spokesperson Meredith O’Hara said the proposed “blanket exemption” is different than granting an exemption for Coombes.

“To us, that is different than the accommodation for a new parent who is recovering from surgery, who, under medical advice, can’t travel,” she said.

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“If there’s a conversation about changing how we do our work, that’s a much bigger conversation than just giving blanket approval to anyone who wants to sit virtually.”

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