Nova Scotia legislature (exactly as illustrated).

If you want to know just how quickly a flawed but functioning democracy can descend into anti-democratic demagoguery, may I direct your attention south of our border. Yes, there.

If you want to know — and even if you don’t — how close to (or far from) that less than ideal we already are in Nova Scotia, may I direct your attention to the proceedings of the Second Session of the 63rd Assembly of our own House of Assembly on Friday, December 18.

Oops, sorry. You must have blinked and missed it.

I know, I know. Donald Trump is — hopefully was — a one off, a grab-’em-by-the-genitals reality TV star/real estate failure/bankrupt casino mogul/pretend billionaire/right-wing faux populist, in-it-only-for-himself grifter whose influence will fade faster than his fake tan in a post-White House prison of his own making.

So, what could the rise of such a figure in another country possibly have to say to us in Nova Scotia?

Well, start with this. Donald Trump didn’t emerge from nowhere. He was able to game the political system to his own advantage because it was ripe for the plucking. In part, that’s because, long before Trump arrived on the scene, America’s democracy was already distorted far beyond civics-class recognition. In part, it’s also because too many people who knew better were happy to abandon whatever modest principles they might have possessed in order to ride his soiled coattails for their own electoral and ideological benefit. And, in too large part, Trump was also able to get away with it because too many Americans looked the other way while their democracy disappeared.

Back to Nova Scotia. On Friday, the Nova Scotia legislature — a place where Nova Scotia’s public business is supposed to be done and where our governments are supposed to be accountable for their actions — met for the first time in 282 days. It was the only legislature in Canada that had not met even once during the pandemic.

But Friday’s session wasn’t to discuss public business or hold ministers accountable; it was simply to fulfill a legal obligation under a 1994 law that says the legislature must hold spring and fall sessions, after which McNeill immediately shuttered its doors before members could do anything worth doing.

Lieutenant-Governor Arthur LeBlanc uttered a few government-scripted phrases of governmental self-praise. Premier Stephen McNeil offered fewer than 100 meaningless words. And then it was over. The session had lasted all of 17 minutes, which was about 17 minutes longer than the premier himself would have preferred.

In fact, what Stephen McNeil preferred — and what he had asked the opposition parties to agree to — was that no one except himself and the lieutenant governor be even physically present in the legislature for the Friday session.

Unsurprisingly, the NDP said no.

The premier immediately jumped off the demagogic deep end. “They want to go to the legislature,” he thundered, his voice rising as if that was a crime.

“There’s no debate; it’s being prorogued,” he added, as if the opposition had had any say in that decision.

“The lieutenant governor will come in, putting his health at risk and those of other members,” he continued as if that was his real concern.

In their letter turning down the premier’s request, the NDP apparently had the temerity to compare the work of elected officials to healthcare workers who continued to function during the pandemic.

“Think about that for a minute,” McNeil harrumphed. “They’re comparing the work they do to nurses. How many nurses can virtually give you the vaccine?” Huh? How about this question instead? How many nurses have the very real — and also vital — job of holding a government to account on behalf of its citizens?

Besides, healthcare workers are far from the only Nova Scotia public servants working through this pandemic. Teachers? They’ve been on the often physically un-distanced front lines of the province’s classrooms for months, dispatched there by McNeil’s government decree, putting their health at risk.

“There’s no reason [MLAs] couldn’t sit to do the committee meeting virtually,” McNeil bulldozed forward. “They’re doing committee meetings virtually now. They could do the legislature.”

Woah! Wait a minute. Who suggested legislative committees couldn’t meet virtually? Oh, right, Stephen McNeil did, until he finally changed his mind and allowed a few committees to meet via Zoom, but then used his government’s bully-boy majority to make sure those committees couldn’t do anything he didn’t want them to.

Of Friday’s prorogation session, McNeil prattled on: “They could do the legislature [virtually].”

The legislature, in fact, could have/should have been meeting for much of the past nine months using protocols previously agreed upon by all parties for safe combination in-person/virtual sessions.

“Our feedback,” explained NDP leader Gary Burrill of his letter to McNeil, “was that the system we spent many weeks and months devising together with [the Liberals] and the Conservatives, in our judgment, would be a better way” to conduct public business than the premier’s preferred Friday party of one.

There was/is plenty for MLAs to discuss. During the last nine-and-a-half months of an unprecedented global pandemic, for example, Nova Scotians have endured economic devastation, the worst mass shooting in modern Canadian history, a deadly coronavirus outbreak at the province’s largest nursing home, and more. Much more. Consider just this. On Thursday, the day before the legislature met for 17 minutes for no good reason, we learned — thanks to questions from reporters rather than in an official Question Period with MLAs — that Nova Scotia taxpayers are still on the hook for another $16.3 million this fiscal year to continue to prop up the operators of a Yarmouth-Maine ferry that hasn’t sailed in two years and fulfill the government’s sweetheart contract with the operator that it refuses to make public.

Worth discussing? Not according to Stephen McNeil.

But does any of this really matter? Stephen McNeil is on his way out the door.

True, except…

Our undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system allowed McNeil to play the undisputed king of all he surveyed in the first place. In the last election, the difference between a Liberal minority — which might have forced McNeil to be accountable to MLAs as well as the rest of us — and his who-cares majority was just a few hundred votes concentrated in a few ridings. The skewed outcome meant that, with just under 40% support among voters, Stephen McNeil was able to act as if he owned the province.

That flawed system needs to be re-thought.

McNeil, of course, is far from the first premier to consider the legislature and legislative committees a nuisance and MLAs, to borrow a phrase from Pierre Trudeau, “nobodies.” Or to conflate his political interest with the public interest.

