Nova Scotia politicians from all three political parties at Province House agreed that now is not the time for their pay to increase, but they continued to differ on Tuesday about whether an emergency recall of the legislature was necessary to do something about it.
MLAs voted unanimously in support of the final reading of Bill 185 on Tuesday, a bill that blocks a pending pay raise of 12.6 per cent and reduces the premier's salary by about $11,200. The pay increase, which was to be the first in about a decade, was a binding recommendation of an independent panel charged with reviewing MLA remuneration.
Not long after the panel released its report to the public last month, Premier Tim Houston recalled the legislature for a rare summer sitting during which amendments to the House of Assembly Act were introduced to block the raise and reduce the premier's salary.
On Tuesday, as he's done before, Houston said it's not appropriate for MLAs to get a raise at a time when inflation is at a decades high and people are struggling with the cost of living. MLAs make about $89,000. Cabinet ministers, opposition leaders, the Speaker and deputy speakers of the House and the premier receive additional compensation.
"It was really important to us that the 12 per cent pay raise get stopped," Houston told reporters at Province House.
"We've done the right thing on the premier's compensation, as well."
He rejected the idea that the issue could have been addressed in another way.
However, the panel's report notes that MLAs who didn't want a raise could return the money to government or donate it to charity. Opposition MLAs have also said the premier could have circumvented the panel's work — as former premier Stephen McNeil did in 2015 — by passing legislation during the past spring or fall sittings of the legislature to prevent the remuneration panel from being convened.
Legislation dictates that a review take place after each provincial election.
Although this isn't the right time for MLAs to get a pay raise, Houston said the issue will need to be revisited at some point. Bill 185 prevents a pay increase for MLAs before the next provincial election in 2025.
Liberal Leader Zach Churchill said issues of MLA compensation should be left to independent bodies to address to avoid conflicts of interest.
"There's either a financial conflict of interest — because it's our own pay — or there's a political conflict of interest and I think we're seeing that political conflict of interest play out in the way the premier is thumping his chest on this issue and using it as a big win when there's bigger issues that are impacting Nova Scotians," he told reporters at Province House.
Churchill, NDP Leader Claudia Chender and their respective caucus colleagues made the case throughout the sitting that the real emergencies the government should have recalled the House to discuss include the rising cost of living and ongoing challenges in the health-care system.
During third reading debate, Chender said the premier did not need to recall the legislature to deal with the pay raise.
"When the parties were briefed on the report of the independent panel, we were told — explicitly — that if there was agreement between the three parties on what to do with this legislation, there would be no need to recall the legislature until the fall."
Along with the recommendation for a pay raise, the panel's report also included non-binding recommendations intended to help make representation at Province House more equitable and diverse.
Issues the panel called on politicians to consider included a fund to help offset the cost of child care for MLAs who need it during House business and further examination of why a seat reserved for a Mi'kmaw representative has never been filled.
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