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 (Jamie Baillie) 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) is not an MLA, so the designated “leader in the House” (Sterling Belliveau) 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. The independent MLA (Andrew Younger) gets a turn. 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.

Q47. Do you have any advice on how a citizen can have an impact on the budget?

The earlier a citizen gets involved in the budget process, the better

A47. It takes months to put together the annual budget. If you, as a citizen, want to have an impact on what’s in it, you have to get involved early. If you wait until Budget Day, it’s too late—the budget never changes after it’s introduced.

The annual budget is introduced early in the spring sitting of the House of Assembly. That’s typically at the end of March or beginning of April. Civil servants and politicians start building the budget back in the fall. By three weeks before Budget Day, all important decisions have been made. Your window of opportunity, then, is September to early March.

The budget-building process is overseen by the Treasury & Policy Board (TPB) for spending, and the Department of Finance for revenue.

TPB is a committee of the Cabinet. It has its own staff, whose offices are in One Government Place. TPB staff are separate from departmental staff. For a civil servant, it is quite prestigious to work at TPB.

The current chair of TPB is Karen Casey, who is the education minister and the MLA for the constituency of Colchester North. There are five other ministers (Whalen, Samson, Delorey, Kasoulis and Furey).

Most citizens have never heard of TPB, and have no idea what it does. And yet it is by far the most important unit of government when it comes to making budget decisions. A citizen who wants to have an impact on the budget needs to be familiar with how TPB works, who its members are, and who is on staff.

In the fall of each year, the TPB sends out a call to government departments and agencies for budget submissions for the next fiscal year. (The fiscal year begins on April 1st.)  The call includes any broad guidelines. For example, the call might say something like “overall budgets for next fiscal year cannot go up by more than 1.0% over the current fiscal year” or “prepare two budgets, one with no increase over the current fiscal year and one with a 5% reduction.”

It is at this early stage that you, the citizen, can have the most impact on a budget. The department or agency will put together its proposed budget for consideration by TPB. If an existing program is to be maintained, changed or eliminated, or if a new program is to be introduced, this is when the decisions are made (subject always to TPB approval). To have an impact, you will have to be in touch with senior management of the department or agency. If you don’t know who to contact, I would suggest enlisting an MLA (either your own MLA or another sympathetic MLA) as a guide and champion.

You are going to have more of an impact if you can demonstrate knowledge of the subject, and (especially) an understanding of the financial implications of what’s being requested. You have to do your homework.

Once the budget is introduced in the House of Assembly, it’s too late to make any changes. At that point, you can seek information from departmental officials, or perhaps ask an opposition MLA to ask certain questions during the budget debate.  Those are limited options.

If you don’t get what you’re hoping for in this year’s budget, there’s always next year, because the process starts all over again in the fall. Keep working. Be persistent. Persistence is the most powerful force in politics.

 

Q46. What is the process for approving a budget?

A budget never changes once it’s presented to the House of Assembly

A46. The process by which the House of Assembly debates and votes on the annual budget is different from the five-step law-making process.

For you, the citizen, the most important thing to know is that the budget never changes after the finance minister presents the budget to the House of Assembly on Budget Day. If you want to have any impact on the budget, you need to get busy well before Budget Day. I have written a separate post with some tips on how to do that.

On Budget Day, the budget documents are made available in PDF format on the government website. That is usually the first chance citizens to have to see what is in the budget.

Reporters, the opposition parties and some non-government organizations get an advance look at the budget on Budget Day, starting 4-5 hours before the finance minister delivers the budget speech. This is humorously referred to as “the lock-up”, because everyone who takes part is not allowed to leave the room, and is not allowed to communicate with anyone outside the room, until the budget speech starts.

After the finance minister’s budget speech is over, the Opposition finance critic makes a reply of 10-15 minutes. The budget is then referred to “the Committee on Estimates”, but that committee doesn’t begin its work until the following day.

The budget discussion is sometimes referred to as “the Supply debate”. Whenever you hear the word “Supply” or “Estimates”, just translate it as “budget”. It means the same thing.

