Tagged: Gordie Gosse

Losers & winners

Nova Scotians tune in on election night to learn two things: Who won, and who are the sore losers. Darrell Dexter was a smart loser, delivering the best speech of the night, a gracious amalgam of congratulations to the winners, and thanks and condolences for his followers, upbeat but laced with sadness he could not hide.

Perhaps the worst thing about the crushing defeat meted out to the NDP is the suboptimal quality of the survivors.

  • I heard both both N-Dips and Tories Tuesday night predict Sterling Belliveau will bolt to the Liberals who, if they are smart, will not take him.
  • DPR, the minister who stood by while her department nearly destroyed Cape Breton’s venerable Talbot House Recovery Centre, snuck through in a three-way race with just 35.3 percent of the vote, two percent more than the theoretical minimum. As the member who needed more babysitting than any other cabinet minister, mark her down as a liability for probable interim leader Maureen MacDonald.
  • By standing the gaff, Gordie Gosse and Lenore Zann (that’s Zann, Paul, not Zahn) win fresh respect as gifted politicians. Still, they might not be your first choice as  lieutenants to rebuild a party.
  • Frank Corbett, having maxed out his pensions, will lose money for every day he hangs in the back benches, a location that will hold little charm for him. Under pressure to stay until the Liberal honeymoon eases, Nanky will be eyeing the exits. Cape Breton Centre will be a hard seat for the NDP to hold in a by-election.

Jamie Baillie succeeded in restoring the party base, enabling him to address the province last night as a winner, albeit one with only 11 seats. He carried out this role with appropriate enthusiasm, but spoke far too long. Viewers want a spirited but quick thank-you wave from the second-place finisher, not a detailed policy address.

Still, it was tacky for Premier-designate Stephen McNeil to start his victory lap while the Opposition Leader was still speaking — a possible sign that for all his promises of a respectful demeanour, the new premier won’t be gentle in the corners.

McNeil has a tough job ahead, not least because of populist policy positions that will serve the province and his government poorly should he have the ill-judgment to implement them. He would do well to cast a backward eye at the lessons of humility so harshly meted out to his predecessor tonight.

Finally. Commission will pass MLA office accessibility rule Wednesday

The Nova Scotia House of Assembly Management Commission will meet Wednesday to clear up an injustice that should have been fixed decades ago. Its members will pass a new rule requiring MLAs’ constituency offices to be free of barriers to wheelchair users.

The commission reached all-party agreement on the change a month ago, but inexplicable last-minute foot-dragging by senior NDP officials threatened to deep-six the deal. Lobbying by the James MacGregor Stewart Society, a disability rights group,  embarrassed the government into action Friday.

MysteryNDPhonchoThe new rule will come into effect after the election, at which time newly elected MLAs will have one year to find a standards-compliant office. Re-elected MLAs with existing office leases will have three years to comply. All leases will be with the Speaker’s office. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal will ensure compliance with building code accessibility standards.

Had the election been called before the new rule was passed, the commission would have ceased to exist, and the large crop of freshman MLAs expected this fall could have rented inaccessible offices.

Responsibility for calling the commission meeting rests with Speaker Gordie Gosse, but it seems unlikely he was NDP honcho who wanted to scuttle the deal. A former steel worker, Gosse represents a working class constituency, and is widely regarded as sincere in his efforts on behalf of disadvantaged constituents. He also has personal experience with disability issues in his own family. Contrarian’s calls to Gosse’s office on the issue were returned by Jennifer Stewart, press secretary to the premier.

The Stewart society surveyed MLAs’ offices last spring, and found most to be party or completely inaccessible. Which of the powerful, long-time social democrats in cabinet was keen to keep them that way remains a matter of speculation.

Will the government trample wheelchair users in its rush to an election?

Last spring, a disability rights organization surveyed the constituency offices of Nova Scotia MLAs and found hardly any were fully accessible to citizens who use wheelchairs.

In May, the James McGregor Stewart Society cajoled the House of Assembly Management Commission into meeting and considering ways to remove barriers from MLAs’ offices. The campaign hinged on passing changes before the election, so newly elected MLAs could be required to find accessible space, while returning MLAs would have a modest grace period to comply.

accessible-icon-updatedI was skeptical. I expected the inconvenience of modifying or relocating constituency offices might trump the obvious injustice of preventing citizens from entering MLAs’ workplaces, let alone working in them.

