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Why I started this Citizens’ Guide

To be effective, citizens have to know how their legislature works

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The 40th Nova Scotia general election was held on May 30, 2017. The final results were: Liberal 27, Progressive Conservative 17, NDP 7. A new Cabinet was sworn in on June 15, 2017. The ministry is led by premier Stephen McNeil. The legislature will begin sitting on Thursday, September 21st. A budget will be delivered on Tuesday, September 26th. A budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year was not passed before the legislature was dissolved for the May 2017 election.

I started this Citizens’ Guide in December 2016 because of a startling political event. That event—which morphed into Bill 75 in February 2017— is behind us now, but the need remains for a good explainer.

To be an effective citizen, you have to know how decisions are made. The legislature is part of the decision-making process, yet most Nova Scotians know very little about what really goes on there. Because I’ve been hanging around the legislature since 1998, I have a pretty good sense of how it really works, and I’m happy to share that experience.

You can browse this Citizens’ Guide from top to bottom simply by scrolling down. If you’re looking for something specific, I recommend using the Search function. If you’re looking for something more general, the Categories list is likely the best starting point. You might find the category “Advice for Citizens” especially useful, because it includes tips on communicating with your MLA, making a presentation to the Law Amendments Committee, and having an impact on the annual budget. The posts on the law-making process and the budget-making process are also good starting points. They will lead you deeper into this Citizens’ Guide via the links. There’s also a post on all the vocabulary, because the legislature uses a lot of jargon, acronyms and slang.

I’m going to keep building this Citizens’ Guide in response to events and your questions. If you send me your questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. Factual questions only, please. I won’t answer questions that are partisan, or that are about specific individuals, or that require speculation or opinion. To keep this Citizens’ Guide manageable, I’ll answer questions only about how the legislature works, and not about politics, elections or government in general.

Every question about the legislature is a good question. If you’ve been wondering something about the legislature, then chances are that lots of other people are wondering the same thing.

Q57. If a budget is introduced, can the government call an election before the budget vote?

An election can be called before a budget is passed

A57. The answer is yes—there can be an election before a budget vote. It is up to the premier to decide when to call an election.

In the spring of 2017, there was much speculation about whether the McNeil government would call an election shortly after introducing a budget on Thursday, April 27th. In fact, a general election was called three days after the budget was introduced. Election day was May 30, 2017.

In 2006, the Progressive Conservative government of Rodney MacDonald introduced a budget and then called an election. In 2009, the MacDonald government was defeated on a confidence vote before the budget could be put to a vote.

If there is a change of government before a budget is approved, the new government will typically wait until the fall sitting of the legislature to introduce a budget. The machinery of government can continue to operate for quite a long time without an approved budget.

 

Q56. What is repeal? Can Bill 75 be repealed?

To repeal a law means to rescind it; any law can be rescinded

A56. “Repeal” is the legal word for rescinding a law.

This question comes up a lot with respect to Bill 75, the controversial law enacted in February 2017 to impose a contract on teachers.

The short answer is that any law made by the House of Assembly can be unmade by the House of Assembly. To repeal a law requires a bill, and that bill must go through all five stages of the law-making process.

That’s the short answer; of course there’s a longer, more complicated answer. The legal effect of repeal can be a remarkably convoluted legal issue, especially in criminal law.

When a law is repealed, that means it is not the law from the moment the repeal comes into force, either through proclamation or Royal Assent. The repeal can even be worded so that the repealed law is deemed never to have been the law.

Repealing a law will leave a legal void. Sometimes that’s okay. Most times, another law will have to be passed to fill the void. In fact, it’s quite common to pass a new law, and the new law states at the end that such-and-such a law is repealed. The new law has replaced the old law.

If Bill 75 is repealed without something to replace it, that means we would go back to the way things were before it was enacted, i.e. we would go back to having a teachers’ professional agreement that expired on July 31, 2015. A new contract would have to be negotiated covering the period from July 3, 2015, forward.

