Tagged: Jennifer Stewart

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.

Messaged up the ass – feedback

In response to my post on the Dexter government’s obsessive management of routine government communications, Bruce Wark writes:

When I arrived in Nova Scotia in October, 1986 as CBC Radio’s National Reporter for the Maritimes, I found that the Nova Scotia government’s public relations system was generally third rate. I had just come from six years covering the Ontario legislature and was used to dealing every day with a professional civil service and public relations officers who provided accurate information quickly and efficiently. In fact, I realized  during my years at Queen’s Park that the Conservatives’ decision to create a professional (and de-politicized) civil service was one of the main reasons they held power continuously in Ontario for 42 years. Journalists and the public trusted government information.
The establishment of Communications Nova Scotia in 1996 represented a big step forward. Over the years, I have found CNS officers (many of them former journalists) to be efficient and trustworthy providing unbiased information even when they suspected that the journalist receiving it might be building a case against government policies. Ultimately, the public judges both those policies and the journalists who report on them. The basis for that public judgment has to be accurate and timely information untainted, as much as possible, by partisan government spin and filtered though professional communications officers who are not forced to run everything by a centralized political authority.
That said, I do have mixed feelings about professionalized, government public relations. Governments which provide accurate information quickly and on deadline will, all things being equal, tend to receive favourable coverage from journalists because government PR makes their jobs easier. On the other hand, governments which put obstacles in journalists’ way and try to spin them to death will eventually pay a price for their attempts to message reporters up the ass. The provincial NDP and the federal Alliance-Conservatives ignore this at their peril. Your commentary and Paul MacLeod’s reporting is an early warning to the neophyte, political boffins at NDP central.

When I arrived in Nova Scotia in October, 1986, as CBC Radio’s National Reporter for the Maritimes, I found the Nova Scotia government’s public relations system third rate. I had just come from six years covering the Ontario legislature and was used to dealing every day with a professional civil service and public relations officers who provided accurate information quickly and efficiently. In fact, I realized  during my years at Queen’s Park that the Conservatives’ decision to create a professional (and de-politicized) civil service was one of the main reasons they held power continuously in Ontario for 42 years. Journalists and the public trusted government information.

The establishment of Communications Nova Scotia in 1996 represented a big step forward. Over the years, I have found CNS officers (many of them former journalists) to be efficient and trustworthy providing unbiased information even when they suspected that the journalist receiving it might be building a case against government policies. Ultimately, the public judges both those policies and the journalists who report on them. The basis for that public judgment has to be accurate and timely information untainted, as much as possible, by partisan government spin and filtered though professional communications officers who are not forced to run everything by a centralized political authority….

Governments which put obstacles in journalists’ way and try to spin them to death will eventually pay a price for their attempts to message reporters up the ass. The provincial NDP and the federal Alliance-Conservatives ignore this at their peril. Your commentary and Paul MacLeod’s reporting is an early warning to the neophyte, political boffins at NDP central.

This is a matter of degree. There’s nothing wrong with a government trying to insure consistency in the way it communicates with the public, but when this effort reaches the point where everything must to be cleared with a Central Committee, it’s unhealthy for a democracy.

The media shares some responsibility, given how reporters pounce on a politician or official who deviates even slightly from party or government line. In pouncing, reporters don the mantle of heretic-fighters and orthodoxy-enforcers, with the unwelcome effect of sanitizing political discourse.

As Michael Kinsley purportedly remarked, “A gaffe is when you tell the truth.” That is, it’s not a gaffe when a politician lies but when a politician unguardedly says what she really thinks. Neither the media nor the premier’s office should make it their business to punish such truthfulness.

After sending the words above to Contrarian, Wark’s indignation apparently continued to rise. At week’s end, he emailed the premier’s press secretary, saying:

[L]et me tell you straight up that this issue is not about media convenience or efficiency. It’s about the right to factual, public information from the civil service, untainted by partisan political spin.