Q27. Who is allowed in the legislative chamber?

Entry is tightly controlled; only a handful of non-MLAs are allowed in

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A27. Apart from the 51 MLAs, very few people are allowed to enter the legislative chamber in Province House when the legislature is in session.

Of course any member of the public is permitted to watch proceedings from the public gallery, but I’m talking about who is allowed “on the floor”.

Entry is tightly controlled in order to maintain the integrity of legislative proceedings.

In addition to the 51 MLAs, only the following people are permitted to enter the chamber:

  1. The clerks of the House. They are the lawyers who sit at the table directly in front of the Speaker. Sometimes there is one, but usually there are two.
  2. The Sergeant at Arms. He is in charge of security at Province House. A chair is reserved for him near the main door of the chamber. He rarely attends because he usually has other things to do around Province House.
  3. The pages. These are the young people—almost always university students—dressed in black uniforms who act as messengers and assist in helping the House run smoothly. The uniforms look sharp, but they are made of polyester and are hot and uncomfortable.
  4. The House operations staff. They look after all the details that help the House run smoothly. They are, for example, in charge of the pages. Occasionally you will see one of them enter the chamber. For example, if something ceremonial needs to be done and the Sergeant at Arms is not available, the operations staff will often step in.
  5. During the debate on departmental budgets, which takes place in the spring sitting, the minister who is being questioned is permitted to bring two staff members into the chamber to assist him or her. Those staff members are not permitted to participate directly in the debate. They whisper advice to the minister.

Apart from the people listed above, anyone entering the chamber is called a “stranger” and would be immediately ejected by the Sergeant at Arms, if necessary by force.

The rules are more relaxed during a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). That is the only legislative committee that meets in the legislative chamber. (Other committees meet in the Committee Room across the street.)

During a PAC meeting, there are nine MLAs in the chamber.  They may be assisted by caucus staff. In addition, the Auditor General attends with any staff he wishes to bring. Finally, there are the witnesses being questioned that day by the PAC members.

The rules are also more relaxed during the ceremonial opening and closing of a session of the House. Even then, no-one is permitted onto the floor except by invitation.

Q24. What is the seating plan in the legislature?

There is a lot of hidden meaning in where people sit

A24. The House of Assembly meets in Province House, a beautiful old building in downtown Halifax.  The legislative chamber is at the north end of the second floor. The legislative chamber is a horseshoe shape, and is two storeys tall.

Members of the public may observe the House of Assembly from the public gallery, which is accessed from the third floor.

In the chamber itself, there are 51 seats for the 51 MLAs. There is a lot of significance to where exactly the MLAs sit. A PDF of the seating plan is available on the legislature’s website.

The most prominent feature of the chamber is the raised platform where the Speaker sits, along the middle of the north wall. The Speaker is the presiding officer of the House. In other words, the Speaker is the referee.

Other than the Speaker, MLAs sit at desks arranged in rows. I sat at one of those desks for twelve years and I can tell you that they’re narrow and not very comfortable.

Government MLAs always sit on the Speaker’s right.

Cabinet ministers sit in the front row of the government side. There isn’t enough room for all the Cabinet ministers in the front row, so a few have to sit in the second row. MLAs on the government side who are not ministers are called “backbenchers”. Nova Scotia currently has a Liberal government. There are 27 Liberal MLAs, including the Speaker.

The premier sits roughly in the middle of the front row. He is on the aisle that runs down the middle of the government side. The closer a minister sits to the premier, the more prestigious it is.

Opposition MLAs always sit on the Speaker’s left. The largest opposition party is sometimes called the Official Opposition. The Official Opposition is currently the Progressive Conservative (PC) caucus, which has 17 MLAs.

The smaller opposition party sits furthest away from the Speaker. That’s currently where the New Democratic Party (NDP) MLAs sit. If you look closely you will see an aisle between the PC seats and the NDP seats.

Nova Scotia currently does not have any independent MLAs. If there is one (or more), they will sit on whichever side of the House has more room. Their desks are always slightly separated from the desks of MLAs who are members of a caucus.

Occasionally, the government caucus may have too many members to squeeze into one side. That happened, for example, after the 1993 election and the 2013 election. When that happens, some government MLAs will sit on the opposition side of the House. Of course they’re still members of the government caucus.

Directly in front of the Speaker’s dais is a large wooden table. That is where the clerks sit. They are lawyers. They provide legal and procedural advice to the Speaker. They also keep all of the House of Assembly’s records.

There is one other seat in the chamber. Near the main door, there is a green chair sitting by itself, in front of the NDP caucus. That is the chair of the Sergeant at Arms. He is the chief security officer for Province House. That chair is usually empty, because the Sergeant at Arms has lots to do elsewhere in the building. He is only needed in the chamber for ceremonial purposes, or if MLAs got really rowdy and somebody has to physically remove them. (Although it’s theoretically possible, that never happens. The bad behaviour has always—so far—stopped short of requiring physical restraint.)

 

Q2. What or who is “the Speaker”?

The Speaker is the MLA chosen to act as the legislature’s referee

A2. The Speaker is the presiding officer of the House.

The Speaker is always an MLA.  The Speaker is elected by the other members.  If there is a majority government, the reality is that the government members will always elect one of their own members to be the Speaker.  The last time the Speaker came from the opposition was 1999 (Ron Russell, Progressive Conservative, Hants West).

The current Speaker is Kevin Murphy (Liberal, Eastern Shore).

The Speaker sits in a chair on a raised platform at one end of the legislative chamber. On the Speaker’s right is the government, and on the Speaker’s left is the opposition.

The Speaker’s role is to be a “servant of the House”, not the servant of the government. In other words, he is supposed to do what is best for the House as a whole. It is like playing a hockey game where the teams pick one of the players to be the referee.

The Speaker does not vote unless there is a tie.

Ironically, the “Speaker” is the MLA who speaks the least in the House. The Speaker never participates in debate. If the Speaker wants to participate in debate, he or she must leave the chair. In my twelve years in the legislature, I saw that happen only twice.

In the United Kingdom, the MP who becomes the Speaker leaves the party caucus (which in the UK is very loose anyway) and runs in the next election as The Speaker, not on behalf of any party.

In Nova Scotia, the Speaker remains as a member of his caucus (and so far in Nova Scotia it has always been a “he”, which is kind of startling, in a bad way). There is a convention that the Speaker does not attend caucus meetings while the House is sitting. There is also a convention that the Speaker tones down the partisanship in public statements. In all other respects, the Speaker is a party member and runs under the party banner in the next election. Conventional wisdom is that being Speaker increases an MLA’s chances of being re-elected.