What most complicates the question of repeal is that a number of things will start happening immediately under Bill 75. Repeal of Bill 75 can change the law, but it can’t change the facts on the ground.

The best example of “facts on the ground” is the Commission on Inclusive Education. According to Bill 75, the Commission must be appointed by no later than March 23, 2017, must issue an interim report by June 30th, and must issue a final report by March 23, 2018. If Bill 75 is repealed, any work done by the Commission before the date of repeal can’t be undone. It’s just a fact.

Postscript: This question has become a moot point after the 2017 provincial election. The Liberal government of premier Stephen McNeil was returned with a majority. There is now very little chance that Bill 75 will be repealed.

Q55. What is in Bill 75?

It’s complicated, but essentially it legislates the second tentative agreement with teachers

A55. Bill 75, the Teachers’ Professional Agreement and Classroom Improvements (2017) Act, received first reading in the legislature on February 14, 2017. It received third reading and Royal Assent on February 21, 2017.

Bill 75 is too long to reproduce here. The official version of the bill is available via the legislature’s website. The key features of the bill are:

  1. The bill imposes a four-year professional agreement that expires July 31, 2019. Because a professional agreement is being imposed, any strike action will be illegal as soon as the bill passes.
  2. The bill incorporates the wage and long-service award provisions from the second tentative agreement. Over a four-year contract, that’s 0-0-1-1.5 and a final 0.5% on the last day of the fourth year. Long-service awards are calculated by multiplying (i) years of service on July 31, 2015, and (ii) salary at retirement.
  3. There will be a Commission on Inclusive Education (sections 4-11). There will also be a Council to Improve Classroom Conditions.
  4. The bill does not apply to other unionized public-sector workers, except for one small detail concerning long-service awards.
  5. Class-size guidelines in Schedule B (page 24) are in force for 2017-18 and 2018-19.
  6. Work-to-rule cannot include any of the teachers’ duties listed in sections 26 or 31 of the Education Act (section 13). Enforcement of these duties is not specified in the Act, and would presumably fall to normal performance management and discipline procedures.

There is also a provision stating that the constitutionality of Bill 75 cannot be decided by an arbitrator.  That does not oust the jurisdiction of the courts.

 

Q54. What is a Cabinet shuffle?

A shuffle changes the membership and responsibilities of Cabinet

A54. A Cabinet shuffle is when the premier adds or removes Cabinet ministers, or changes the portfolios for which Cabinet ministers are responsible.

The premier alone decides who will be a Cabinet minister, and what portfolio they hold. It is therefore the premier’s decision about whether to have a Cabinet shuffle and when.

Shuffles happen for all kinds of reasons: the death or resignation of a minister; ministers’ performance (good or bad); to give a backbencher a chance at a Cabinet position; to give the Cabinet a fresh look; or to boost an MLA’s chances of re-election.

Premiers want to present their government in the best light, so they won’t always be completely forthright about their reasons for a shuffle. For example, if the premier believes a minister is under-performing, they don’t usually want to say so out loud.

People who follow politics examine Cabinet shuffles closely for their political meaning. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s in favour? Who’s out of favour? Who’s strong? Who’s weak? There can be much speculation, but ultimately only the premier knows for sure the reasons for the shuffle.

If a minister is moved to a less important portfolio, it is sometimes referred to as a demotion. If a minister is moved to a more important portfolio, it is sometimes referred to as a promotion. But of course there can be arguments about which portfolios are more or less important than others. That’s all part of politics.

If a shuffle affects only a few ministers, it is sometimes referred to as a minor shuffle. If a shuffle affects many ministers, or if it includes one of the more prestigious portfolios, it is sometimes referred to as a major shuffle. The Harlem shuffle is a famous song.

A Cabinet shuffle requires a change in the legislature’s seating plan, if a minister is being added or removed, because of the convention that Cabinet ministers sit in the front row on the government side of the House.

Q53. Do you have any advice for citizens presenting to the Law Amendments Committee on Bill 59 (Accessibility Act)?