I was wrong. Commission members from all parties recognized that Nova Scotia lags behind other jurisdictions on this human rights issue. To their credit, they worked collaboratively to develop a practical plan for breaking down barriers that separate Nova Scotians who use wheelchairs and their elected representatives.

That plan is now in jeopardy due to an inexplicable delay in calling the commission meeting required to pass the regulation, something only Speaker Gordie Gosse has the power to do. Calls and emails to Gosse’s office were eventually returned by Premier Darrell Dexter’s press secretary.

“We have every intention of getting a meeting called as soon as we can,” Jennifer Stewart said. “All three parties are agreed, and it has to happen.”

The problem is that the Commission ceases to exist the moment Stewart’s boss calls an election, an event some predict as early as this Saturday.* At that point, the Commission can no longer pass the agree-upon regulation, thus destroying the crucial proviso that MLAs elected for the first time in the forthcoming vote must find barrier-free offices.

That the matter has drawn the attention of “the centre”—the premier’s office, from which all decisions in this highly centralized government flow—is a good sign. An opposition member of the commission told Contrarian he expects a meeting August 14, although he hasn’t received official notice yet.

Meanwhile, the James McGregor Stewart** Society continues to entreat the Speaker to get the meeting called and the regulation passed. Surely Darrell Dexter will not want to begin an election campaign in a way that wrecks an all-party agreement to remedy this lamentable injustice.

* Find Contrarian’s prediction of the probable date here.

** I did not think to ask Ms. Stewart if she is related to the redoubtable Pictou native, one of Canada’s most accomplished lawyers, who had lifelong mobility issues arising from a childhood bout with polio.

We need an auditor general who understands democracy

After months of counting tiny beans, Nova Scotia’s politician-despising, publicity-loving, limelight-hogging Auditor General has grudgingly conceded what everyone knows: MLA Michel Sampson Samson lives in Arichat and fully qualifies for reimbursement of necessary Halifax expenses. [See: news release. Full report (pdf)]

LapointeThen, predictably, Lapointe found a mean-spirited technicality on which he could deny Samson those legitimate expenses. Samson’s Halifax residence doesn’t qualify because it’s a “house” not an “apartment.” What tendentious pettifoggery!

The campaign to deprive this elected MLA of the tools needed to do his job effectively was cooked up by a not very discerning CBC reporter, who couldn’t distinguish legitimate living expenses from a Mike Duffy-style scandal, then seized upon by hyper-partisans in the premier’s office who sought to turn it to their advantage. Caucus-attending Speaker Gordie Gosse and AG Lapointe should have given this nonsense short shrift, as Conflict of Interest Commissioner (and retired Supreme Court Justice) Merlin Nunn did, when Samson brought the issue to him six months ago.

An untold aspect of this story is the rank sexism that pervades the whole affair. The Speaker and the AG judged Samson almost entirely on his wife’s employment and whereabouts. One can scarcely imagine the hellfire that would rain down on anyone who applied that standard to the entitlements of a female NDP member—and rightly so.

Samson’s wife, the lawyer Claudine Bardsley-Samson, works as manager of industrial relations for Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax. There aren’t a lot of positions for someone of her professional stature in Richmond County. The NDP has campaigned ad nauseam on its claim to represent “today’s families,” a group that presumably includes couples, from construction workers to high-end professionals, whose employment opportunities complicate their living arrangements.

samson2The end result is an invidious, sexist, hypocritical assault on an elected MLA that deprives the people of Richmond of their rights as electors—while showing reckless disregard for the reputation of elected men and women. An unelected accountant who has built his career by exploiting public hostility to politicians has hamstrung the elected MLA for Richmond, and if his literal interpretation is applied retroactively, imposed a significant fine on him for doing his job.

Here’s an important distinction. Jacques Lapointe has never faced voters, and never been elected to any position in Nova Scotia. MLA Michel Samson has faced Nova Scotia voters five times, and won each election by a wide margin. When he faces them again this fall, he will trounce his NDP opponent.

Anyone who follows public affairs in a serious way understands that rising public scorn for politicians poses a threat to the commonweal. When legitimate abuses occur, as with those Nova Scotia MLAs who falsely claimed expenses, they need to be exposed, corrected, and where appropriate, punished. But to apply the same rigour to meaningless technical violations is short-sighted and destructive. Mr. Justice Nunn took pains to recognize this reality in his decision; as is his wont, Lapointe ran roughshod over it.

