Written by Mark Coffin
Tomorrow, thousands of Nova Scotians will head to the polls. Despite popular belief, we will not be electing a government. Instead, we will each have the opportunity to participate in one of 51 concurrent elections to elect the people who will fill the seats of the legislative assembly. The results of those elections determine what the legislature looks like.
The assembly gathers in Province House. If you visited Province House over the past month, you’ll notice it is undergoing repairs. That makes total sense, because it is the oldest legislature in all of Canada.
While construction workers toil away on the outside of the legislature, I was curious if anyone was planning on fixing the inside of the legislature. Much like the building itself, our traditions and ways of doing business in Province House still closely resemble the 1800s model. While many other sectors have been transformed by the social innovations of the last century, the way we approach lawmaking and governance remains fundamentally unchanged. So, in our interviews with Nova Scotia’s party leaders , we asked each of them:
Does the legislature need to be modernized?
JAMIE BAILLIE, Progressive Conservative Party leader
“It’s an antiquated system,” says Progressive Conservative leader, Jamie Baillie. “It’s become irrelevant to too many Nova Scotians.”
Baillie feels that most of the legislature’s time is spent discussing things that aren’t important to the rest of us.
“The people of Nova Scotia should set the agenda of their legislature more directly,” he says. “Honestly, a lot of the hours that I’ve sat in the legislature, we’re debating things that I know are not important to Nova Scotians.”
“So, we want to make sure Nova Scotians, through petition, can directly set the agenda of the legislature… electronically or otherwise.”
Baillie pivots the conversation away from process and procedure, and suggests that the best way to shift the discussion to what’s important is to elect the right people.
“I tell [my candidates] three things when I’m recruiting them,” says Baillie. “One, their first duty is to their constituents, as an MLA, the people that directly voted them in. Two, that they do have a duty to the team that they’re part of – that we will make decisions as best we can on a consensus basis, in the best interests of Nova Scotia as a whole. And three, that they have a duty to our political system, which has been pretty ragged the last few years.”
“I want very few votes to be matters of confidence in the legislature, and much more of the voting that goes on to be a matter of free votes,” says Baillie. “Legislators can speak their minds and vote their conscience.”
Baillie says he has no intention of disciplining MLAs who break ranks with their party on votes that aren’t confidence motions. It’s worth noting that the last three Canadian Prime Ministers, including the current one, have proposed a similar model during their inaugural election campaigns (generally referred to as a three-line whip system). This is evidently a tough promise to follow through on: after two decades worth of such promises, MPs in Canada are still less likely to break ranks with their own partythan in any other country.
When it comes to the business of government as a whole, Baillie points to the need for greater long-term and intergenerational thinking when the legislature makes decisions. Before the legislature was dissolved, he introduced the Next Generation Act. The bill would have required governments to report, not only on the immediate impact of government spending and policies, but also to file reports every five years on the projected economic, environmental and social impact of current policies forty years from the present day.
STEPHEN MCNEIL, Liberal Party leader
Liberal leader, Stephen McNeil, worries that the business of the legislature is unfairly dominated by the interests of the government. This, no doubt, comes from his decade of experience and frustration on the opposition benches, with very little power and plenty of time to dream up different rules.
“We need to allow opposition parties, in my view, to get from second reading, into the [the] Law Amendments [Committee],” says McNeil.
The Law Amendments Committee is where proposed legislation is reviewed before it is returned to the entire legislature for a final vote. In order for legislation to be reviewed, it must first receive approval “in principle” by a majority vote in the legislature. This is tricky, but not impossible for opposition parties in a minority government.
At the Law Amendments Committee, members of all parties have the opportunity to suggest changes to any bill. Members of the public are also (very quietly) invited to speak to the committee directly about the legislation and voice their support or concern.
“So, for example, if I put a bill forward on insulin pumps, which we did many times, it would never get beyond second reading, so we could never get the public to have a conversation about it,” said McNeil. “Well I think that needs to change, and individual opposition members need to have that right, to be able to do that.”