The LAC hearings on Bill 59 will be much better than usual

A53. I have written posts on the Law Amendments Committee, how it really works, and some tips on how to make an effective presentation.

The LAC hearings that were held on March 2 and 3, 2017, on Bill 59 (Accessibility Act) had some unique features that made them better than most.

Bill 59 received first reading on November 2, 2016, second reading the following day, and moved on to the Law Amendments Committee on November 7, 2016.

Many presenters at the Law Amendments Committee were critical of the bill itself, and critical of the lack of facilities for persons with disabilities at the LAC hearings. It appears the government was taken aback by the criticism. As a result, the government decided not to move the bill any further in the five-step law-making process, at least in the Fall 2016 sitting of the House.

For the LAC hearings on March 2 and 3, 2017,  arrangements were made for American Sign Language interpreters, sighted guides, and Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), as well as a teleconferencing option. These arrangements are, at least in my experience, a first for the LAC.

It is extremely rare for the LAC to hold hearings outside of a legislative session. There was a distinct benefit for citizens wishing to appear at the Bill 59 hearings: the time pressure on government MLAs, which is one of the reasons the LAC process is normally so unsatisfactory for citizens, was entirely absent. All MLAs were polite and attentive and gave presenters every consideration. That, unfortunately, is not the norm.

At the conclusion of the LAC hearings, the government said it would take time to consider what amendments, if any, to make to Bill 59. The next step in the law-making process is Committee of the Whole House, and that cannot begin until the legislature is back in session.

My advice for advocates for persons with disabilities is to seek to be part of the decision-making about amendments before, during and after the LAC hearings. The real decision-makers on Bill 59 will not be the members of the LAC, but rather the minister, the minister’s staff, and the premier’s office staff. Meetings and other communications with those decision-makers can take place at any time. As I’ve explained in another post, a presentation at the LAC should not be the first or only step that advocates take.

Postscript: After this post was written, Bill 59 passed through Committee of the Whole House and third reading, and received Royal Assent on April 28, 2017. It is now the Accessibility Act, chapter 2 of the Acts of 2017. It comes into force on proclamation.

 

Q52. Do you have any advice for citizens about how to deal with reporters?

Build a relationship, and become known as a reliable speaker

A52. It’s very useful for citizens to know how the news media works at Province House.

I came away from my fifteen years in politics with a profound respect for reporters, and for the important role they play in maintaining democracy. That doesn’t mean I always agreed with them, or liked what they wrote, but their role is fundamental. They are professionals with standards and ethics who try every day to tell important stories in an engaging way.

For the citizen, the best reason to engage with reporters is because getting in the news will amplify your voice. If you stand on a busy street corner in downtown Halifax and shout “Listen to me!” you might get a dozen random people listening. If you deliver the same message in an interview or newscast on CBC’s Information Morning, you’ll have 100,000 citizens listening.

Here’s the most important thing you need to know: On a typical day at Province House when the legislature is sitting, there are dozens of different things going on. The reporters have to decide which one or two stories matter most to their audience, and then decide how to report those stories, all within their deadlines. They are under no obligation to choose the story you want, nor to report it the way you want.

Here are some other tips about how to engage effectively with reporters:

  1. Become known as a knowledgeable and reliable speaker on a given issue. That way, they will turn to you for comment whenever the issue comes up. It may take time for you to build a reputation, and it may take some practice for you to be able to talk about an issue in a way reporters can use.
  2. Build an ongoing relationship with reporters. Know their names, know who they work for, have a general idea of who their audience is, know how to contact them. Be helpful to them, by sharing information and insights. When the time comes to include you in a story, they’ll know who they’re dealing with.
  3. Try to understand what a reporter’s job is like. The more you know about what they’re trying to accomplish, the better you can figure out how to work within that framework to get your message out. For example, it’s no good to call a TV reporter at 5:00pm. Their news-gathering time is done for the day. Another example: don’t expect a reporter to do an investigative deep-dive on every little thing that bugs you. They don’t always have a lot of resources, and they have to choose carefully how to allocate the resources they do have.
  4. Try to understand what is likely to appeal to a reporter. A story might matter a lot to you, but it may not look so interesting or “doable” to a reporter. Remember that a reporter needs reliable sources and good evidence. The more you can do to supply those things, the more likely the reporter will pick up your story.

