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Gary Burrill: Democracy must not be cancelled during COVID-19

NDP MLAs Claudia Chender, Gary Burrill, Susan Leblanc, and Lisa Roberts. Missing is Cape Breton Centre MLA Kendra Coombes.

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – December 18 is “Prorogation Day” in Nova Scotia. The Liberal government has called the Assembly to meet just long enough to suspend the current session of the House, thereby ensuring that the provincial legislature will have had no deliberations whatsoever during the pandemic in 2020.

The Premier has attempted to justify this course of action by arguing that it would be wrong for the Liberal government to set a policy course at a time when he is about to be replaced. He fails to understand that  democracy in Nova Scotia is more than a minor planet orbiting the sun of the internal politics of the Liberal Party.

For the Liberals, the legislature is somehow peripheral, and doesn’t really matter.

The opposite is true.

The legislature is a forum where issues can be brought forward and placed at the centre of the government’s and public’s screen. 

People who live in nursing homes, for example, and who experience daily the impact of their facilities’ understaffing, deserve to have their concerns placed front and centre. 

People facing homelessness as a result of the government’s lifting of the moratorium on evictions, deserve to have their issues at the top of the public’s mind.  

And people for whom a lengthened Christmas school break presents insurmountable child care problems deserve to have the need for universal, affordable child care pushed onto the government’s agenda. 

The shuttering of the legislature has the effect of moving these issues out of the spotlight, and over to the side.

The legislature also has the important role of ensuring that government functions in the open. This is at the heart of the idea of responsible government, which was hard won by a great democratic struggle in Nova Scotia before it was accomplished elsewhere in British North America, almost 175 years ago. 

Transparency and accountability are not just words. When a government’s decisions, priorities and spending are subjected to scrutiny, evaluation and, yes, criticism, the result is better outcomes for the people of the province.  

When approached the way it should be, the work of the legislature can rise above the partisan and petty. At the beginning of the pandemic, we in the NDP approached the Premier to set up an All-Party Briefing Table–which was established and met daily, throughout the most intense months of the first wave. It provided an important opportunity to present concerns directly to the government, and to relay, promptly and precisely, correct and up-to-date information to the people we all serve. The All-Party Briefing Table was a demonstration of what can be accomplished when elected officials set aside differences in the interests of productive cooperation.

With the prorogation of the legislature, the Liberal government has failed to pursue this path. The cancellation of the fall session of the House means that a whole series of legislative proposals, including those we in the NDP have ready to bring forward — from paid sick leave, to permanent rent control, to the establishment of a cross-sector, multi-Party Economic Recovery Task Force in Nova Scotia — will not at this time see the legislative light of day.

That’s profoundly unhelpful.  Because 2020 continues to be an important time of re-evaluation — in our province, society, and country.  We see this in our personal lives — our relationships, our work, our families.  And we see it in the lives of our communities, in everything from the mobilizations of Black Lives Matter to the historic turnout in October’s municipal elections.  

All of these things should be discussed, reflected on, and debated in the People’s House: Nova Scotia’s House of Assembly. But they won’t be as long as the Liberals keep us in a state of legislative lockdown. 

Gary Burrill is the Leader of the Nova Scotia NDP. 

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