Q16. Can you explain some of the vocabulary?

Let’s cut through the jargon


A16. Like any other profession, politics has a fearsome amount of jargon. Sometimes all that jargon gets in the way of citizens’ understanding. In this post, I’ll explain some of the most common terms. I’ll keep adding to it as I get more questions.

This list is in alphabetical order. If you see a word in italics, that means it’s defined elsewhere in this list. If you see a hyperlink, that means it’s explained in more detail in a post.

Act: The formal name for a bill after it has been approved by the House of Assembly. For example, the law that governs driving is called the Motor Vehicle Act. Also known as a law or a statute. See also bill. An Act can be repealed (rescinded).

Adjournment: Putting something off to a future day. If the House is adjourned, that means it won’t sit again that day, and will resume the following business day. If a debate is adjourned, it means that particular item is done for the day, although the House may move on to other business. An adjournment may be contrasted with a recess.

Backbencher: An MLA on the government side of the House who is not a Cabinet minister.

Bill: A proposed law that is introduced in the House of Assembly by an MLA. Each bill is given a number, in addition to its proper name. Once a bill passes through all five stages of the law-making process, it is called a law, a statute or an Act (those words all mean the same thing). Sometimes people will keep calling a law by its bill number.

Budget: The documents in which the government states how much money it is planning to spend and receive during that fiscal year. It is delivered in the spring sitting of the House of Assembly, usually around the beginning of April. The budget package consists of a budget speech by the finance minister, the Estimates (detailed revenue and expenditure estimates), the Supplementary Estimates (the same, but with even more detail), and business plans for government departments and agencies. The budget also includes a bill called the Financial Measures Act, although that bill is not usually introduced until a few days after the budget.

By-election: Any election of an MLA that is held at a time other than a general election. A by-election is held whenever a seat is vacant because of the death or resignation of an MLA, or if an election is voided by a court due to irregularities. The decision when to call a by-election rests with the premier, who has some discretion about the timing of the by-election, as long as it is called within six months of the vacancy occurring.

Cabinet: The collective name for all ministers, including the premier. The Cabinet meets once per week, almost always on Thursday morning, and once every other week in July and August. It is the highest legal body in the executive branch of government. The legal name of the Cabinet is “Executive Council”. You may also see it referred to as “the Governor in Council”. These terms all mean the same thing. The Cabinet meets on the fifth floor of One Government Place. Most MLAs dream of one day being in Cabinet.

Cabinet minister: A member of the Cabinet. A minister is in charge of at least one government department, and sometimes more than one. A minister’s responsibilities are called a portfolio. There used to be “ministers without portfolio”, who would do whatever the premier asked them to do, but Nova Scotia hasn’t had a minister without portfolio for a very long time. A minister is almost always an MLA, but doesn’t have to be. The last time Nova Scotia had a minister who was not an MLA was 1993. There are no formal qualifications to be a Cabinet minister.

Cabinet shuffle: The premier decides who will be a Cabinet minister, and what portfolio they hold. A Cabinet shuffle is when the premier decides to add someone to Cabinet,  remove someone from Cabinet, or change the portfolios of some ministers.

Caucus: A group consisting of all MLAs who belong to the same political party. Currently in Nova Scotia the Liberal caucus has 27 members, the Progressive Conservative (PC) caucus has 16 members, and the New Democratic Party (NDP) caucus has 7 members. Caucus meetings are always held in private. An MLA who does not belong to a caucus is called an independent. There is currently no independent. Sometimes “caucus” is used as a verb. It’s shorthand for “discuss in caucus”. For example, if an MLA says “We’ll have to caucus that” it means “We’ll have to discuss that in caucus”.

Caucus office: The staff who support the MLAs in a particular caucus. There is a Liberal caucus office, a Progressive Conservative (PC) caucus office, and a New Democratic Party (NDP) caucus office. The Liberal caucus office is sometimes referred to as the government caucus office. A caucus office is funded with public funds, under the direction of the Speaker’s Office. A caucus office must therefore be kept completely separate from a political party office.
Chief of Staff: The top political staff person in the Premier’s Office. Other party leaders also have a chief of staff. This is a very important and influential position. The current Chief of Staff to the premier is Ryan Grant. In the federal government, ministers also have a chief of staff. Nova Scotia’s government is too small for that. Most ministers have only one or two political staff people, called executive assistants (EA).

