Q63. Why doesn’t the House sit during March Break?

The rules have a list of non-sitting days, including March Break

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A63. The House doesn’t sit during March Break because that’s what the rules say.

The House is governed by a set of written rules, plus a whole lot of unwritten rules based on what has happened before. In the written rules (link to PDF document) Rule 3(3) lists the days on which the House will not sit:

The House shall not meet on New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Easter Monday, Victoria Day, Canada Day, Labour Day, Thanksgiving Day, Remembrance Day, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, a Saturday, a Sunday or a Monday, and the week in each year customarily observed by the schools at the seat of the Legislature as the “March Break” in accordance with a determination made by the Minister of Education.

The rules were later amended to say, in Rule 3(3A), that the House does indeed sit on a Monday.

In 2018, the March Break for the Halifax Regional School Board (“the seat of the Legislature”) is March 12–16.

Like any rule, Rule 3(3) can be waived if there is unanimous consent. In other words, the House could meet during March Break, but only if every single MLA agrees.

Q62. What is an “emergency debate”?

The House sets aside time to debate a matter of urgent importance

A62. An “emergency debate” is a special procedure in which two hours is set aside to debate a matter of urgent importance. It sounds important, but it isn’t.

An MLA who wishes to propose an emergency debate has to contact the Speaker at least two hours before the day’s sitting is due to start, stating the topic proposed.  After the day’s sitting starts and routine business is concluded, the MLA rises to formally propose the emergency debate. The Speaker then rules on whether the emergency debate should go ahead.

How does the Speaker decide whether to authorize an emergency debate? The House has a written rule-book (link to PDF document). Rules 43(4A) and 43(10) lay out what the Speaker should take into account.

Leaving aside some technical details, the basic requirements for an emergency debate are:

  1. The matter proposed for debate “must relate to a genuine emergency, calling for immediate and urgent consideration.”
  2. The matter must be something that is within the authority of the government.
  3. The matter must not be something that will soon be debated in the House in another way (for example, during debate on a bill, or debate on the budget).
  4. The matter must not be something that has already been considered by the House.

These requirements, especially the first one, are not enforced terribly strictly. Usually the Speaker will agree to an emergency debate.

If there is an emergency debate, it lasts for a maximum of two hours, and it starts at the time when the House would normally have adjourned for the day. At the end of the two hours, there is no vote.

Emergency debates are not nearly as important as they sound. Since true emergencies are rare, the “emergency debate” procedure tends to get used for topics that are controversial. They’re important, but they’re not really emergencies.

Emergency debates tend to be proposed by the opposition as a way to say to citizens “Look, we’re doing something to hold the government accountable.” I’ve never seen the government propose an emergency debate.

I’ll be frank: during my time in the House I participated in quite a few emergency debates, on both the government and opposition sides. Nothing changes. It’s just more talk.

Q60. Is there a Code of Ethics for MLAs?

There is no Code of Ethics, but there are some rules

A60. No, there is no overall Code of Ethics for MLAs. But there is a Code of Conduct for cabinet ministers, and there is a law that deals with conflicts of interest, and there are rules of order in the legislature itself.

Before we discuss an MLA’s ethical obligations, there are two basic things it’s important to understand about an MLA’s job:

  1. MLAs are “office-holders”, not employees. They don’t have a boss. There is no employer or supervisor to tell them what to do, or for a citizen to complain to if the citizen doesn’t like what the MLA is doing.
  2. There is no job description for an MLA. The job is whatever they make of it. Different MLAs will take different approaches. A particular MLA’s approach depends on their personality, interests, aptitude, and experience.

Now let’s look at the rules that do exist.

In the legislature

While the legislature is sitting, there are rules of order. These rules apply only in the legislative chamber itself. The purpose of the rules is to ensure that the business of the House is done efficiently. Some of the rules are written down, but many are not. The unwritten rules are based on what has happened before in the Nova Scotia legislature, the House of Commons in Ottawa, or the House of Commons in London.

The rules of order are enforced by the Speaker. Even so, anyone who watches the legislature will know that MLAs often behave badly. If there is misbehaviour, the Speaker may ask a member (or all members) to behave; then the Speaker may admonish an individual member; and if the bad behaviour continues, then the Speaker may order a misbehaving MLA to leave the House for the remainder of the day. None of these punishments is very serious, which may explain why the behaviour of our MLAs continues to be bad. If their pay was docked, they would smarten up pretty fast; but that doesn’t happen. Maybe it should.

There is also a House of Assembly Policy on the Prevention and Resolution of Harassment in the Workplace. It came into effect on May 20, 2016, and deals with respectful communication and behaviour. It applies to relations between MLAs, their staff, and volunteers working in MLA offices. It does not apply to relations between MLAs and citizens.

Conflict of interest law (all MLAs)

There is a law called the Conflict of Interest Act that imposes certain rules on all MLAs. It’s not a complete Code of Ethics, but they are ethical rules.