Lapointe’s term expires in 2016. When the legislature convenes after the fall election, it should restore what are now officially acknowledged to be Samson’s legitimate living allowance, and begin planning for a replacement Auditor General with more respect for democracy.

Does your MLA serve citizens in wheelchairs?

accessmap-clean-625

The James McGregor Stewart Society, a small voluntary group with a single summer intern, has managed to pull off in a month what the Disabled Persons Commission of NS (annual budget: $600,000) and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission ($2.1 million) have not achieved in the decades of their existence.

It has surveyed the accessibility of MLAs offices throughout the province. The results will not be a source of pride for Nova Scotia or its legislators.

ScoringThe survey rated MLAs’ constituency offices based on parking facilities, power door buttons, entrance accessibility, washroom accessibility, and proximity to accessible bus routes. Since accessible bus routes are mostly beyond an MLA’s control (many ridings have none), that category was not included in the final ratings.

Only four MLAs (Lenore Zann, Eddie Orrell, Kelly Regan, and Graham Steele) got a perfect score: paved parking with designated accesible spaces; level entrance, satisfactory ramp, or elevator; power door button; accessible bathroom with grab bars and wheel-under sink).

One MLA, Chris D’Entremont, who represents Argyle and sits on the Management Commission that will decide whether accessibility will be a condition for reimbursement of office expenses, scored a perfect zero. His office has no paved parking, no designated parking spaces, no level entrance, and no accessible washroom.

Although 43 MLAs claim an accessible doorway, only eight have a power door button, which means a constituent in a wheelchair can get in only if someone assists them. Once inside, wheelchair-using constituents will find only eight offices with fully accessible washrooms. How confidently could you attend a meeting knowing you would would have no chance to pee until you got home? You certainly couldn’t hold a job in such an office.

Another 30 MLAs claim some level of washroom accessibility, but lack grab bars, a wheel-under sink, or a high toilet. This translates as: Use at your own risk of accident or humiliation.

The survey turned up fewer regional variations than you might expect. The average MLA scored 3.1 points. Urban MLAs averaged 3.3, while rural MLAs averaged 2.9.

Metro MLAs averaged 3.2; Cape Breton MLAs just 2.4.

Liberal MLAs had the best score: an average of 3.5 points. PCs averaged 3.0, and the NDP trailed the pack with an average 2.9 points.

Two MLAs, Percy Paris and Geoff MacLellan, have not yet completed the survey. Cape Breton South is vacant.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is this: The eight MLAs who sit on the House of Assembly Management Commission, the body currently deciding whether to require accessibility as a condition of expense reimbursement, have an average score of just 2.3 — the lowest of any group I checked.

Map KeySpeaker Gordie Gosse, who chairs the committee, has a double distinction: His constituency office and his office in the legislature are both inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.

Clicking on the image at the top of this post will bring up an interactive map of Nova Scotia with a colored marker for each constituency office. Clicking on a marker will bring up accessibility details for that office.

Please note that the map and the data underlying it are works in progress. Some MLAs continue to provide new information, and the society’s intern, the redoubtable Kelly McKenna, is updating it continually. The information in this post is up to date to the best of my knowledge, but it’s a lot of information, and there could be minor errors.

A human right that’s inconvenient for MLAs

A committee meeting at Province House this week has the potential to correct a logstanding injustice in the way Nova Scotia is governed.

At the behest of the James McGregor Stewart Society, a disability rights organization, the House of Assembly Management Commission will consider requiring constituency offices to be fully accessible before MLAs can claim reimbursement of office expenses.

Gosse-250You might expect this to go without saying in 2013, but it doesn’t. Many MLAs’ offices are only partly, if at all, accessible. They may have a level entry or a satisfactory wheelchair ramp, but lack a paved parking lot or an accessible washroom. They may have a wide enough door to admit a wheelchair, but no automatic door opener to let wheelchair users come and go unassisted.

People with unrestricted mobility sometimes miss the significance of that last distinction. Wheelchairs users value their autonomy as much as anyone else. They  want to participate without having to ask for help.

The House Management Commission doesn’t have to guess about what constitutes an accessible office. The standards are clearly set forth in Section C of the Nova Scotia Building Code, which all new commercial construction must meet.

It’s not clear that any of the constituency offices now in use fully comply with this standard. This effectively bars Nova Scotia’s 28,000 wheelchair users from full participation in the political process. It puts constituency office jobs beyond reach of applicants with disabilities.