Committee of the Whole House (CWH): A committee that consists of all MLAs. It is the fourth stage in the five-stage law-making process. CWH meets in the main chamber at Province House, but it follows a different procedure than a regular sitting of the House of Assembly. CWH is often referred to as “clause-by-clause examination” of a bill. In theory, this is where MLAs debate every microscopic detail of a bill and propose amendments. In practice, it can be pretty wacky. There is a time limit of 20 hours for CWH on any single bill.

Confidence vote: Any vote in the House of Assembly that triggers an election if the government loses. There are three kinds of confidence votes: (1) the annual budget, (2) a motion that explicitly states it is about confidence in the government, or (3) any vote the government declares in advance to be a confidence vote. A majority government will never lose a confidence vote. Usually confidence votes only matter when there is a minority government. I have written a separate post about whether Bill 75 is a confidence vote.

Constituency: The House of Assembly has 51 MLAs, and each MLA represents a distinct geographical area called a constituency. Another word for constituency is “riding”. The exact boundaries of each constituency are described in a law called the House of Assembly Act.

Constituency assistant (CA): The staff of an MLA in the constituency office. It’s the CA who does most of the hands-on communications and constituency work for the MLA. Most CAs become very knowledgeable and adept at handling constituents’ queries and concerns. They’re good people for the citizen to know.

Constituency office: The office maintained by each MLA in their own constituency. This is the primary point of contact for citizens to meet their MLA. The constituency office is paid for with funds provided by the House of Assembly, and is staffed by one or more constituency assistants (CA).

Critic: An MLA in an opposition party who is the party’s chief spokesperson on a particular topic. An opposition MLA is usually the critic for at least one Cabinet minister, and often more than one.

CWH: See Committee of the Whole House.

Deputy minister (DM): The administrative head of a government department. A deputy minister is a full-time, permanent civil servant, not a politician. The deputy is not a member of a political party and has no connection to any caucus. This may be contrasted with the minister, who is the political head of the department, almost always an MLA, and a member of the government caucus. The hiring, shuffling, and dismissal of deputy ministers is technically a Cabinet decision, but effectively it is a decision of the premier.

Election: See general election and by-election.

Emergency debate: An emergency debate is a special procedure by which two hours are added on to the end of a day’s sitting to allow MLAs to debate an urgent matter that is not already on the Order Paper (the House agenda). They are rare, and not nearly as important as they sound.

Estimates: The annual budget. The “Estimates debate” is the budget debate. It always occurs during the spring sitting of the House of Assembly.

Executive assistant (EA): A political staff person for a Cabinet minister. In Nova Scotia, ministers have no more than two EAs, and usually they have just one. EAs are political staff, not civil servants. When the minister leaves office, so does the EA.

Executive Council: see Cabinet.

Filibuster: When an MLA talks for a very long time to try to delay passage of a bill. The rules of the House of Assembly say that a member can speak for a maximum of one hour, so here in Nova Scotia we don’t have true filibusters because there’s always a time limit. If all members of the opposition, or at least all members of an opposition caucus, try to delay as much they can the passage of a bill, that’s what we call a filibuster in Nova Scotia.

Financial Measures Act (FMA): The bill that implements any legal aspects of the annual budget. Because it is part of the budget, the vote on the FMA is a confidence vote.

First reading: The first stage in the five-stage law-making process. This is when a bill is introduced by an MLA. It is a formality. There is no debate. It’s even a misnomer, because the bill is not literally read out loud. It takes about twenty seconds.

Fiscal year: The twelve-month period that begins on April 1st and ends on the following March 31st. For example, when you see someone refer to “the 2017-18 fiscal year”, it means the year beginning on April 1, 2017, and ending on March 31, 2018. The annual budget is based on the fiscal year, not the calendar year. Don’t ask me to explain why the government does its accounting this way, because I don’t know. To make it even more jargony, you’ll sometimes hear politicians say things like “this fiscal” or “next fiscal”. They’re referring to the fiscal year.

Free vote: A vote in the House of Assembly in which the party leader permits caucus members to vote however they wish, without fear of disciplinary consequences. The opposite of a free vote is a whipped vote.

General election: An election is which an MLA is elected in every constituency at the same time. Under the constitution, there must be an election at least once every five years. Nova Scotia does not have a fixed-date election law, so the timing of an election is almost entirely in the discretion of the premier.

Government: This is a slippery word with multiple meanings. Technically, a government consists only of the premier and the rest of the Cabinet. Within the legislature, the word is usually used in a broader sense, to cover all MLAs on the government side, whether or not they are Cabinet ministers. The word is also commonly used to refer to the executive branch of government. Finally, the word can be used to refer to everybody and everything in the public sector, covering the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Government bill: A bill introduced by a Cabinet minister on behalf of the government. A government bill will almost always be passed before the end of a legislative sitting. See also private member’s bill and my post on bills.

