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.”

Pushback on electoral equality

On Saturday, I wrote that the majority members of the Nova Scotia Electoral Boundaries Commission only pretended to “interpret” their Terms of Reference, when in fact they had openly disregarded them.  Their only ethical choice, I wrote, was to “resign from the commission; or swallow hard and complete their assigned task.”

Important members of both opposition parties have responded. Liberal MLA Andrew Younger did so in a series of tweets:

In fact, Canadian courts have ruled that +/- 25 percent should be the normal limit for variations in riding sizes, but that legislatures may go beyond that limit in special circumstances. It didn’t say they have to. The Nova Scotia Legislature could have done so in this case, but it didn’t. The Terms of Reference that established the commission specifically ruled out ridings that varied more then 25 percent from the average population. Nowhere does the legislation say the Terms of Reference given the commission are optional.

Rob Batherson, former Communications Director for Premier John Hamm, made the Conservative Party’s case in an email:

1) The Commission was operating under terms of reference that were set by the Legislative Select Committee, without all-party consent, which had been the convention in the previous two rounds of redistribution (1991-92 and 2001-02), both of which operated in majority government environments.

2) The NDP used their majority on the Select Committee to insert clause 2(d) during an in camera meeting prior to New Year’s Eve over the objections of the two opposition parties. I suggest this is a level of political gamesmanship that we had successfully gotten away from with the amendments to the House of Assembly Act put in place by Don Cameron’s government in the early 1990s.

3) It is highly inappropriate for the Minister of Justice to demand his own private meeting with the Commission Chair. The Commission is accountable to the Select Committee consisting of MLAs from all parties.

4) Clause 2(f) of the terms of reference of the Commission states:

“All submissions to the Commission from individuals and organizations be made in public.”

If the Minister wishes to articulate his government’s position, he is required to do so publicly, not behind close doors.

5) The government erred considerably in its drafting of the terms of reference, using the conditional “may not deviate” from the plus or minus 25 per cent population variance, instead of the more definitive “shall not deviate.” This provides the Commission with flexibility in interpreting that clause.

6) No less a credible New Democrat than former Preston MLA and leadership candidate Yvonne Atwell admitted several months ago to CBC’s Paul Withers that she didn’t think the NDP government would be going to such lengths to eliminate the constituencies of Preston, Argyle, Clare and Richmond were any of them currently represented by New Democrats.

The government has a legitimate case to make on why it unilaterally decided to set the terms of reference as it did and why it expects the Commission to adhere to those terms. But it should do so openly, subject to public scrutiny, rather than in secret. In the meantime, the Commission is completely within its rights to provide recommendations to the House of Assembly, free of the political considerations that are obviously motivating government’s decision to break from 20 years of precedent on electoral redistribution.

Points 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6, may ro may not be valid, but they are crimson gaspareaux, scattered along the rhetorical trail to distract us core issue: whether the commission had the authority to treat its mandate as optional. Point 5 makes the legalistic claim that sloppy drafting gave the commissioners wiggle room. I think the meaning of “may not deviate” is plain enough, and I suspect any court will agree.

Finally, a curmudgeonly friend writes:

Had the Electoral Boundaries Commission complied with the terms of reference handed to it by the legislature, it could have quietly put to death a divisive and arbitrary status quo.

Let’s start with arbitrary. Nova Scotia’s First Nations people outnumber any other group in the province that could be defined by the construct of race, and their memories of grotesque abuse by the state are just as fresh as, say, those of the former residents of Africville. So, where are “protected constituencies” for First Nations?

Divisive: two of the three tiny ridings purportedly protected for the benefit of francophones are actually dominated by people who speak only English in their homes. I could say more along those lines — the stats are easy to find — but I guarantee that nothing beneficial will come from that kind of discourse. The commission, however, seems ready to take us there.

Inequities, apparent or real, cannot be addressed by creating electoral “homelands,” to use the unfortunate language of the commission’s interim report. If the commission wants to ignore the clear instructions given to it by the House of Assembly, it will have to come up with something more creative.

It’s also worth noting that the four “protected” ridings have a combined population equal to two “ordinary” ones. That suggests that Nova Scotia could get by with 50 ridings instead of 52, a recommendation that would be within the commission’s legal terms of reference.

To put this argument a different way, fewer than 25 percent of the 9,600 residents in the protected riding of Richmond list their mother tongue as either “only French” or “both French and English.”  Whitney Pier, with roughly the same number of residents, boasts the richest multicultural population in Atlantic Canada. To preserve the tiny Richmond Riding, with 50 percent fewer voters than the average riding, the Commission eliminated Cape Breton Nova, which is to say, Whitney Pier. This is the sort of calculus we fall into once we put our thumb on the scale on behalf of favored ethnic groups.

If we truly want to ensure a voice for geographically dispersed ethnic populations in Nova Scotia, we could switch to proportional representation, a system with its own set of pluses and minuses.

Batherson has a point when he abjures the Minister of Justice not to meet with the commission behind closed doors. By the same token, the two opposition parties should think hard before launching a partisan campaign for special ethnic status. To call the government’s action in eliminating the seats gerrymandering is to stand reality on its head; It’s the four protected seats that are gerrymandered. By any reasonable counting method, even one that accommodates large, sparsely populated districts, urban Halifax is underrepresented in the House or Assembly.