Such a change would give opposition members the power to force an open debate on proposed legislation that the government would otherwise try to bury.
These changes, and others being proposed by McNeil would require changes to the rules for the House of Assembly. All parties have agreed that the rules need to be modernized. In May 2009, some of the most senior members of all three elected parties unanimously agreed on a set of recommendations to improve participation in the democratic process. This included rewriting the rules of the house of assembly. The report was presented just four days before the writs for the 2009 election were dropped. The rules of the house were originally adopted in 1980, and despite the multi-party call for change, the rules haven’t changed since their last revision in 1998.
McNeil also wants the work of the legislature to be more collaborative. “One of the things that I would want my ministers to do, to be honest with you, would be to reach out to their critics on legislation that we’ve brought forward. If they’ve got a good idea, why not change it?”
McNeil says he would standardize the timing of question period each day the house sits. According to him, question period only happens three days a week, the timing isn’t predictable, and members of the government can eat up the opposition’s time for questioning the government with statements and resolutions that have little effect.
If the polls are any indication, McNeil won’t find himself back on the opposition benches anytime soon. When asked if he would still support these opposition-friendly changes once he’s on the government side, his one word reply is, “absolutely.”
Premier DARRELL DEXTER, NDP leader
“The rules of the legislature have changed dramatically,” counters NDP leader and Premier Darrell Dexter. The rules he speaks of haven’t changed since shortly after he was first elected as an MLA in 1998, and he stops short of mentioning specific changes. Instead, he points to changes in the way what happens in the legislature is broadcast to the public.
“The advent of things like television in the legislature have meant big changes for the way that things are done in the House of Assembly,” says Dexter. He goes on to mention social media and the effect it is having, while pointing out that it’s not clear the positives outweigh the negatives at this point.
He has concerns about the hours the legislature keeps. “The hours that we work right now are not very conducive to [family life] for MLAs.”
“There needs to be more done on that, in terms of making the legislature kind of a more family friendly place,” says Dexter. “And I think that’s unfortunate, it mitigates mostly against younger people coming into political life.”
“I mean, we have nighttime sittings, we sit very very long hours, it is just not very conducive to the work that people do. Most people don’t realize that when the legislature is in session, is the least of our time actually working.”
JOHN PERCY, Green Party leader
“We have to drop the partisanship and get back to what politics is about, and that’s governance,” says Green Party leader, John Percy. “No one talks about governance. They’re all worried about the next sound bite, and how they’re gonna look, and ‘is my hair ok?’ and ‘what’s our slogan going to be?’ I want to talk about governance, and I want to talk about how we get people back and involved in their day-to-day governance.”
Percy freely admits he’s got a zero percent chance at becoming Nova Scotia’s next premier. But if he were the head of government for Nova Scotia, the first thing he would do would be to change the way we elect people to the legislature in the first place.
“We are working with a nineteenth century system that was, even back in those days when there were only two parties, poorly designed and poorly implemented. You were either a winner or a loser. You were either represented or you weren’t,” says Percy. In order to change that, Percy would strike a commission to do a public review of the electoral system in Nova Scotia.
“It’s long past due that we look at how the rest of the world really does it. There’s what, three countries left that have first past the post systems?”
“So, to me, that’s something that I would do, maybe not on day one. Day one I might be a little hungover. Day two, I would implement something like that.”
PS: If you’re still wondering why we have an election, but we don’t elect a government on election day, here’s the trick. We elect 51 MLAs. The Lieutenant Governor (LG) will do some pretty simple math after the election and ask the leader with the greatest support in that legislature (read: the leader of the party with the most seats) to take a crack at being Premier and forming a cabinet. If the NDP wins (or if they are part of a tie for first place), there’s no asking required, the current Premier gets first shot at seeking the confidence of the new assembly. If they lose, the LG will wait for the Premier to politely resign, and then invite the “winning” leader to take his place. In any case, the next government will ultimately be responsible to the legislative assembly, who as a group will have regular opportunities to express or withdraw their confidence.