MLAs know this is unacceptable. The gentle explanation for why it wasn’t fixed a generation ago is inertia. In many parts of the province, it’s hard to find good office space. Many MLAs enjoy a close relationship with their landlords, which they aren’t anxious to disturb. No one likes the hassle of moving to new quarters.

That’s why the summer of 2013 offers a unique opportunity to correct this injustice. The election that’s expected this fall will produce an unusually large crop of new MLAs, all of whom will be seeking office space. The Commission could require any new constituency offices to comply with Section C in order to qualify for reimbursement. It could establish a firm timetable—certainly no more than the five-year term of a typical commercial lease—by which existing constituency offices  must be brought into compliance. The first election after 2013 could serve as a final deadline for existing offices.

Leasehold improvements are a standard feature of office leases. The landlord carries out the work, builds the cost into the rent, and ends up with a more desirable, barrier-free property at the termination of the lease.

Fixing this problem will undoubtedly cause some inconvenience for MLAs. In a letter to the Commission, the society put that burden in perspective:

The challenges MLAs will face meeting this requirement are real, but they must be weighed against the perpetuation of second-class citizenship for 28,000 Nova Scotians. One is a matter of inconvenience; the other a human right.

Speaker Gordie Gosse chairs the Management Commission, whose members include MLAs Frank Corbett, Becky Kent, Pam Birdsall, Moe Smith, Michel Samson, Chris d’Entremont, Andrew Younger, and House of Assembly Chief Clerk Neil Ferguson. The Commission meets Thursday at 1 p.m. in the Red Chamber.

If it fails to act before the upcoming election, we’ll have to find a strong word than “inertia.”

Begrudging Halifax media abet NDP chicanery – I

There’s a lot less wrong with the rules governing housing allowances for MLAs from outside Halifax than reporters who rarely stray beyond the Armdale Rotary would have you believe. And there’s a lot less than saintly devotion to cost control in Speaker Gordie Gosse’s handling of the issue.

samson-250Richmond MLA Michel Samson’s living arrangements are full of the sort of ambiguities that professional couples face in the real world of life and work. He represents a constituency more than 300 kilometres from Halifax. To do his job properly requires him to spend significant amounts of time in both places. His wife, the lawyer Claudine Bardsley-Samson, works as manager of industrial relations for Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax. The couple have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter who presumably needs to be settled in pre-school or day care.

Unless you believe Claudine should abandon her profession for a life of barefoot pregnancies in an Arichat kitchen, their situation requires some juggling. And the juggling the Samsons settled on was for Michel to spend more nights in Halifax than is typical for an MLA representing a faraway constituency. He retains his house in Arichat, but the family also rented a house in Halifax, with the MLAs’ housing allowance covering about half the rent.

When a CBC reporter, sensing a local version of the Mike Duffy scandal, put a series of aggressive questions to Samson about his living arrangements, the MLA asked the Legislature’s Conflict-of-Interest Commissioner and the House Speaker to review whether his housing expenses conformed to the rules.

The conflict commissioner, retired Supreme Court Justice Merlin Nunn, made short shrift of the reporter’s suspicions. In a letter you can find at the end of this post, he concluded there was nothing improper in Samson’s reimbursement for the Halifax dwelling. Nunn also directed a few pungent remarks at the CBC reporter who raised the issue:

[I]t is vitally important that our elected members are not open to public denouncement on the whim of a media member who, without first pursuing the necessary facts, raises a suspicion which is akin to serious issues in one or more other jurisdictions, knowing it will be scandal and embarrassment to the person involved.

We need the best members we can get and we must not put in their way a fear of baseless scandal and embarrassment brought on by immature and sensational reporting. Our elected members give up a great deal to serve the people of this province and should not be dishonoured to the public without a sound basis of facts to support the matter or claim being made.

Speaker Gosse somehow reached the opposite conclusion. He cut off Samson’s housing compensation. Gosse won’t explain the reasons, and we have only Samson’s report that Gosse counted (or miscounted) the number of nights the MLA slept in the Arichat home he owns and speculated about the living arrangements of the MLA’s wife and daughter, factors Justice Nunn correctly deemed irrelevant.

Gosse-250If this is true, Gosse was making things up as he went along, applying rules that do not exist and flagrantly sexist assumptions about the nature of marital-work tradeoffs.

Why might he do that?

