Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Opinion by Annabelle Linders.
Disclaimer: This piece critiques the decision Premier Stephen McNeil made to prevent the Nova Scotia House of Assembly from meeting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Premier McNeil has since resigned and is succeeded by Premier Iain Rankin. As of March 3, 2021, the Assembly has not met since the December 18, 2020 prorogation.
Premier Stephen McNeil has been the subject of global praise for his role in creating the Atlantic Bubble and having one of the lowest COVID-19 rates in the world. But not all of McNeil’s actions have warranted such admiration: Nova Scotia is the only province whose provincial legislature has not met since the COVID-19 pandemic began . Despite opportunities to go online, McNeil has continued to make excuses for why Nova Scotians don’t need their legislature to meet during a state of emergency, but his choices have had negative impacts on this province’s democracy that should not be overlooked.
"McNeil’s first defense for his decisions has been that during the second wave of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, he and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Strang have led press conferences on an almost-daily basis . McNeil argued that this offered enough accountability that legislative meetings were not necessary; however, there are many issues with this argument."
The Nova Scotian legislature’s rules and procedures dictate that each session “must sit once during the spring [...] and once during the fall,”  but this has not been the case for the McNeil government. Despite Halifax city council turning to online meetings , the provincial legislature has not yet adapted and has not met since March 10, 2020. The only assembly since was on December 18 2020, when Premier McNeil, the Lieutenant-Governor, the assistant clerk, and the Speaker entered the legislative chamber to prorogue the legislative session . Even this action was controversial. McNeil made the last-minute decision to not allow anyone else into the chamber despite previously organizing an arrangement with other party leaders to allow 29 members into the chamber together . McNeil even stated that allowing other members would contravene health protocols and put the Lieutenant-Governor in danger, despite schools being open for in-person learning and many other services remaining open due to Nova Scotia’s low case numbers . It’s clear that McNeil has made some bad decisions with even worse excuses.
McNeil’s first defense for his decisions has been that during the second wave of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia, he and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Strang have led press conferences on an almost-daily basis . McNeil argued that this offered enough accountability that legislative meetings were not necessary; however, there are many issues with this argument. Apart from being routinely late, wasting the time of both reporters and the public, press conferences are not equivalent to the opportunity for the opposition to question the Premier’s decisions. Journalists have the opportunity to ask one follow-up question, but this is far from the debates that occur in the legislature and can only address decisions after they have been made, rather than during the decision-making process. Not only does this reduce the level of transparency from McNeil’s government, it also removes an opportunity for bipartisan collaboration that could ultimately improve policies and decisions. Finally, press conferences only cover COVID-19-related questions. The province has been in a state of emergency for almost a year now, and the pandemic will not end for many months to come. It is unacceptable to continue to ignore questions about the vast number of other policy areas that are affecting Nova Scotians daily when every other citizen has been asked to adapt to COVID-19 as the “new normal.”
"McNeil announced that he would be stepping down as premier on August 6, 2020 , but leadership would not change for almost another six months, taking place in late February 2021. Does it make sense for Nova Scotia to not create any policy plans for half a year while waiting for new leader to be selected, especially in a state of emergency?"
McNeil’s second defense has been that because of his resignation as premier, it “made no sense,” for members to meet and make plans for future policies before the new premier was chosen . However, this poses several problems - first, McNeil announced that he would be stepping down as premier on August 6, 2020 , but leadership would not change for almost another six months, taking place in late February 2021. Does it make sense for Nova Scotia to not create any policy plans for half a year while waiting for new leader to be selected, especially in a state of emergency? Furthermore, this argument enforces the idea that only the premier should have a say in policy direction for the entire province. While it is understandable to want to avoid stepping on a future premier’s toes, this decision was unfair to the other 50 members of the legislature and does not encourage any opportunities for bipartisan policy development. Overall, this argument was shortsighted on McNeil’s part.
Premier McNeil has failed to provide strong leadership in Nova Scotia during the pandemic. From discouraging healthy debate to avoiding opportunities for bipartisan collaboration, his decisions will affect Nova Scotians for months to come. Low COVID-19 cases are something to be applauded; irresponsible governance is not.
Grant, Taryn. 2020. “Nova Scotia legislature to prorogue until 2021.” CBC, November 13, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/nova-scotia-legislature-fall-session-prorogue-1.580 0865
Herman, Arthur G.H. 2006. The Nova Scotia Legislature: An Overview of Its Procedures and Practices. Nova Scotia. https://nslegislature.ca/sites/default/files/pdfs/proceedings/NS_Legislative_Procedures.pdf
City of Halifax. 2020. “Regional Council and Committee of the Whole Meetings.” Accessed February 2, 2021. https://www.halifax.ca/city-hall/regional-council/regional-council-committee-whole-meetings
Gorman, Michael. 2020. “Premier bristles at suggestion opposition MLAs attend Province House.” CBC, December 17, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/stephen-mcneil-province-house-tim-houston-gary-b urrill-1.5845827?__vfz=medium%3Dsharebar&fbclid=IwAR0hT017YfHAVbH2d9sIUf1wr4gL LmmKRk1Ae7GiJP3ihPSzmvl3_xLvO94
Grant, Taryn. “Nova Scotia legislature to prorogue until 2021.”
Grant, Taryn. 2020. “Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil to step down after 17 years in politics.” CBC, August 6, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/nova-scotia-premier-stephen-mcneil-stepping-dow n-1.5676453