Nova Scotia lawmakers have been grumbling and grumbling this week about tinkering with the law changes committee so more people can have a say in government bills. It’s good.
It won’t solve the fundamental – and terminal – problem of the committee, but it’s good to let more Nova Scotians talk about bills before they become law, even when it’s out of courtesy and nothing more.
Partisan politics and whipping government MPs have rendered the Legislative Assembly’s cherished symbol of participatory democracy – the law amendments committee – irrelevant political theater.
It’s a joke, an illusion and as bogus as a three dollar coin – could it be a three? — because the Conservative majority on the committee is there for one purpose — to protect government bills from hoi polloi tampering. In other words, to ensure that amendments to laws do not modify laws. (Although these are still committee bills.)
Nor is it fair or just to blame the Tories alone for the committee’s descent from the thoughtful scrutiny it once gave to rubber-stamp bills that it is today.
Governments learn their lessons – good and bad – from their predecessors. The Conservatives on the committee are simply following the practices of the Liberals before them who, no doubt, have taken a page from the NDP government’s playbook.
The result is a Law Amendments Committee that over time has grown from a place where citizens with strong arguments could convince open-minded lawmakers to change the law, to where it is today. today. What it is today is a pro forma ruling for government bills on their way to becoming the law of the land, or at least of the province.
The government majority on the committee feigns interest, occasionally quizzes a presenter, then does what it’s there to do – whipped, in the parliamentary vernacular – and votes the party line.
They wisely ignore the arguments of those proposing amendments to a bill and do as they are told, regardless of the merits of those arguments. They send the bill back to the legislature in the form required by the government – almost always without amendment.
The shame is that the people – not all, but many – who present briefs to the committee believe that its members, both opposition and government, will give them a fair hearing. If their argument is strong and their suggestions improve the bill, the presenters believe the committee could recommend the appropriate amendment to the legislature. This will not be the case.
Two of the best examples of the current session are the government’s summer election bill and its uninspired environmental bill. In both cases, dozens of people identified problems with the bills, while Tory MPs occupied chairs nearby, waiting for the signal to vote and send the unamended bills back to the legislature.
The committee is now, unfortunately, just for show and it is a show that should be cancelled.
Nova Scotia is the only province with a law amendments committee. It is a source of pride when legislators from here rub shoulders with parliamentarians from there.
Unlike them, we give citizens the opportunity to engage directly in the legislative process, appearing before legislative changes, as Nova Scotia MPs might claim.
What is left unsaid is that the government majority on the committee doesn’t care what citizens have to say, because the bill is sacrosanct, unless the government itself finds a loophole and uses the committee to correct it.
People come to legislative amendments hoping that they can improve a law that is being drafted, but their hope is in vain. The die is cast.
One day, a government may have the courage to state the obvious. The committee is a chimera, and rather than perpetuating the illusion of citizen participation, put an end to it.
There is an alternative, but that’s too much to hope for. A future government might look back on the committee’s long history and find that it has already taken citizen input to heart and amended government legislation accordingly. I saw that happen, but over the years it became rarer until devolution was complete, and now the committee is worse than useless.
It is a fraud perpetrated on citizens by governments.
This is done with the tactical approval of the opposition because the government is often the bad guy in the political theater.
The committee is an annoyance to governments because it slows the passage of its legislation and sometimes causes political embarrassment, but it survives because killing it would draw outraged indignation from democracy advocates.
Never mind that the Nova Scotia Law Amendments Committee is no more about democracy than a Russian election.