Gosse is a New Democrat who faces a tough re-election fight after his Cape Breton Nova riding was lumped in with traditionally Liberal Cape Breton South. Samson faces a similar problem. His tiny protected Acadian riding of Richmond, which he won five times by margins ranging from 47 to 55 percent, disappeared in the recent redistricting. Richmond County is now combined with paper mill town of Port Hawkesbury, where the NDP has some strength (having spent hundreds of millions to revive the bankrupt mill). A prolonged controversy about whether Samson lives in the riding he represents could conceivably tip the scales.

Samson objected to Gosse’s ruling, purporting to find several errors in Gosse’s review of the facts. The speaker responded by referring the issue to Auditor General Jacques Lapointe.

Sounds fair, right? Until you discover that Gosse had already consulted Lapointe, giving him a perhaps skewed account of the facts, and obtaining his informal concurrence. In short, having found Samson guilty based on rules and tests that do not exist, Gosse had a choice of referring the matter to the Conflict Commissioner (who he knew agreed with Samson) or the AG (who had already publicly agreed with Gosse, and who revels in scolding elected officials for their moral failings, real and exaggerated). He chose Lapointe.

When the MLAs’ expense scandal broke a few months after the NDP took power, Premier Darrell Dexter’s petulant reaction demolished the NDP’s not-like-the-others image. Now, with the days running out on its first term, the NDP has begun pandering to public hostility toward politicians. They’ve made a big show of retroactively confiscating disgraced MLA Trevor Zinck’s pension—a matter that clearly ought to be decided in the courts. Now their caucus-attending speaker is retroactively applying rules that never existed to shame an opposition member who has nothing to be ashamed of. And the media scolds are delighted to pile on.

More to come. And after the jump, Nunn’s letter.

Read more »

The Hat returns to Province House

Harry Flemming

A portrait of the ineffable Harry “The Hat” Flemming (1933-2008), whose likes will never again be seen in Nova Scotia journalism, glares down from a wall of the press room at Province House. Harry’s friend and neighbour, the actor, artist, and reformed politician Jeremy Akerman, painted the image and donated it to House Speaker Gordie Gosse, who staged a quiet ceremony to hang it this week: A perfect tribute to a writer who knew no fear, a character who knew no peers.

God, I miss his sardonic pen. Be inspired, young journos.

Why school budgets keep growing

Kill the Friendly Giant.

That’s how Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak describes the response of school boards and the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union when the Dexter government sought ideas for reducing the education budget.

That’s the tactic the CBC used a few years ago when the government announced a cut in its budget: The cuts would force it to cancel Canada’s favorite children’s show. Parents and children rose up, and the cuts got cut.

As former education bureaucrat Wayne Fiander wrote to Contrarian recently, “the school boards and the teachers’ union… know this play in their sleep.”

In the face of these tactics, the province held the boards to something better than a draw. Budgets will fall slightly in recognition of plummeting enrolments. If you want to know why this is hard, look no further than the following map:

holy angels to sydney academy

Point A is Holy Angels High, a beloved but decrepit, energy-guzzling, half-empty, structure that’s currently the subject of an overwrought save-our-school campaign, featuring the usual litany of weeping schoolgirls, outraged parents, and posturing politicians. Point B is Sydney Academy, a more modern and efficient, but likewise half-empty high school 12 blocks away.

Two half-empty school, 12 blocks apart. Isn’t the solution obvious? Yet MLA Gordie Gosse and many others who ought to know better are lobbying the province furiously to keep both open and operating. Doing so would amount to mismanagement bordering on larceny, but how many times can governments be expected to face down a public conditioned to believe it can drink champagne but pay for beer?

When the latest effort to “save” Holy Angels came a cropper on the hard reality of costs, Cape Breton Victoria District School Board Chair Lorne Green tried to blame local contractor Danny Ellis. Ellis had offered to buy the school from the Sisters of Charity, and lease it back to the board on what looks to this outsider like a barely break-even basis, with the board picking up maintenance and operating costs.

That wasn’t good enough for Green, who told the Chronicle-Herald’s Mary Ellen MacIntyre: “It’s like you walking in and saying ‘I’ll save your school for you’ but you’re doing nothing for (the students) — it’s all for yourself.”

I happen to know Ellis, who has a long record of community spirited projects, including the conversion of a former school in Whitney Pier into an active and much-used centre for local business. It’s no surprise the board doesn’t want to be on the hook for operating and maintenance costs on a 55-year-old building that has outlive its usefulness, but it should have the gumption to say so, instead of blaming Ellis for not taking on a problem that isn’t his.