Psst: your bias is showing

A recent story by Andrew MacDonald in the online journal AllNovaScotia.com included the following sentence:

NSP has begun slowly moving its 500 workers out of the Barrington Tower office to a new $54-million HQ on the Halifax waterfront, dubbed the Bennett Bunker for NSP ceo [sic] Rob Bennett [emphasis in the original].

The phrase, “dubbed the Bennett Bunker,” is noteworthy for having been cast in passive voice, a grammatical form journalists often decry as a way for politicians and similar miscreants to evade responsibility for their actions. Who exactly “dubbed” NS Power’s office building “the Bennett Bunker?” Why, AllNovaScotia, that’s who.

It invented the phrase on July 3, 2008, the day conversion of the building (which is actually rebuilt, not new) was announced, and shortly after Bennett assumed the company’s top job. As best I can tell from a Google search, no one other media outlet has ever used it. This failure to gain traction elsewhere hasn’t discouraged AllNovaScotia’s writers, however. The journal has used “Bennett Bunker” in 35 subsequent stories. Wouldn’t the honest thing be to write, “which we at AllNovaScotia.com call the Bennett Bunker?”

The cutesy alliteration hasn’t caught on because it conveys no fresh insight about the building or Bennett’s term as head of NS Power. Writers usually apply “Bunker” metaphorically to the fortified redoubt of an uncommunicative public figure who hides out to avoid critics or public accountability. The record shows that, as chief executives go, Bennett is reasonably forthcoming. He testifies before the Utility and Review Board, makes public appearances, takes questions, speaks to editorial boards, gives interviews, and participates in public engagement sessions.

AllNovaScotia’s use of “Bennett Bunker” is of a piece with the starkly hostile coverage NS Power receives from some of its writers, and from Nova Scotia media in general, who report electricity cost issues as if NS Power were solely responsible for rising world energy prices, ever tighter environmental regulations, and the Buchanan government’s understandable, but now regretted, decision to overcommit to coal generation in the 1980s.

The fact that unhappiness over increasing electricity costs has focused public hostility on NS Power does not relieve journalists of responsibility for reporting the reasons for those cost increases competently, honestly, and evenhandedly. (And, yes, the same could be said of opposition politicians.)

[Disclosure: I have done occasional contract work for NS Power, mostly writing.]

Snap your finger, Bill

Estabrooks-150Dartmouth Cole Harbour MLA Andrew Younger has pulled off something remarkable: He has outflanked the most populist politician in the province on an issue of populism.

Earlier this week, Younger challenged Transportation Minister Bill Estabrooks to use his ministerial powers to lift HRM’s hated overnight winter parking ban, implemented last month by fiat of the city’s unelected, unaccountable traffic tzar.

The response from Estabrooks, normally one of the most adroit and citizen-connected politicans in Nova Scotia, sounded uncharacteristically  stuffy:

I’m not going to interfere in the winter parking ban,” he said. “I’m going to wait to see what the councillors advise me and what they expect from me. It involves new legislation, if we’re going to change some of these things it will be with legislative changes made in the spring session of the legislature. This is not something that at the snap of a finger can be corrected.”

I’m not going to interfere in the winter parking ban. I’m going to wait to see what the councillors advise me and what they expect from me. It involves new legislation, if we’re going to change some of these things it will be with legislative changes made in the spring session of the legislature. This is not something that at the snap of a finger can be corrected.

But a quick perusal of the relevant legislation shows that it can be corrected with the snap of a finger—Estabrooks’s finger. If unelected municipal officials were slapping $50 tickets on windshields in Estabrooks’s Timberlea-Prospect riding, the minister’s fingers would be veritable castanets.

Younger-150The blanket ban is a classic case of over-reach by the nanny state. Yes, the community has a shared interest in snow clearing, and on-street parking can interfere with that process. A parking ban limited to times when snow is actually being cleared would be a reasonable accommodation of another shared community interest: the availability of parking spaces for residents and back-shift workers not rich or lucky enough to have access to private, off-street parking.

But traffic tsar Ken Reashor evinces no interest in reasonable accommodation. Because an intermittent ban, limited to periods when snow is actually being cleared, means that some car-owners will neglect to remove their car during snowstorms, Reashor finds it convenient to punish the entire city with a blanket, four-month ban. To justify this, he invokes a specious claim of public safety, when the real goal is bureaucratic convenience.

Estabrooks says he’s waiting to hear from HRM council on the matter, but councillors in districts singled out for selective enforcement of the ban have long protested, just as Estabrooks would protest if anyone tried to enforce it in his district. Worse, provincial legislation establishing traffic authorities has been deliberately designed to shield these bureaucratic entities from municipal oversight—or political oversight of any kind.

This anti-democratic structure empowers Reashor to enact whatever parking rules please him, and HRM council is powerless to interfere. Indeed, Estabrooks is the only democratically elected official with the power to curb Reashor’s abuse. Waiting ’til spring to end a ban that will be over by then doesn’t cut it.

For heaven’s sake, Bill, exercise the common touch that has made you a democratic icon. Voters trust you to protect citizens against crap like this. Snap your finger.