Another fall session of the Nova Scotia legislature is in the books, and as Yogi Berra famously said, it was “like deja vu all over again.” Just like the two previous autumn sessions under Tim Houston’s government, power-grabbing and late-night sittings were dominant themes.
Recall that in 2021 the new PC government warmed up its centralization reflex by firing the board of the Nova Scotia health authority and abolishing Tourism Nova Scotia. And in the name of the housing crisis, the PCs claimed a bigger role in housing development in the Halifax Regional Municipality, setting up a joint provincial-municipal housing panel and designating Special Planning Areas to speed up approvals.
Then last fall they got rid of a batch of arm’s-length boards and commissions, curtailed the Utility and Review Board’s power to set electricity rates and – the housing crisis again – gave themselves the authority to nullify HRM bylaws deemed to be impeding housing development. They did all of that during a brief 17-day session marked by a half-dozen late night sittings, an anti-democratic practice inherited from the McNeil Liberals.
This year’s headline usurpation took provincial interference in HRM’s business to a new level. Bill 329, introduced without consulting the municipality, gives the PC government, through housing minister John Lohr, what critics claim is absolute control over housing development in HRM. That bill, along with 16 others passed after 19 sitting days. Most of those days dragged on well into the night and featured hours of bell-ringing summoning members to recorded votes on mainly procedural points raised by the opposition.
Reaction to the bill
Criticism of Bill 329 has been scathing. Mayor Mike Savage set the tone, calling the legislation an “egregious over-reach..built on a demonstrably false premise” – namely that municipal planning regulations are holding up housing development. Savage points out that Halifax council has approved 11,000 units that are stalled because of high interest rates and a shortage of construction workers and building materials.
For his part, opposition leader Zach Churchill argues that giving the minister so much authority “can lead to corrupt behaviour- incentives for partisan ministers …to engage in favouritism for friends and allies and donors.” NDP Leader Claudia Chender says the bill “isn’t about building housing; this bill is about a government being able to do whatever it wants.”
One could dismiss such criticism as garden variety partisan bickering except for the fact that over the course of weeks of debate, the government was unable to come up with much of an explanation for why it needs all this power. The example John Lohr cites is convoluted and trivial in the grand scheme of things.
His case involves a four-storey, 46-unit building in Beaver Bank approved by planners in accordance with the city’s planning strategy. After hearing from local residents, elected councillors from the area voted against the proposal. However, their decision was reversed by Utility and Review Board because the development met the requirements of the municipal plan.
Lohr says Bill 329, which he promises to use sparingly, will eliminate the need for developers to go to the utility board when councillors reject a proposal that complies with the planning strategy. However, the powers given to the minister – and by extension the cabinet – go far beyond that. Four clauses in particular, as described in the explanatory notes attached to the bill, give a clear sense of the reach of the legislation.
Clause 13 clarifies that the Minister may exercise the Minister’s powers without consultation or a recommendation or request.
Clause 14 allows the Minister to make an order designating any or all of the Municipality as a special planning area.
Clause 15 allows the Minister to amend or repeal land-use by-laws, subdivision by-laws and municipal planning strategies in special planning areas without the recommendation of the Executive Panel on Housing in the Halifax Regional Municipality.
Clause 16 allows the Minister to approve development agreements or amendments to development agreements in special planning areas without the recommendation of the Panel.
With the government unable to satisfactorily explain why it needs such sweeping powers, the way is clear for speculation. Some, like Zach Churchill, favour the corruption angle, pointing to Doug Ford’s Greenbelt antics in Ontario and the fact that prominent developer Scott McRae headed Houston’s transition team.
Others, like Mayor Savage, describe the motivation as “performative,” a show put on to create the appearance of action. Bill 329 enables the PCs to tick the housing box so that, with an eye to an election 20 months from now, they can get back to their much-touted “laser focus” on health care.
On that note, Bill 329 could cost the PCs a few of the handful of seats they hold in HRM, but their cavalier treatment of the city will probably help them in rural Nova Scotia where standing up against big, bad, entitled Halifax has certain appeal. Whether that works for them remains to be seen. The Bill does nothing to reduce homelessness or escalating rents, issues that may yet overshadow health care.
Reaction to the bells
It will also be worth watching to see whether the government has learned anything from the other main feature of the just-completed session, the midnight sittings and the ringing of division bells. A year ago, writing about the PCs pre-emptive resort to extended hours just three days into the 2022 session, I surmised that the opposition’s response – a four-day filibuster “punctuated with drawn out recorded votes on procedural stuff” – might encourage the PCs to abandon the practice.
They did not. This time the PCs waited five days before extending the hours and another three days before pushing them to midnight. This may look like an improvement, but it came after a sneaky move by the government to rush through Bill 329. The surprise bill received second reading on a Friday before going to the law amendments committee the following Monday. At committee, public comments – almost all negative but well informed critiques from HRM councillors and staff – were cut off after just three hours. It’s reasonable to assume that 99 per cent of the public were unaware of Bill 329’s existence by the time their right to comment on it was taken away.
The over-the-top bell-ringing response by the Liberals that ensued was an understandable response to the government’s arrogance and probably forced the PCs to keep the house open – and question period in play – at least a week more than they wanted. The escalation in delaying tactics also prompted the government to talk about possible rule changes.
Presumably the government would want to limit the number of recorded votes or reduce the one-hour time limit on bell ringing to something closer to the 30 minutes allowed in the House of Commons. In return, the opposition could seek to limit late night sittings and pursue a long-time NDP proposal for a legislative calendar like the House of Commons uses.
There are many other reforms that should be considered – such as more time devoted to the budget discussion and prompt publication of transcripts from committee examination of the budget. (They now come out months after the spring budget is passed). And in light of how Bill 329 was handled, another NDP proposal requiring three business (not weekend) days between second reading of a bill and its appearance at law amendments should be adopted.
But that may be expecting too much. As I’ve discussed a few times before, Nova Scotians seem unconcerned about the erosion of democratic accountability as more power is concentrated in the cabinet while the ability of MLAs to hold cabinet answerable has declined with the marginalization of the legislature.
The number of days the legislature sits has varied over the years, but averaged about 60 days a year from the 1970s to 2014. Under the NDP, the house sat an average of 63 days a year between 2009-2013. Under McNeil’s Liberals the average from 2014 to 2019 dropped to 46 days before COVID-19 reduced sitting days to only 13 in 2020. Under the PCs the number of sitting days has fallen below the McNeil government’s 2014-19 average – 41 days in 2022 and only 33 days so far this year.
The Fall session for 2024 will likely be the last autumn gathering before Nova Scotians go to the polls in July 2025. It would be a pleasant surprise if that session takes place under more sensible rules and without the government highhandedness that has marked the recently-completed session and the two before it. For the sake of our endangered democracy, let’s hope the next fall session will not be an example of “deja vu all over again,” all over again.