 

 

 

 

 

Q51. How does the news media work at Province House?

Reporters play a crucial role at Province House

A51. The news media plays a crucially important role in how the legislature works. The place would be quite different if reporters were not there.

Politicians and reporters have a symbiotic relationship. They need each other. Politicians need reporters to “get the message out”. A good deal of what they do at Province House can be explained as an attempt to obtain or avoid coverage in the news media. By the same token, reporters need politicians in order to generate stories for their publication or broadcast. They are always on the hunt for new and interesting stories.

At Province House, you will often see reporters in the hallways. Sometimes it’s obvious who they are, because they’re toting cameras or microphones. Other times, you’ll know them only by their Media passes. Reporters are not allowed into the legislative chamber, but they’re free to roam elsewhere in the building. The major news outlets each have a small office in the basement of Province House, off-limits to the general public.

Reporters who regularly cover Province House have an association called the legislative press gallery. The current president is Jean Laroche, the veteran CBC reporter. The “press gallery” gets its name because some parliaments have special reserved seating—a gallery—for reporters. If you look closely at the front row of the public gallery at Province House, you’ll see a small section with built-in tables. This row is reserved for reporters.

Members of the press gallery in Nova Scotia represent media outlets such as CBC, CTV, Global TV, the Chronicle Herald, LocalXpress, Allnovascotia.com, Metro Halifax, the Halifax Examiner, News 95.7, and CP-BN (Canadian Press–Broadcast News).

The best place to see reporters at work is on the second floor, just outside the legislative chamber. This is where the action is. Every MLA going into or out of the chamber has to pass this spot, so it’s the best place for reporters and politicians to meet. They will then engage in a “scrum”, which is an informal news conference during which reporters from the press gallery surround a politician and ask questions. If a reporter wants to ask questions privately—for example, if the reporter is working on a story that they don’t want other reporters to know about—they will move away and find a quiet spot elsewhere in the building to do the interview.

More formal news conferences are usually held either in the Red Room of Province House—which is the big room on the opposite end of the second floor from the legislative chamber—or in the Media Room in One Government Place. Citizens may attend any news conference in the Red Room, but news conferences in the Media Room are restricted to reporters, government staff, politicians, and political staff. The reason for the difference is that the Media Room is a government facility, whereas Province House is operated for the benefit of all MLAs and therefore tends to be more open.

Here are the official rules, written by Communications Nova Scotia, governing access to the Media Room in One Government Place:

Upon entering One Government Place to access the media room, reporters must present a valid media pass or have a letter from their employer to confirm that they in fact work for that media outlet. Student journalists may provide a letter from their professor or the university publication they represent. Recognized online bloggers/writers have attended events in the media room, and are also recognized under the legislature’s house pass policy.

Stakeholders connected to the subject of the event are often invited to attend events in the media room. Where this is an opportunity for media to get their questions answers, key stakeholders are invited to observe the news conference, technical briefing or media availability. As per fire marshal regulations, the media room can only accommodate 50 people, therefore given reporters, MLAs, staff, and stakeholders attending, it is not open to the general public.

In my opinion, it’s disingenuous for CNS to cite fire marshal regulations as a reason for not admitting the public to the Media Room. The fact is that citizens are not welcome in the Media Room, regardless of how many people are already in it.

One of the unwritten rules of news conferences is that only reporters are permitted to ask questions. If a citizen were to ask a question to a politician in a scrum, or during a news conference in the Red Room, it is quite likely the politician would decline to answer. The reporters would also be displeased, because they know that their continued access to politicians depends partly on the orderliness of news conferences.

A note on jargon: Journalists will sometimes refer to news conferences as “press conferences” or “pressers” or “newsers”.