Only the most die-hard watcher will have noticed but there was an unlikely filibuster in the Nova Scotia legislature last week. In a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, the Liberals went on for many hours about the the Houston government’s power-hungry, anti-democratic ways. 

The ostensible subject of the lolygagging was a bill making minor changes to governance of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. But the Liberals kept this routine bill in committee for several days, using it as a club to batter the PC government for marginalizing MLAs while consolidating more power at the cabinet level.

It is remarkable that this condemnation came from Liberal legislators, most of whom served in caucus and/or the cabinet of Stephen McNeil, whose disdain for participatory democracy was flagrant and notorious.  I’ve written about this several times before, most recently in March 2021. That story was about how the three candidates running to succeed McNeil were unwilling to criticize a record that included:

  • Eliminating elected school boards;
  • Amalgamating nine district health authorities into one;
  • Reducing the number of days the legislature sits;
  • Extending the number of hours legislature sits daily (legislation by exhaustion);
  • Curtailing the role of the public accounts committee. 

In short, during an eight-year mandate the McNeil Liberals further centralized power while reducing the ability of the legislature to hold government accountable for the exercise of that power.  Thus it may seem a bit rich for the Liberals to be mounting the barricades to protest some of the same tendencies for which they were justifiably criticized. But before drawing that conclusion consider what the PC government has been doing.

Dissolving boards

The Houston government provided an early sign of things to come shortly after taking office last summer, firing all but one of the directors of the Nova Scotia Health Authority board, then followed that up by abolishing Tourism Nova Scotia and its board and moving the agency’s activities in-house.

They were just getting warmed up back then. The latest amped-up round of power-grabbing and centralizing was on full display on Hallowe’en eve when the  Law Amendments committee met to hear presentations on a raft of bills pushed through last week after the Liberals ended their filibuster.

Despite well-articulated opposition from presenters like the chamber of commerce, the mayor of Halifax and lawyers for business power users big and small, it took only a few hours for the PC majority on the committee to push through legislation usurping the power of the utility board to set electricity rates and a bill nullifying bylaws passed by the Halifax regional council.

The committee majority went on to rubber-stamp legislation dissolving the boards of the crown corporations Nova Scotia Business Inc. and Innovacorp, thus creating the potential for greater partisan involvement in dispensing economic development assistance through the successor agency, Invest Nova Scotia. Also scheduled for dissolution were housing authorities across the province, as well as boards of the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation and Perennia, a non-profit established in 2012 to promote food production.

Houston likes to boast about leading a government of “solutionists.” If there are such  words, then perhaps “dissolutionists” would better describe what’s been going on.

Legislature shackled

In addition to taking power away from agencies and boards and handing it to ministers, the PC government mimicked the McNeil Liberals in trying to limit the ability of opposition MLAs to hold accountable those more powerful ministers.

Even before the fall session of the legislature started there was controversy over efforts to remove the independent-minded Speaker from his elected position. Then just three days into the session the government, looking very much like the McNeil Liberals on steroids, forced through a motion extending sitting hours to midnight. That’s a dubious tactic that even the Liberals reserved for later in the session.

The PCs backed down after after the Liberals used most of those extra hours over a four-day period for the filibuster on the Art  Gallery bill, punctuated with drawn out recorded votes on procedural stuff.

That may be an indication that in future the governing party will be less inclined to steamroll opposition MLAs. But even if that small correction transpires, there will be no cause for celebration. The Houston PCs are centralizing power at the executive level at a great rate while silencing other voices, both inside the legislature and beyond. After just 15 months in power they are on track to do more damage to participatory democracy than the Liberals did in eight years.