Q54. What is a Cabinet shuffle?

A shuffle changes the membership and responsibilities of Cabinet

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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 came into force on proclamation, which was September 18, 2017.

 

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, 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”.

 

Q50. What is a petition? How do petitions work?

A petition is a call by citizens for action by the government; they rarely work

A50. A petition is a document calling on the government to take (or refrain from taking) a particular action. The distinguishing feature of a petition is that the call to action has attached to it a list of citizens’ names and signatures.

Petitions are an ancient method for citizens to seek redress of a grievance.

Petitions are frequently introduced in the Nova Scotia legislature. The opportunity for an MLA to introduce a petition is part of the routine business that opens each daily sitting.

A petition must be introduced in the House by an MLA. If you have a petition, you can ask any MLA to introduce it on your behalf. The fact that an MLA introduces a petition does not necessarily mean the MLA agrees with it, although they usually do.

An MLA is under no obligation to introduce a petition.

Petitions are popular with citizens because they are fairly easy to put together. You can go door-to-door on a street or neighbourhood, if it’s a local issue, or you can get members of an association to sign it, or you can leave it at the local convenience store or gas station where people will see it.

There are no rules about who can or can’t sign a petition. Obviously a petition to the Nova Scotia government is going to have more impact if it is signed by Nova Scotians, and a petition’s credibility can be hurt if there are obviously fake names on it (like cartoon characters, or the premier). But there are no “rules”. Remember that a petition has no official status anyway, so nobody can say “that’s a valid petition” or “that’s not a valid petition”.

Petitions can be effective to inform people about an issue, and for the organizers to get a sense of how much support they actually have. Unfortunately, petitions are not all that effective as a way to get the government to start or stop doing something.

I have seen a lot of petitions during my time in politics, and most are not very well written. The “call to action”—the specific thing the petitioners are asking the government to do— is often long-winded, vague, argumentative, lacking in balance, or simply impossible to do. It also may be something that it outside the jurisdiction of the province. If you’re going to start a petition to present to the House of Assembly, try to ensure the call to action is clear, doable, and within provincial jurisdiction.

The main reason that petitions in the House are not effective is that there is no vote, debate or other follow-up on a petition. There is no requirement that the government respond to a petition. The petition gets introduced, and that’s the end of it. It disappears.

In the internet age, electronic petitions (e-petitions) on sites like change.org are popular ways for citizens to express themselves. Despite the fact that we’re in the 21st century, the Nova Scotia legislature still does not accept e-petitions. The reason has something to do with the difficulty of verifying signatures on e-petitions. I don’t agree with the reason, and never really understood it. The petitions all disappear without trace anyway, so why does it matter if they are electronic or on paper? But that’s the rule. To be introduced in the Nova Scotia legislature, a petition must be on paper with original signatures.

The petition process does not work very well, but citizens have many other ways for their voices to be heard. For example, a letter-writing campaign to a Cabinet minister serves the same purpose as a petition. An e-petition can be presented to a Cabinet minister directly, rather than to the House of Assembly—it’s only the House itself that will not accept an e-petition. A public demonstration at Province House also communicates public support.

 

Q49. What’s an adjournment? What’s a recess? What’s the difference?

Adjournment and recess are temporary suspensions of House proceedings

A49. An adjournment and a recess are both temporary delays in the House’s proceedings, but there is an important difference between them.

Adjournment refers to the putting off of House business to a future day:

  1. If the House is adjourned, it means the day’s sitting is done, and the MLAs can go home. The House will usually resume on the next business day.
  2. If a debate is adjourned, it means that part of the House’s business is put off to a future day. The item hasn’t been approved or defeated. For example, if debate on second reading of a bill is adjourned, there is no vote, and the House will (probably) resume second-reading debate on a future day. The House can then move on to other business.

Recess refers to 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 bells are being rung to call members to a vote, 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).

No House business can be conducted during an adjournment or a recess. In the Nova Scotia legislature, there is never a situation in which the House meets out of public view.

The House can’t adjourn when it is in recess. If a recess is called and then the MLAs decide to adjourn, the House has to be called back into session. Then there’s a motion to adjourn, and a vote on the motion.

Sometimes there is a standing vote on whether to adjourn, which seems silly. For example, it happened on December 5, 2016, when the House met to debate Bill 75 and then adjourned before the bill was introduced. Some people thought the vote was on Bill 75, but it was only on whether to go home. A vote on adjournment is almost always a way for the opposition to cause delay. The MLAs aren’t really disputing whether it’s time to go home. It’s just another legislative head game.

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.