To discuss the budget, the House divides itself in two. There are four main things you need to know:

  1. Budget discussions are carried on simultaneously in the legislative chamber and in the Red Room of Province House. Citizens are welcome to attend one or the other, but only the proceedings in the main chamber are broadcast on television. The transcript (Hansard) of the budget discussions is not published. If you want to know precise details of what is happening in the budget debate, you have to watch.
  2. The Opposition picks five ministers whose budgets will be discussed in the main chamber, and the order in which they will be discussed. The budgets of all other ministers are discussed in the Red Room, alphabetically by department.
  3. Each minister may bring two staff members with them to help answer questions. This is one of the very rare occasions when someone who is not an MLA is allowed on the floor of the House. Even so, the staff members do not answer questions directly, but can only whisper advice to the minister. Only the minister can speak into the microphone.
  4. There is a time limit of forty hours on each side (legislative chamber and Red Room), and a further time limit of four hours each day. That means the budget debate lasts ten working days.

When the budget discussion is finished, there is a vote. The budget vote is a confidence vote. If the budget is defeated, the government “falls” and there must be an election. That last happened in Nova Scotia in 1999. Something similar happened in 2009, but technically the government fell on another vote, not the budget vote.

It’s important to note that MLAs get one vote (Yes or No) to the entire budget. They do not get to support one part of the budget, and oppose another part. There is no line-by-line voting. It’s either Yes to the whole thing, or No to the whole thing. Just because an MLA votes Yes to a budget doesn’t mean they like everything in it, and just because an MLA votes No to a budget doesn’t mean they’re opposed to everything in it. Essentially the vote is “Do I want this government to continue?”

A budget never changes between Budget Day and the day of the budget vote. There was even one year where I found an error in the budget, and the government acknowledged the error, but still wouldn’t change the documents. You might wonder: why bother with all the budget discussion if nothing ever changes?

The purpose of the budget discussion is to find out exactly what the numbers mean. The budget documents are mostly stated in dollar figures. The purpose of the budget discussion is to dig under the numbers to see what they really mean, in terms of new programs being established, and old programs being eliminated or modified. That’s the sort of thing MLAs ask questions about. However, it is also true that the budget debate can seem long and very boring, if the MLAs who are asking questions don’t really understand the operations of the department whose minister they are questioning, or if the MLAs are asking questions only about details of government operations in their own constituency.

In summary: If you, the citizen, wish to have an impact on the budget, you need to get busy well before Budget Day. Once the budget is presented to the House of Assembly, it’s too late.

Q45. What is the budget?

A45. The budget is the set of documents in which the government states how much money it is planning to spend, and how revenue it is planning to receive, during the fiscal year.

I’ve written separate posts about how a budget moves through the House of Assembly and tips on how a citizen can have an impact on the budget.

Delivery of the budget is one of the most important events in the legislative calendar. The budget is very important for two reasons:

  1. It is the most complete statement MLAs receive of the government’s plans and priorities for the next year.
  2. It is the only guaranteed confidence vote each year. If the budget is defeated, the government “falls” and there must be an election. The last time that happened in Nova Scotia was 1999.

The budget is delivered in the spring sitting of the House of Assembly, usually around the end of March or the beginning of April.

The budget package consists of the following documents:

  1. The budget speech by the finance minister.
  2. A book called the Estimates, which include detailed revenue and expenditure estimates.
  3. Another book called the Supplementary Estimates, which are like the Estimates but with even more detail.
  4. Business plans for government departments and agencies.
  5. Any other summaries or news releases the government chooses to include.

In recent years, very few copies of the budget documents are actually printed. PDF versions of all the documents are available on-line on the government website on budget day, as soon as the finance minister begins the budget speech.

Strictly speaking, the budget also includes a bill called the Financial Measures Act (FMA). The FMA makes any statutory amendments made necessary by the budget. For example, if there is a change to income tax in the budget, the FMA will include an amendment to the Income Tax Act. The FMA is introduced roughly one week after the budget.

The budget is always for one “fiscal year”, which is different from the calendar year. A fiscal year is the 12-month period beginning on April 1st each year. For example, the 2017-18 fiscal year begins on April 1, 2017, and ends on March 31, 2018. Don’t ask me why they do it this way. It’s confusing for most citizens, but many corporations and all governments have a fiscal year different from the calendar year. It’s an important part of the lingo that you just have to get used to.

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.