The Conflict of Interest Act requires all MLAs to disclose the financial interests of themselves, their spouse, and their dependent children. The MLA’s disclosure reports are filed annually and are public.

The purpose of this disclosure is to prevent an MLA from acting on matters in which they have a direct personal interest. Section 12 of the Conflict of Interest Act says: “A member shall not make or participate in making a decision in the member’s capacity as a member if the member knows or ought reasonably to know that in the making of the decision there is the opportunity to further, directly or indirectly, a private interest of the member or the member’s family.”

The law also prohibits MLAs from accepting gifts or personal benefits in connection with their duties as MLA.

Any complaint under the Conflict of Interest Act may be sent to an official known as the Conflict of Interest Commissioner. The commissioner is currently Merlin Nunn, a retired judge of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.

Code of conduct (ministers only)

The Conflict of Interest Act also includes, in sections 18 and 19, a Code of Conduct for ministers. Again, it’s not a complete Code of Ethics, but they are ethical rules.

Apart from avoiding conflicts of interest, ministers are required to “be truthful and forthright and not deceive or knowingly mislead the House of Assembly or the public, or permit or encourage agents of the Government of the Province to deceive or mislead the House of Assembly or the public.”

That is probably the strongest ethical rule in the law, but the words were added only in 2010, and they haven’t really been tested yet.

Relations with citizens

The rules of order and the Conflict of Interest Act do not provide any guidance to MLAs about how to treat citizens, nor do they provide any guidance to citizens about what they have a right to expect from their MLAs.

In fact there are no rules, at all, governing relations between MLAs and citizens. That is important to understand—an MLA is under no obligation to meet with anyone, or talk to anyone, or be polite to anyone. They can do what they want—within the limits of the law that everyone in our society has to follow—and the only punishment is at the ballot box.

Now obviously MLAs want their constituents to like them. An MLA who angers many people is not likely to be re-elected. That, more than anything else, is what keeps MLAs behaving properly.

Q59. What are the current party standings in the House?

Lib 27, PC 16, NDP 7

A59. The current party standings are: Liberal 27, Progressive Conservative 16, New Democratic Party 7. One seat is vacant.

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 ministry, led by returning premier Stephen McNeil, was sworn in on June 15, 2017.

Cumberland South MLA Jamie Baillie (Progressive Conservative) resigned his seat on January 24, 2018. As a result, the current party standings are: Liberal 27, PC 16, NDP 7.

A by-election to fill the Cumberland South seat can be called any time, but it is unlikely to happen before the end of the Spring 2018 sitting. The timing of the by-election is in the discretion of premier Stephen McNeil.

 

Q48. How does Question Period work?

QP is the most direct and pithy exchange between government and opposition

A48. Question Period (QP) is usually considered the highlight of the legislative day. It gets more attention than it deserves.

Question Period usually starts exactly one hour after the daily sitting begins. It used to be a floating time—QP would start after other routine business was finished, and there was no way to know when that would be—but since 2013 the start of QP has been fixed.

QP gets a lot of attention because it is the most direct, pithy exchange between government and opposition.

The questions can be directed to the premier or any minister. There are only a few restrictions on what can be asked:

  1. The questions must relate to the premier’s or minister’s government responsibilities. A question could not, for example, be about a minister’s family or personal matters.
  2. The questions must not relate to a bill currently before the House for debate.
  3. The questions must be relatively brief. The Speaker is the sole judge of when a question is too long.

There is no obligation on the premier or minister to answer the question, and in fact they often don’t. (There’s a very common joke among MLAs: “There’s a reason it’s not called Answer Period.”) The premier or minister who is asked the question can also ask a different minister to answer the question. This is known as “referring the question” or more informally as “tossing the question”.

The first set of questions always goes to the Opposition, and the Opposition almost always starts with a question from the Leader of the Opposition (Karla MacFarlane) to the premier (Stephen McNeil). The first question will always be on whatever the opposition considers the hottest topic of the day.

The second set of questions always goes to the other opposition party (currently the NDP). The NDP leader (Gary Burrill) will usually lead off. Again, the NDP will focus on whatever they consider to be the hottest topic of the day.

The order of questioning then rotates among the opposition parties, in rough proportion to the number of seats they hold. Starting in 2013, government MLAs started getting one turn per Question Period too.

Question Period is more of a theatrical, partisan show than a sincere attempt to ask good questions or offer good answers. It gets a lot of attention because of the directness of the exchange, and the speed at which things move along. Both sides are typically being very partisan, though, so you may notice bad behaviour by MLAs on all sides and a distinct lack of substance.

Ministers typically spend a great deal of time preparing for Question Period. They and their staff try to anticipate all possible questions, and they rehearse possible answers. All of this preparation time is surprising considering how few questions the typical minister is asked. Some ministers might be asked no questions for long stretches. I’ve often thought that the ministers’ briefing books are far more interesting than what actually gets asked, because the ministers’ staff know the weak points of their policies and operations, and all the behind-the-scenes flubs, better than the opposition.

