Q6. What is a confidence vote?

A confidence vote is any vote that could trigger an election

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A6. A “confidence vote” is any vote that triggers an election if the government loses.

An annual budget is always a confidence vote. If the budget is defeated, the government must resign and there must be an election. That last happened in Nova Scotia in 1999.

There can also be a motion of non-confidence. A motion can be presented only if the House is sitting.  If a motion of non-confidence passes, the government must resign and there must be an election.  Under a majority government, there is zero chance of a non-confidence motion passing, so the Nova Scotia legislature rarely sees them any more.  There used to be at least one every year, but the practice of having an annual non-confidence vote stopped in 1998.

Apart from the budget and a non-confidence motion, there is only one other situation that involves confidence: if the government declares, in advance, that a vote is a confidence vote.

Why would a government do that? Why would they deliberately run the risk of having to resign and triggering an election? There are two possible reasons.

First, a government may actually wish to trigger an election. That happened in 2009, when the Progressive Conservative government of Rodney MacDonald was fairly certain that its budget would be defeated. Rather than wait for the budget vote, another inconsequential bill was declared to be a matter of confidence. When that bill was defeated, the government resigned and the election was on. I was there. It was weird, and is not likely to be repeated any time soon.

Second, a government may use the threat of a confidence vote to keep its own MLAs in line. The ultimate threat of a premier with rebellious backbenchers is to call an election that the backbenchers do not want. If the backbenchers believe they may be defeated in an election, they will grumble but likely fall into line.

Q5. How many government MLAs have to defect to defeat a bill?

It’s complicated, but the short answer is nine

A5. Such a simple question, such a complicated answer.

Here’s what you need to know to do the math:

  1. All votes on a bill are decided by a simple majority of members present.
  2. The Nova Scotia legislature has 51 members.
  3. Our MLAs almost always vote with their party. In other words, it’s usually safe to assume that all MLAs in the same party will vote the same way.
  4. The Liberals have 27 members. The Progressive Conservatives (PC) have 17 members. The New Democrats (NDP) have 7 members.
  5. The Speaker doesn’t vote unless there’s a tie. The Speaker is a Liberal.
  6. If a member is absent, or abstains, then no vote is recorded for that member.

Let’s take that basic information and work through the scenarios.

Assuming all members are present and voting, a tie vote would be 25-25. That would require only one Liberal to vote with the opposition. The Speaker is a Liberal. It is likely, but not certain, that the Speaker would break a tie by voting with the government.

In order to ensure defeat of a bill, the vote would have had to be a minimum of 26-24. That would require two Liberal MLAs to vote with the opposition (17 PC, plus 7 NDP, plus 2 Liberals equals 26 votes).

That result depends on a number of assumptions. The major assumptions are that all members of the opposition would be present and voting against Bill 75, and that two Liberals would vote No.

The calculation changes if any member of the opposition is absent, abstains, or decides to vote Yes.  The calculation also changes if any of the dissenting Liberals is absent or abstains rather than voting No.  The calculation also changes if any of the non-dissenting Liberals is absent.

My experience is that a government MLA who disagrees with a government bill is far more likely to “take a walk around the block” (i.e. be absent for the vote) rather than actually vote against the bill.

During all my time in the legislature, during which I saw literally thousands of votes, I have seen a government MLA vote against a government bill only two or three times. The maximum I’ve seen on the same bill is two, and that was when the government had a comfortable majority and everyone knew the bill was going to pass anyway. The chances of two Liberals MLAs showing up and voting No, with the effect of defeating a bill, are effectively zero. Besides, if the government had an inkling of bill-killing dissent, they wouldn’t call the vote. In politics, you don’t call a vote that you know you’re going to lose.

Q4. What is a bill number? How are bill numbers assigned?

Bills are numbered in the order they’re introduced

A4. All bills have a long title and almost all of them also have a short title.  Lawyers usually refer to them by the short title, but these names can be quite boring and hard to remember.

The short title of the bill the government intended to introduce on December 5, 2016, was the Teachers’ Professional Agreement (2016) Act. The short title of the bill the government did introduce on February 14, 2017, was the Teachers’ Professional Agreement and Classroom Improvements (2017) Act. Boring and hard to remember, right?

Every bill is also given a number. The bills are numbered in the order they’re introduced. When the legislature starts a new session, the bill numbers start again at Bill 1.  The bill numbers are always way easier to remember than the long title or the short title.  That’s why the general public tend to talk about bills by their numbers rather than by their titles.

Q3. What is the process to make a law?

There are five stages in the law-making process

A3. A proposed law is called a “bill”.  There are five stages in the passage of a bill: first reading, second reading, Law Amendments Committee, Committee of the Whole House, and third reading.

The word “reading” is a misnomer. The bill is never literally read out loud.

First reading is introduction. It’s automatic and takes about 20 seconds. There is no vote.

Second reading is “debate in principle”.  Every MLA can speak for up to an hour, and they can speak only once. Second reading can be over in minutes, or it can go on for days.

The Law Amendments Committee (LAC) is a committee of nine MLAs who hear from the public. Any member of the public can ask to appear. LAC can also consider whether to make changes (amendments) to the bill, but it doesn’t have to. LAC is important and complicated and so I have separate posts about what LAC is and about how LAC really works.

The Committee of the Whole House (CWH) is clause-by-clause examination of the bill. It can take a minute, or it can take up to 20 hours.  The committee consists of all MLAs (hence the name), but it follows a different procedure than a normal House session.

Third reading is where any final speeches are made. The bill cannot normally be amended on third reading. Third reading is usually quite short.

There is one more really important thing to know: The rules of the House stipulate that a bill can’t pass through more than one stage each day. (That’s a bit simplistic, but it’s essentially right.) As a result, it takes a minimum of five days for a bill to be approved.

There is one big exception to the one-stage-per-day rule: a bill can move through more than one stage if every MLA present agrees that it’s okay. This is called “unanimous consent”. That can happen on uncontroversial bills—I’ve seen a bill pass through all stages in only a few minutes—but it’s quite rare.

With one exception, a bill comes into effect (i.e. it is the law) as soon as it passes third reading and receives Royal Assent.

Sometimes the bill itself says it does not come into force until a later day, or does not come into force until proclamation. If the bill says it comes into force on proclamation, then the Cabinet decides when it will come into force. Some bills pass through the legislature and receive Royal Assent but are never proclaimed.

What I’ve outlined here is the very basics of how a bill passes. There can be a huge amount of jockeying over how exactly a bill moves through this process.

 

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. Since MLAs almost always vote with their party, and since the Liberals currently have a majority of seats, there are no tie votes. In fact I can’t remember the last time there was a tie vote in Nova Scotia, and I’ve been watching the Nova Scotia legislature closely for 20 years.

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.

Q1. When can the legislature be recalled?

The legislature can be recalled at any time

A1. The legislature can be recalled at any time.

Normally 30 days’ notice is required to recall the House, but the House rules also state that the legislature may be recalled at any time by the government, in consultation with the Speaker, when it is in the public interest to do so. That’s how the legislature was recalled on very short notice to meet on Monday, December 5, 2016, and that’s how it was recalled to meet on Monday, February 13, 2017—which was pushed to Tuesday, February 14th, because of a blizzard—to deal with Bill 75.

Normally the Nova Scotia legislature sits for two months in the spring, and one month in the fall. The spring sitting typically starts during the last week of March or the first week of April, and fall sitting typically starts around the end of October or beginning of November. But it’s really up to the government.