Government House Leader: See House Leader.

Governor in Council: see Cabinet.

Hansard: The transcript from the House of Assembly. Everything said in the House is recorded, and the recordings are transcribed (written down). Hansard is available on the legislature’s website back to 1997. Before that, it is available in hard copy in the Legislative Library at Province House.

House: See House of Assembly.

House Leader: The MLA in each caucus who directs how their caucus will operate in the House of Assembly. The House Leader has a totally different job from the party leader.  Being House Leader is a very important job. It is usually given only to experienced MLAs. The House Leader on the government side is particularly important, because he or she is responsible for getting the government’s bills through the House. The current Government House Leader is Geoff MacLellan. He is the MLA for the constituency of Glace Bay. The Opposition House Leader is Chris d’Entremont (Progressive Conservative, Argyle–Barrington). The NDP House Leader is Dave Wilson (Sackville–Cobequid).

House of Assembly: The official name of the legislature is “the Nova Scotia House of Assembly”. The terms House of Assembly, legislature and legislative assembly all mean exactly the same thing. They all refer to the 51 MLAs who are our elected representatives and who meet at Province House to conduct provincial business under the Canadian constitution. The House of Assembly has its own website with lots of useful information. Sometimes “the House of Assembly” is shortened to “the House”, always with a capital-H.

Independent: An MLA who is not a member of a caucus. There is currently no independent MLA.

LAC: Pronounced “L-A-C”, never “lack”. Which is weird, because PAC is pronounced “pack”. See Law Amendments Committee.

Law Amendments Committee (LAC): A committee of nine MLAs who hold public hearings on every bill that’s moving through the law-making process. It is the third stage of the five-stage law-making process. I’ve written posts about what the LAC is and how the LAC really works, and some tips on how to make an effective LAC presentation.

Leader of the Opposition: The leader of the party with the second-most seats in the House of Assembly. The role of the Opposition is to probe and question government policy, and to propose alternatives, all while remaining supportive of the overall democratic system of government. The current Leader of the Opposition is Karla MacFarlane, who is interim leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and MLA for the constituency of Pictou West.

Legislature: See House of Assembly.

Legislative assembly: See House of Assembly.

Legislative Library: The library at Province House. The primary purpose of the librarians is to assist MLAs and caucus staff who wish to do research, but anyone can visit the library and  the services of the Legislative Library are available to the general public. The librarians know everything and are very nice and helpful people. (They did not pay me to write that last sentence.)

Legislative counsel: The lawyers for the House of Assembly. The Office of the Legislative Counsel is non-partisan and provides legal advice to all MLAs. The lawyers in the Office of the Legislative Counsel are the people who actually write the bills introduced in the House of Assembly. At a meeting of the Law Amendments Committee, one or two lawyers from the Office of the Legislative Counsel will sit beside the Minister of Justice, who chairs the meeting. The Office of the Legislative Counsel also compiles the list of citizens who wish to speak to the Law Amendments Committee.

Majority government: When one party has more than half the seats in the House of Assembly, that party has a majority government. Having a majority is significant because that party can win every vote in the House of Assembly as long as the party members vote together. Nova Scotia currently has a majority Liberal government, led by premier Stephen McNeil. A majority government may be contrasted with a minority government.

Minister: See Cabinet minister.

Minority government: When no party has more than half the seats in the House of Assembly, the party with the most seats usually forms the government. Having a minority is significant because that party has no guarantee it can win a vote in the House of Assembly, unless it persuades MLAs in other parties to vote the same way. Minority governments usually don’t last very long because they are vulnerable to losing a confidence vote.  Nova Scotia last had a minority government in 2006-09, when a minority Progressive Conservatives government was led by premier Rodney MacDonald. A minority government may be contrasted with a majority government.

MLA: Member of the Legislative Assembly. There are 51 MLAs in the House of Assembly. Each represents a distinct geographical area called a constituency. Each MLA is elected by the voters in that constituency.

NDP: New Democratic Party. The NDP currently has seven MLAs in the Nova Scotia legislature. They are sometimes referred to as “the third party”, since they are neither government nor Official Opposition. The NDP leader is Gary Burrill, who is the MLA for Halifax Chebucto.

Official Opposition: See Opposition.

OGP: See One Government Place.

