On Thursday, October 13, Nova Scotia Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) will return to Province House for the Fall session of the 64th General Assembly. As Premier Tim Houston’s Progressive Conservative government heads into the second year of its mandate and the momentum from the 2021 election winds down, they will be under increased scrutiny from Opposition members and the public alike. While there are plenty of topics that are certain to spark debate both in and outside of Province House, here are a few to look out for as the 64th General Assembly begins this week.
New Opposition leadership
This fall, two MLAs will be making their debuts as party leaders, as the official Opposition Liberals elected Zach Churchill as leader in July, while Claudia Chender will be at the helm of the New Democratic Party (NDP) after being acclaimed in June. Both will strive to make their mark in their first legislature sitting, meaning Nova Scotians can be almost certain that the fall session will be an eventful one.
The Speaker of the House
Last week’s confirmation that the Premier’s Office was planning to oust Speaker Keith Bain was met with surprise from opposition members. Positioned as succession planning, the Premier’s Office cited the desire to allow “strong caucus MLAs opportunities to showcase their skills and grow their roles” as the motivation behind the move. Liberal and NDP MLAs have been vocal about their beliefs that the replacement is a move by the Premier to put a more partisan member in the position.
Since the PC Caucus confirmed their intention to remove him, Bain has been lauded by opposition members for being fair and impartial. Zach Churchill, leader of the official Opposition, remarked that Bain was being punished for his impartiality, commending him for serving the chamber well as Speaker and calling him “a class act.” NDP Leader, Claudia Chender, expressed her disappointment at the Premier’s intention to focus the opening of the fall legislative session on Bain’s removal, calling the move “a waste of energy and most certainly inappropriate.”
While still a member of the Caucus, the Speaker of the House is meant to be independent and impartial while presiding over legislative proceedings. If, as predicted, Premier Houston moves to bring the matter of Bain’s removal to a vote of no confidence, accusations from both opposition parties of the politicization of an independent office and a lack of respect for process are sure to follow. The contentious issue is sure to spark debate and headlines as the legislature returns later this week.
World Junior Championship in Halifax
In May 2022, Premier Houston announced that Halifax and Moncton had been selected to host the 2023 World Junior Championship. “The rinks will be full, the community will be abuzz, this is going to be absolutely great,” stated the Premier in a video on his Instagram account. Five months later, his tone has dramatically shifted following Hockey Canada’s ongoing scandal. Late last Thursday, the Premier issued a statement suggesting that Halifax may back out of hosting the tournament if Hockey Canada does not implement “meaningful changes that respect the concerns of Nova Scotians and Canadians.” When the House sits on Thursday, opposition parties may push the Premier to clarify what these changes would need to look like and if they will be enough to justify the tournament going forward as planned. With Hockey Canada’s director and interim chair, Andrea Skinner, stepping down on Saturday evening, and CEO Scott Smith announcing his departure Tuesday morning, many are skeptical that the organization can successfully demonstrate its commitment to doing better before players hit the ice in December.
Changing weather and the Coastal Protection Act
Though the Coastal Protection Act passed in 2019, it has yet to take effect as accompanying regulations are still being developed and approved. The act was designed to protect natural ecosystems and ensure new homes and businesses are safer from sea-level rise, coastal flooding, and erosion. As many Nova Scotians continue to deal with the impact of post-tropical storm Fiona, the timeliness of the act is evident. However, in late September, Nova Scotia’s environment minister Tim Halman stated that the act is months away from taking effect. Opposition parties stated that the time to implement the act is now and that Nova Scotians cannot risk further delays.
Beyond the impacts of future storms and hurricanes, the act will be a key piece of legislation for Nova Scotia’s energy sector. With green hydrogen projects launching across Atlantic Canada, the act could establish the parameters for what can and cannot be done along Nova Scotia’s coast. Not only could this act shape how the Province mitigates the effects of climate change, it could shape our energy sector for years to come. When the House sits on Thursday, opposition members will likely increase pressure on the Houston government to implement the Coastal Protection Act.
Halifax Infirmary project
Another topic to watch out for as the legislature sits on Thursday is the long-awaited Halifax Infirmary redevelopment project.
Announced in 2018 by the former Liberal government, the project came with an estimated $2 billion price tag. However, as of June 2022, the province suggested that final costs would be “likely significantly higher” than initial estimates due to inflation, the supply chain, and productivity issues impacting construction.
On Oct. 5, both Nova Scotia Health CEO, Karen Oldfield, and Department of Public Works executive, Gerald Jessome, appeared before the Public Accounts committee, where they were questioned by opposition committee members for an updated estimate of the project. Oldfield told the committee that the lone bidder in the ongoing procurement process, Plenary PCL Health, is expected to submit their estimate on Oct. 27, and any attempt for the province to provide a cost estimate before then would be “a shot in the dark.”
NS Liberal MLA and Public Accounts committee member, Brendan Maguire, said in a statement on Oct. 5 that the Houston government’s lack of transparency on the project’s cost and timeline is “concerning” and questioned the Province’s ability to follow through on their long-promised healthcare reform if “they can’t even get started on the largest healthcare infrastructure project in a century?” As emergency room wait times across the province soar and the province’s population continues to grow, we can count on healthcare to be a major theme for the upcoming session.
As the fall session progresses, NATIONAL’s Public Affairs team will be monitoring and evaluating legislative activities and keeping our clients up to date on the developments and implications that matter most.
——— Emily Truesdale is a former Associate at NATIONAL Public Relations