The legislative session at Nova Scotia's Province House is poised to be prorogued next month, but it appears committee business will not be paused.
MLAs have not met since the spring sitting wrapped in March, before Nova Scotia had its first case of COVID-19. Not long after that, Liberal MLAs used their majority to suspend all the committees they could, with Premier Stephen McNeil keeping them shelved until last September.
McNeil announced earlier this month that the House would be prorogued on Dec. 18, wiping clean the legislative agenda, as Liberals prepare to elect a new leader to replace him on Feb. 6.
The government has been roundly criticized for Nova Scotia being the only legislature in the country not to sit during the pandemic and for committee business having been halted for months while many people were working from home through the use of Zoom and other online conference platforms.
Addressing public concerns
In a nod to those concerns, Ben Jessome, the Liberal MLA for Hammonds Plains-Lucasville, put forward a motion at Tuesday's natural resources and economic development committee meeting to keep that group meeting even after the House is prorogued, "whether it be in person or virtually."
The motion passed unanimously.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Jessome said the decision was at least partly to make it clear to the public that he and his fellow MLAs take their jobs, including the legislative aspect, seriously.
"There appears to be some scrutiny about us, kind of, not wanting to go back to work at times," he said. "As a committee, we felt it was important to keep that activity in place."
Jessome said there were some challenges during the first COVID-19 wave in Nova Scotia when it came to getting virtual meetings set up for committees. He believes those issues have been resolved, so even if committees cannot meet in person there will be no technological impediments.
A need for oversight
Despite technological concerns voiced by the government in the spring, the human resources committee continued to meet using a teleconference line. That committee is the only one the Liberals could not use their majority to shut down, because any changes for it require unanimous consent from all parties.
NDP House leader Claudia Chender said she's less concerned about the motivation behind Jessome's motion than she is that the committee will continue to meet.
"Whether or not people pay close attention, we all expect that the decisions made by government and that the functions of government happen in a way that has oversight and accountability," she said.
"And the way that oversight and accountability works is that we have a functioning legislative assembly."
Even when the House isn't sitting, committees give opposition members access to government decision makers and the ability to question and debate policy decisions, said Chender.
'Better late than never'
Progressive Conservative MLA Tim Halman said Jessome's motion was "better late than never." While he welcomed the government's decision, he said the shift to being able to operate virtually if necessary should have happened months ago.
"The fact is, there are questions that have gone unanswered and that's a big problem for Nova Scotia," said Halman. "There has to be a counterbalance. There has to be another voice."
The legislative component is "a very small fraction of the work that MLAs on all sides of the House do," said Jessome, but it's important for the public to see them doing it.
The scrutiny hasn't bothered him and he believes the decision to place all committees that could be put on hold, on hold, back in the spring was the right one. Jessome said much has been learned since then about what's possible and they are adapting as such.
After the House is prorogued, it will also erase the meeting agendas that have been established for committees. Jessome said it's his intention that a vote will happen at the first possible meeting to restore the agenda for the natural resources and economic development committee, and for a similar process to play out for the other committees.
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