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VIBERT: New assembly feels a lot like the old

By Jim Vibert

The fall session of the legislature seemed more like a glance in the rear-view mirror than a steady forward gaze.
The reflection may have been hard to avoid, given the short session’s primary purpose was to pass a pre-heated budget baked last spring and tucked in the freezer until after May’s election.
If this first post-election conclave of MLAs offered any insight to the future it is that, having re-elected the government, Nova Scotians will get what they wanted – the same style and substance as before. That seems more observational than insightful.
There are some new faces in the House, but with a second Liberal majority, the tone and tenor of the place, and the character and agenda of the government has changed little.
A Throne Speech was read, a couple of handfuls of laws were passed and 24 days later everyone went home.
It’s for voters to decide how much, if any, new life to breath into a new general assembly – the true result of each general election. If you’re counting, this is the 63rd, and it has seven fewer Liberals, seven more Tories and two more New Democrats than the 62nd assembly.  (To make the math work, at dissolution there was one independent who didn’t reoffer, and one vacancy.)
The New Democrats’ leader, Gary Burrill performed admirably in his first test on the job, and Jamie Baillie gets stronger as Opposition Leader with each passing year. A few of the new Tory MLAs showed promise. How much impact any of that has on the public life of the province remains to be seen.
The influence of the legislature on Nova Scotian politics has diminished over recent years.  Unless there is a riveting event that focuses attention on the place, Nova Scotians don’t know its sitting.
But each party’s performance in the House has a cumulative effect. Over time, the profile of opposition members, particularly leaders, is heightened and attention is drawn to issues the government would not raise on its own.
For those reasons, the Liberals’ governing style and political strategy limits time spent in the House to a bare minimum. During its first term, the Liberal government spent less time at legislative business than its predecessors, and the Nova Scotia legislature sat less frequently than most others across the country.
The strategy assumes that the government is most vulnerable to political damage when in the House and a modicum of media attention focuses on opposition attacks on government policy, programs and foibles.  The strategy is politically sound.
The government counters the negative potential with a deluge of positive announcements over the course of the session to drown out discouraging words from the opposition benches. It’s remarkably effective. News outlets tire of the legislature’s daily routine as fast as their audiences do, so it’s relatively easy for a shiny new government announcement to become the story of the day.
With the legislature adjourned, as it did last week, the flood of announcements will return to a normal flow.
As for the Liberals second term, it will look a great deal like the first, barring major political scandal, an unlikely two-or-more seat change in the House that would reduce the Liberals to a minority, or a change in opposition or government party leadership.
The government’s first term focused on balancing the provincial operating budget, which has been accomplished. Now, the theory goes, it can turn its attention to all those wonderful things a fiscally stable Nova Scotia needs.
The fly in the ointment is fiscal stability. Once achieved it turns out maintaining it requires pretty much the same level of restraint as it took to get there.
Stephen McNeil’s Liberals are committed to balanced budgets through 2021, which is as far out as the government dares forecast its finances. Unless revenues grow faster than costs, the government is stuck treading water.
There will be a little more money to sprinkle here and there, but for the most part the Liberal second term promises to be as uneventful as its first, perhaps more so, given it has already fought and, depending on what the courts say, won its battles with public sector unions.
So, Nova Scotians happy with the way things are, and looking for a steady as she goes government won’t be disappointed.  Nova Scotians looking for more will be.

Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.

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