Premier wants permanent change to House rules to allow virtual sittings

Tim Houston wants the option to participate in sittings virtually open to all members and not just exceptions.  (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Tim Houston wants the option to participate in sittings virtually open to all members and not just exceptions. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

This summer's unplanned legislative sitting may be the catalyst for a big change to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly rules.

On Tuesday, provincial representatives unanimously agreed to allow Cape Breton Centre MLA Kendra Coombes to take part in debates virtually because she is still home recovering from the C-section birth of her second child two weeks ago.

Premier Tim Houston supported that exception to the House rules but called that situation "exclusionary" and said rules established in the House should apply to all members.

"There are other members in that chamber that have similar situations that should be respected but aren't being respected because of political posturing. That's wrong," said Houston who refused to say who, out of respect for the privacy of others.

The NDP tried to get all-member agreement to accommodate Coombe's desire to take part in the proceedings while convalescing before the summer sitting began, but failed to get unanimous agreement in a secret ballot vote conducted by the clerk last week.

Michael Gorman/CBC
Michael Gorman/CBC

Houston said he voted yes when he was asked, and he "instructed" his caucus to support that motion. He's not sure who dissented.

Members of the Liberal and New Democrat caucuses, as well as the only independent MLA in the House, have all told CBC News they supported the exemption for Coombes.

Permanent change

Houston said he supported a permanent change to the rules to allow MLAs to take their seats in the chamber virtually .

"The world has changed," he said.

Liberal Leader Zach Churchill agreed.

"Yes, we're living in a new digital age," said Churchill. "We have single parents that potentially want to pursue a career in this. We have people that might be off on sick leave that may want to participate and represent their constituents in the House when we're sitting so I do think we have to change with the times."

NDP Leader Claudia Chender offered lukewarm support for changing the rules.

"The House leaders need to sit down with the staff, the operations and the clerk and the Speaker's office, and unpack it," said Chender. "And say what does the legislative proceeding look like in 2022?"

She said they'd spent months debating how a hybrid House would work at the start of the pandemic.

"If we're going to make a permanent change that isn't about COVID, we're going to have to spend a lot of time figuring out how that actually works in a way that is the most accessible for the highest number of people in Nova Scotia."

There are two PC resolutions before the House that deal with a change in the rules.

The NDP would not agree to fast-track either to allow for the changes to apply to all MLAs.

The government house leader can call those resolutions to be debated during this sitting or in the fall.