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JIM VIBERT: Upcoming session of Nova Scotia legislature should be politically charged

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin aims to have all Nova Scotians vaccinated by June, he said in a news conference on Thursday. CONTRIBUTED
A solid performance in the legislature by Nova Scotia's new premier, Iain Rankin, would certainly strengthen the Liberals' hand and bolster their case for an election earlier rather than later. - File

It will certainly be different and probably a little strange but, with an election on the near horizon, the session of the Nova Scotia legislature that opens Tuesday should also be politically charged.

Obviously, it’s Iain Rankin’s first time facing the House as premier, and the official Opposition Progressive Conservatives, as well as the New Democrats, will be intent on rubbing off any new-premier lustre.

Rankin won the provincial Liberal leadership last month and was sworn in as the province’s 29th premier two weeks ago, succeeding Stephen McNeil.

New premiers generally face the legislature for the first time at the beginning of their government’s mandate. They tend to grow in the job and their performance in the House improves with time, but time is a luxury Rankin does not have.

The Liberals enter the fifth and final year of their current mandate on May 30, so the window of opportunity to seek a third successive Liberal government is closing fast. The Grit brain trust is painfully aware of the abysmal electoral record of Nova Scotia governments that go to the polls in Year 5.

That means that Rankin’s first session as premier is also quite possibly the last before Nova Scotians next vote for a provincial government, and that raises the stakes for all parties to perform over the next few weeks, or for however long the session lasts.

Plus, there’s pent-up demand on the opposition benches to hold the Liberal government accountable for a myriad of problems and unaddressed issues that have emerged or festered since the legislature last met – for real – way back on March 10, 2020.

There was a minutes-long pro forma meeting of the legislature in December, but it was just long enough for the Liberals to prorogue the place and satisfy – technically – their statutory duty to call the legislature twice a year.

A year later

Tuesday will mark a full year, less one day, since the legislature did any meaningful business.

But when the province’s 51 MLAs gather, most of them won’t be in the House.

To observe physical distancing and other COVID-19-related safety measures, only three members of each party – Liberal, Tory and NDP – will sit in the legislature.  Other members will join the proceedings virtually, which should make for some technological mayhem to augment the political mayhem that question period often provides.

On Tuesday, after some procedural changes to allow for members’ virtual presence, the throne speech, read by Lieutenant Governor Arthur LeBlanc, will lay out in broad, general terms what the government hopes to accomplish.

But it’s the budget, expected within a couple of weeks, that will tell where Rankin’s government wants to put its emphasis and Nova Scotians’ money.

Action to address climate change and long-standing racial inequities were central to Rankin’s leadership campaign and have been profiled in announcements since he became premier.

During the leadership race, Rankin also pledged to maintain the solid financial footing that was the hallmark of McNeil’s government.

The budget will provide the first tangible indication of how he intends to balance sound financial stewardship with the demands that came with COVID-19  for increased health spending and economic stimulus.

Rankin and the Liberals sworn in with him – three new cabinet ministers along with ministers from McNeil’s government in both new and familiar roles – will face an experienced and motivated opposition.

Houston vs. Rankin

PC and Opposition Leader Tim Houston honed his parliamentary skills sparring – often heatedly – with McNeil over the past few years, so one thing to watch is whether Rankin can hold his own against Houston.

But Houston isn’t the only worthy adversary Rankin and company will meet. The 18-member PC caucus is deep in legislative experience and talent, and the NDP caucus, led by Gary Burrill, is a small, five-member band that punches well above its collective weight.

While the Liberals hold what looks to be an insurmountable lead in the public opinion polls, much of that is attributed to the government’s success handling the COVID-19 crisis.

The trajectory of the pandemic and the success or otherwise of the vaccine rollout will figure first and most in the Liberals’ decision about when to go to the polls.

But a solid performance in the legislature from Rankin would certainly strengthen their hand and bolster the case for an election earlier rather than later. Of course, anything less than a solid performance could have a chilling effect on the Liberals’ plans for a quick election.

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