One Government Place (OGP): The seven-storey office building that houses the Premier’s Office, the Treasury & Policy Board, the Cabinet room, and assorted other government offices. It is between Barrington Street and Granville Street in downtown Halifax. The Granville Street entrance is diagonally opposite the back door of Province House. OGP is the centre of power in Nova Scotia politics. This is where the decision-making really happens. If you want to be an effective citizen, you would be well-advised to focus on influencing the people at OGP more than you focus on what’s going on over at Province House.

Opposition: All MLAs who are not members of the government caucus. Just to be confusing, sometimes the word “the Opposition” with a capital-O is used to refer only to the largest non-government caucus. A better term for that would be “the Official Opposition”.

Opposition day: A day on which the Opposition gets to decide what will be debated in the House of Assembly. In Nova Scotia, that’s on Wednesdays.

Opposition leader: see Leader of the Opposition.

Order paper: The daily agenda of the House.

PAC: Pronounced “pack”. Which is weird, because LAC is pronounced “L-A-C”. See Public Accounts Committee.

PC: Progressive Conservative. The PC Party currently has 16 MLAs in the Nova Scotia legislature. They are the Official Opposition. The interim PC leader is Karla MacFarlane, the MLA for the constituency of Pictou West.

Petition: A document calling on the government to take (or refrain from taking) a particular action, with a list of citizens’ names and signatures attached. Petitions are an ancient method for citizens to seek redress of a grievance. Petitions are frequently introduced in the House of Assembly. A petition must be introduced in the House by an MLA. The fact that an MLA introduces a petition does not necessarily mean the MLA agrees with it, although they usually do. There is no vote, debate or other follow-up on a petition. There is no requirement that the government respond to a petition.

Portfolio: see Cabinet minister.

Premier: The leader of a provincial government. The word premier is short for “premier ministre” which is French for first minister. The premier is almost always an MLA, but doesn’t have to be—the last time Nova Scotia had a premier who was not an MLA was 1997, when Russell MacLellan was premier for a few months before he won a seat in a by-election. The premier is almost always the leader of the political party with the most seats in the House of Assembly, but doesn’t have to be The current premier is Stephen McNeil, who is leader of the Liberal Party and MLA for the constituency of Annapolis.

Premier’s Office: A term for all the people who work directly for the premier. It is not literally one office, but a whole bunch of people and offices on the top two floors of One Government Place. It is the centre of decision-making power for the provincial government.

Press conference: A formal meeting at which a politician makes an announcement of some kind to reporters from the press gallery, and then answers reporters’ questions. Also called a “news conference”, “newser”, or “presser”. Government news conferences are usually held in the media room at One Government Place, but they may also be held in a minister‘s office or a caucus office, or really anywhere at all. See also scrum.

Press gallery: The association of reporters who regularly cover proceedings of the House of Assembly. It gets this name because some parliaments have special reserved seating—a “gallery”—for reporters. Members of the press gallery in Nova Scotia represent media outlets such as CBC, CTV, Global, the Chronicle Herald, Metro Halifax, the Halifax Examiner, News 95.7, and CP-BN (Canadian Press–Broadcast News). I have written posts on how reporters work at Province House and tips on how citizens can work effectively with reporters.

Private member’s bill: A bill that is introduced by an MLA who is not a Cabinet minister. Many private member’s bills are introduced, almost all by the opposition, but very few are ever passed. See also government bill and my post on bills.

Proclamation: A Cabinet order that brings a law into force. If a bill does not say when it comes into force, then it comes into force immediately upon Royal Assent. Sometimes, however, the bill says it comes into force when it is “proclaimed”. Proclamation is done by Cabinet order. No further action by the House of Assembly is required. It is possible to have a bill that passes through all five stages of the law-making process and receives Royal Assent, but is never proclaimed.

Province House: The building between Hollis Street and Granville Street in downtown Halifax where the legislature meets.  It’s not the same as Government House, which is the building on Barrington Street where the lieutenant governor lives.  Province House is sometimes called “the legislature”, but that can be confusing, because then you could say “the legislature meets in the legislature”.

Public Accounts Committee: A standing committee of the House of Assembly that works closely with the Auditor General and looks at how public money is being spent. It has nine members and is chaired by an MLA from the Opposition. It is the only committee that meets every week, and the only committee that meets in the legislative chamber of Province House. It is considered by most people to be the most important committee.

Question Period (QP): The portion of each daily sitting that is devoted to questions from MLAs to Cabinet ministers. QP gets a lot of attention because of the directness of the exchange, and the speed at which things move along. It probably gets more attention than it deserves, because it’s mostly for show.

