Nova Scotia legislature rife with frustration over government's move to extend debate

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s legislature is mired in procedural wrangling as frustrations grow over extended hours and opposition delay tactics aimed at keeping the government in the House of Assembly.

The past week — marked by marathon sitting hours which often run until midnight — has seen the Opposition Liberals and NDP respond by holding up bills clause by clause in order to delay passage.

The tactic involves a call for a recorded vote, which then rings bells in the house to alert members to that impending vote. The bell ringing can last up to an hour and brings business in the legislative chamber to a halt.

The rancour began in earnest on Tuesday after the Progressive Conservative government called for extended hours following previous delay tactics from the opposition, changing the regular work day from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. to 1 p.m. to 11:59 p.m.

“It’s kind of the same thing every session,” an exasperated Premier Tim Houston told reporters on Thursday. “We’ve had this pretty much every time we’ve sat.”

The fall sitting opened on Oct. 12 and about a week later Houston told reporters that his government had likely brought forward all of its legislation. That resulted in accusations from the opposition parties that the Tories were extending debate hours in order to wrap up the sitting faster and to avoid the daily question period.

But Houston said the government is trying to get its work done and is being hindered by opposition tactics he said limits actual debate on bills.

“This is not meaningful debate, this is pretty ugly,” the premier said. “But If the opposition wants it to take a little longer and use some of the political tools at their disposal, they are free to do that.”

Opposition Liberal Leader Zach Churchill made no apologies on Thursday, saying he didn’t think it was right for the government to try to rush out of the legislature after presenting a light agenda.

“We have big issues like inflation, like the housing crisis, like homelessness, a health care system that’s collapsing,” said Churchill. “Our job in here is to hold them to account and to push forward good ideas.”

He claimed the filibuster had been successful in forcing the government to release a housing strategy that it had been reluctant to make public, as well as announce funding to help increase spotty cellular phone coverage in parts of the province.

“Imagine if we keep them here for another two weeks how successful we can be,” he told reporters.

NDP Leader Claudia Chender said the habitual use of extended hours by both the Houston administration and the previous Liberal government represented a “total disregard for the work this house does.”

“So this (bell ringing) isn’t an ideal way to do business, but this place is broken and it needs to get fixed,” Chender said. “It’s too bad that it’s come to this, but I think it is good to have the opportunity to ask the premier questions.”

Chender has called for reforms to the way the House of Assembly conducts its business, suggesting a calendar of set sitting days similar to those in place in many other provinces and at the federal level.

Tom Urbaniak, a political scientist at Cape Breton University, said what’s unfolding in the legislature has become a “common pattern” in recent years. Urbaniak also believes change is needed to increase the length of sittings and to return focus to “considered debate” during hours when the public and the media can tune in.

“This business of sitting until 11 p.m. just because they don’t want another sitting day which will create another question period is kind of nonsensical,” he said. “There’s no reason why there can’t be several weeks (sitting). We’ve really got to do some serious reflection about the quality of our institutions at this point.”

But Lori Turnbull, director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University, isn’t so sure institutional change is the complete answer, adding many of the delay tactics seen in Nova Scotia are also used elsewhere in the country to gum up legislative proceedings.

“You can always entertain different kinds of institutional reforms, but nothing will change unless the politicians themselves decide they want it to change,” Turnbull said. “This is a human issue, this is not an institutional problem.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2023.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press