But Stephen McNeil has, without question, raised the level of disdain for democratic norms to high art, and lowered the bar for his successors to chip away even more at the body politic.

It’s worth asking the three contenders for Stephen McNeil’s job — Iain Rankin, Labi Kousoulis, and Randy Delorey — if they agree with their former boss’s anti-democratic approach to governance.

And what they would do differently.

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Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. Ridiculous, embarassing and sad to say typical. Is it any wonder people hold Politicians in so little regard. Agree with this whole heartedly. Stephen McNeil has, without question, raised the level of disdain for democratic norms to high art, and lowered the bar for his successors to chip away even more at the body politic.

  2. I second Judy Kennedy’s remark about proportional representation. I would like to see my and other people’s vote “count” in the form of elected representatives who would assure greater transparency and consensus in decision making in government.

  3. Why are things like this being written in your articles?

    “Donald Trump is — hopefully was — a one off, a grab-’em-by-the-genitals reality TV star/real estate failure/bankrupt casino mogul/pretend billionaire/right-wing faux populist, in-it-only-for-himself grifter whose influence will fade faster than his fake tan in a post-White House prison of his own making.”

    Sure – maybe this is your ‘point of view’ – but I am paying $100 for news. Obama went to war something like seven times while he was president – the Bush’s were dealing with ISIS…each has their own skeletons in their closet.

  4. I can’t think of a single reason why I would vote for a Liberal Government. I have no idea what they’ve done for our province. I have never received a response to any concern I’ve asked of the Premier and at one point, asked for automated replies to be discontinued. I received an automated reply to that request. The MLA for my area was no better and no response was ever forthcoming when I asked for follow up. No accountability or action, whatsoever.

    1. Look Karen it’s not as though the Liberals have done nothing.

      They have reduced the film industry to a shadow its former self, saved us from all the outside money it brought in and driven most of the young skilled, creative entrepreneurs (and their families) who crewed and created for it out west where – until the pandemic – they were doing quite nicely in provinces who actually understood how film finance worked. McNeil claimed that saved us all $25m p.a. Price Waterhouse Coopers suggested otherwise.

      The Liberals continued the Yarmouth ferry service and signed a 10 year deal with the current operators whether the boat ran or not and spent more of your money building and staffing US Customs facilities for all those passengers who had inexplicably declined to book passage. I believe this costs more than $25m p.a. but it keeps the economy of SW Nova alive so it must be worth it.

      The Liberals chose the perfect site for a replacement of the old VG Centennial Building out in Bayers Lake Park, difficult to reach by public transport and purportedly paid some multiple of its market value to its former Liberal friendly owner. Well they had to build it somewhere, right?

      The Liberals have delivered the promised openess and transparency by running one of the most secretive governments in the country. I hear FOIPOP is effectively closed off to the news media.

      To their credit they did finally put their foot down on Northern Pulp (although that saga continues) and they did appear to follow the advice of the Medical Officer of Health during the pandemic so that those of us who live outside continuing care facilities have fared pretty well.

      The big thing – I think the only thing to McNeil – is that (apart from having massively inflated a moderate sized NDP deficit with a one time pension payment that could have been made over 10 years and blaming them for a half billion dollar deficit) the Liberals have mostly returned surplus budgets. That is all that really matters after all.

      Money wasn’t wasted on frivolous things like upgrading long overdue continuing care facilities. The incomes of nurses and teachers were kept low by denying them the right to collective bargaining they had believed was guaranteed by the Charter. If the Supreme Court of Canada eventually rules that in fact it was, (as it did in a similar BC case) some future NS government is going to have to restore all this money, but in return that will then offer them the opportunity to pillory these people for being overpaid, which always goes over well with folks living on the precarious employment the Liberals have done little or nothing to end.

      Relax! this should not be a problem for Stephen McNeil. He will continue to enjoy his fat pension plus lucrative board positions on various corporations monetizing his undoubted knowledge of how to get the inside track when dealing with the Government of Nova Scotia (not to mention likely rewarding him for services previously rendered).

      Last I saw polls suggested that the Liberals would wind handsomely again, at least with McNeil in charge (so why is he leaving in such a rush?).

      Anyhow, it’s really not fair to say the Liberals have done nothing Karen.

    1. No thanks, I’d rather a ranked ballot than huge multi-member electorates or Province House packed with a mix of elected and un-elected List Members.

      I’d also like each riding to be won only be candidates who can muster more than 50% of the vote: no more seats won by people who were not wanted by 2/3 of their constituents.

      I’ve lived under a ranked ballot and a form of proportional representation for Senate elections conducted using a ranked ballot. It works and could lead in NS to stable governments which are beyond doubt the preference of 51 separate elections every election cycle, not some kind of fudge of riding elections overlaid with results List or regional candidate etc. elections.

      Ask Israel how well proportional representation has worked for them lately.

      No thanks. NS has enough problems without that as well.

  5. We wonder too about what’s going on in the background with Westfor (“established in 2016 by the Provincial Government to increase the efficiency of forest management on Crown Land in Nova Scotia,-we assist 13 mills in their day to day operations while also assisting the government, the people; and the forests.”) and the pulp and paper companies it “assists”
    Also, are the forest protectors who recently tried to protect moose habitat by blocking logging roads going jail??

  6. We need to hear concrete plans for how the potential Liberal leaders and the current opposition parties would set Nova Scotia on a more transparent and democratic path. We need details and timelines of what they will commit to doing differently. It’s far too easy for an incoming government to allow the detrimental changes made by previous governments to stand once they themselves take power – that’s part of how we’ve gotten ourselves into this situation.

  7. This column should be required reading for citizens of NS. Especially where the peoples broadcaster, CBC NS, doesn’t allow a word of criticism of the Macneil government these days.