Recess: A temporary suspension of House proceedings. Sometimes a recess lasts a few minutes, or it can go as long as a few hours. Usually a recess is called because there is some procedural quirk that needs to be ironed out, or because the House is waiting for something else to happen first (for example, waiting for a committee to finish its work elsewhere in the building and report back to the House). A recess is temporary, and may be contrasted with an adjournment, which means the House is done for the day.

Repeal: The unmaking of an Act. Repeal is a legal word that means to cancel, rescind or annul. To repeal a law requires a bill that goes through the five-stage law-making process.

Resolution: A motion that typically asks the House of Assembly to support a certain action. Resolutions are proposed by MLAs near the beginning of each daily sitting. Unlike a bill, a resolution does not have the force of law when it is adopted. In recent years, resolutions are used by MLAs mostly to offer congratulations to a person or organization that has accomplished something notable. They can also be used to make a political statement.

Riding: See constituency.

Ringing the bells: When there is a vote in the House of Assembly, any two MLAs can ask for a standing vote. When there is a standing vote, a whip may request “ringing of the bells” to summon absent MLAs to the chamber. The bells—which are actually an electronic tone—can sound for a maximum of one hour. Ringing the bells is sometimes used by the opposition as a delaying tactic.

Royal Assent: The signature of the lieutenant governor on a bill. Even after third reading, a bill does not become law until it receives Royal Assent. Even then, it may be subject to proclamation.

Scrum: An informal news conference during which reporters from the press gallery surround a politician and ask questions. Scrums are part of how reporters work at Province House and usually take place just outside the entrance to the legislative chamber. The word is taken from the sport of rugby. See also press conference.

Second reading: The second stage in the five-stage law-making process. The word “reading” is a misnomer, because the bill is not literally read out loud. Second reading is when a bill is debated by MLAs in the House of Assembly. Second reading is often referred to as “debate in principle”. During the second reading debate, MLAs are supposed to focus on the principle of the bill, not its details. Second reading can take a few minutes, or it can go on for days.

Session: A session of the House of Assembly is the period of time from the opening of the House until the House is prorogued, or dissolved for an election. It can consist of one sitting (e.g. the spring sitting or the fall sitting) or it can consist of multiple sittings (some sessions go on for several years). There is always a new session immediately after a general election, but after that it’s really up to the premier to decide when the House should be prorogued (to start a new session) or dissolved (for an election). The only practical significance of a session is that the Order Paper is wiped clean for a new session, and bills start again at Bill 1, Bill 2, etc. A session may be contrasted with a sitting.

Select committee: A temporary committee of the House of Assembly. It is created for a specific purpose and then, once its work is finished, dissolves. It may be contrasted with a standing committee, which is permanent.

Sitting: The word “sitting” has two different meanings, which is confusing. It can refer to a daily meeting of the House—for example, the Wednesday sitting, the Thursday sitting, etc.  It can also refer to all the daily sittings in a continuous period—for example, the spring sitting, which generally lasts from late March to May, or the fall sitting, which generally lasts from late October to early December. It may be contrasted with a session.

Speaker: The Speaker is the MLA who is elected by all MLAs to be the referee of the House of Assembly. The Speaker is also responsible for overall security and management of Province House. The current Speaker is Kevin Murphy, MLA for Eastern Shore (Liberal). There is a tradition that the Speaker does not attend a caucus meeting while the House of Assembly is in session.

Speech from the Throne: The formal address by the lieutenant governor to the House of Assembly. The reading of the speech is part of the opening ceremony of a new session of the House. Although the speech is read by the lieutenant governor, the lieutenant governor has no role in writing it. The speech is written under the premier’s direction.

Standing committee: A permanent committee of the House of Assembly. It may be contrasted with a select committee, which is temporary.

Table or tabling: When a document is introduced in the House of Assembly,

Third reading: The fifth stage of the five-stage law-making process. The word “reading” is a misnomer, because the bill is not literally read out loud. Third reading is when the last speeches are made. A bill cannot normally be amended on third reading. The third reading debate is usually short. After third reading, the bill has passed through the House of Assembly and goes to the lieutenant governor for Royal Assent.

Whip: The MLA in each caucus who is responsible to ensure caucus discipline, especially attendance of caucus members in the House of Assembly. In larger assemblies it is quite an important job, but in Nova Scotia it is a minor role. It does carry extra pay, though.

Whipped vote: A vote in the House of Assembly in which the party leader instructs all members of a caucus to vote a certain way, or face disciplinary consequences. The opposite of a whipped vote is a free vote.

Author: Graham Steele

A former MLA in Nova Scotia, currently Professor of Business Law in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s