The opposition also spends a great deal of time preparing for Question Period. They and their staff try to find questions that will attract the attention of reporters, and perhaps get them in the news that day. If it’s not a newsworthy question, at least they’ll try to ask something that they can take back to an interest group or to someone in their constituency. The main problem for the opposition is that they often don’t have good information or analysis on which to base their questions. The opposition is working with very thin research resources.

There’s one other little quirk of Question Period I should mention. QP is the only time in the daily sitting that MLAs are not permitted to use their phones, laptops, or any other technological aid. The idea is to ensure that the exchange is honest and forthright—opposition MLAs shouldn’t be fed questions, and ministers shouldn’t be fed answers, by staff or any other outsider. Sometimes, if you’re sitting in the public gallery, you’ll see an MLA taking an illicit peek at a screen. It’s a definite no-no. If they’re caught, their screen will be confiscated by the Speaker and they could even be expelled from the House for the remainder of the day.

Q44. Why do MLAs behave badly in the House of Assembly?

Some MLAs act badly due to partisanship and boredom

A44. One of the first things that visitors to the legislature notice is the bad behaviour of the MLAs. This bad behaviour can be explained, if not excused.

The bad behaviour takes the following forms:

  1. Interrupting the MLA who is speaking. (This practice is known as “heckling”.)
  2. A general chorus of noise from one side that drowns out the MLA who is speaking.
  3. Very evidently not paying attention to the MLA who is speaking. This behaviour can include going in and out of the chamber, walking around inside the chamber, talking to another MLA, focusing on an electronic screen, and reading a newspaper or magazine.
  4. Insulting another MLA or another party.
  5. Making statements that are false or at least highly questionable.
  6. Refusing to answer a question asked by another MLA.

These behaviours would not be tolerated in any other workplace. In almost any other gathering of grown-ups, these behaviours would be considered shockingly rude. But in the legislative chamber, they are routine.

I spent a long time around the legislature. I’m not sure I can fully explain the bad behaviour exhibited there, but I have some ideas about the contributing factors.

The most important reason, in my view, is that all important decisions are made elsewhere. The party caucuses decide what they’re going to do, and then they almost always vote together. An MLA knows how they’re going to vote when they walk in the door at the beginning of the day. That doesn’t mean votes are held quickly. The opposition often has an interest in creating delay. The result is that MLAs are often very bored, and boredom causes bad behaviour.

Another reason for the bad behaviour is the partisanship that pervades the House. Partisanship is the excessive attachment to one’s political party. There is a strong tendency among MLAs to think of one’s own party as always right, and the other parties as always wrong. They must always praise their own leader and their own party; they must always condemn other leaders and other parties. It’s an unhealthy dynamic.

If you put boredom and partisanship together, the conditions for bad behaviour are created.

Not all MLAs act badly, and certainly there is no MLA who acts badly all the time. But unfortunately, bad behaviour is treated by senior MLAs as normal and acceptable, and is even to some extent celebrated within a party caucus. As a result, the well-behaving MLAs tend to sit quietly. They may grimace inwardly at the bad behaviour, but they make no attempt to stop it. If they do, they will be told it’s all part of the normal give-and-take of the legislature.

The bad behaviour will continue until the legislature is a forum for meaningful debate, in which MLAs prepare their arguments carefully, listen attentively to other MLAs’ arguments, and then make up their minds accordingly on how to vote. That is not likely to happen any time soon.

Q35. How can I contact my MLA when he or she is in the chamber?

Best way is to send them a note via a page

A35. There are several ways to contact your MLA, even when they’re sitting at their desk at Province House.

The one complete no-no is for an MLA to answer their phone while sitting in the chamber.

If you’re at Province House, here are your options:

  1. Send your MLA a handwritten note. You can hand the note to one of the pages (the young people wearing snappy black uniforms). There’s usually a page standing in the public gallery (third floor) for this exact purpose. There’s also usually a page standing near the entrance to the chamber (second floor) who’s watching for people with notes. You can send the note on any piece of paper, or you can use the green notepads that you may see lying around.
  2. If you know your MLA’s phone number, send them a text. Most MLAs look at their phone frequently. The only time they’re not allowed to use their phones is during Question Period.
  3. If you know your MLA’s e-mail, send them an e-mail. Depending on how they handle e-mail, they may get it on their phone. Again, they’re not allowed to use their phones during Question Period.
  4. Wait until your MLA leaves the chamber, then you can approach them in a public area.

If you’re not at Province House, you can call Province House and ask to speak to your MLA. Remember that this only works if the House is actually sitting. If it isn’t, your MLA won’t be there. A message will be given to your MLA. They may leave the chamber to speak to you, or they may call you back later, or they may ignore you. It’s up to them.

Remember: Just because the House is sitting doesn’t necessarily mean your MLA will be in their seat.

When the House isn’t sitting, your MLA is most likely to be found at their constituency office. I’ve written a post with tips on how to communicate effectively with your MLA.